Dana Ballout
Last updated: 7 March, 2013

Is the US abandoning the Middle East?

The United States’ allies in the Middle East will have to get used to sharing more of the limelight with other regions in the world, discovers Dana Ballout.

This week US Secretary of State John Kerry rounded off this European-MidEast tour visiting three energy-rich Gulf countries: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates.

In addition to reiterating strong relations with these resource-rich monarchies and making a statement to Iran, the visits were also to reassure the Gulf countries that despite the media buzz around the US’s pivot to Asia, their American friend will still be there for them in the face of Iran – at least for now.

Late last year I came across General Jim Jones, Jr., former United States National Security Advisor and a retired United States Marine Corps General, at a Bipartisan Policy Center talk on energy in Washington DC.

ALSO READ Why no one in Washington cares about Palestinian elections

I asked the General what he thought about the ‘pivot to Asia’ and how it would affect the military presence in Persian Gulf. Coincidentally he had just recently returned from the Middle East.

“They are worried about what they see,” Jones said. The leaders of the Gulf countries were concerned as they watched Obama’s landmark visit to Asia while conflict in the Middle East was rising.

“It might sound as the pivot away from the Middle East – but I think that was unintended,” he added.

“I don’t think they have anything to worry about. The pivot to Asia is more of a national economic issue not a national security one.”

And while strengthening of economic ties is a strong pillar of the Obama administration’s policy in Asia, reiterated during the recent visit of the new Japanese Prime Minister to Washington DC, there is no denying that something in the White House is different – because they say so themselves. 

“We looked around the world and asked a very basic question: ‘Where is the United States overweighted in terms of its presence and resources and efforts, and where is it underweighted?’”  National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon said in a November 15, 2012 speech at the Center For Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“It was clear to us that there was an imbalance in the projection of focus of American power around the world,’’ he explained.

“It was the president’s judgment that we were overweighted in some areas and regions, such as our military commitments in the Middle East, and at the same time, we were significantly underweighted in some regions, including and specifically the Asia-Pacific region.’’

The oil-for-security relationship with Gulf nations is not only changing due to reshuffling of foreign policy priorities – but also because of a decline in US demand for oil and a significant rise in domestic production of oil in the US, projected to overtake Saudi Arabia’s seat as top global oil producer by 2017.

And while the US has become less petro-thirsty, the opposite is true for Asia. In both the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, the demand for oil has risen with increased population and urbanization.

“The Middle East is and will remain the main oil exporter but the main exports will be to Asia,” Fatih Birol, Chief Economist and Director of Global Energy Economics at the International Energy Agency said in November at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace lecture.

“The global energy system is shifting from West to East,” Birol said.

But it’s not just the Asia-Pacific region that is calling for US attention. Africa is another region that the US has underemphasized in its foreign policy, demonstrated quite clearly in the attack of the US embassy in Libya, killing four people including US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. During the Benghazi hearing, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

“The final thing I would say about this is, you know, AFRICOM was set up about ten years ago. I think a lot of people, at the time, wondered why would we have another command in the world and why in Africa. I now think we need to pay much more attention to AFRICOM, to its capacity inside Africa… we’re going to see more and more demands on AFRICOM, and I think that’s something else that the Senate and House are going to have to address.”

With a dwindling military budget, an increasingly unstable Africa and a pivot towards the Asia-Pacific – it’s no wonder that the US Navy announced in February it will not deploy the USS Harry S. Truman carrier to the Persian Gulf region. It is the first time in the past two years that there is only one aircraft carrier in the 5th Fleet’s area of operation.

And while the Middle East will continue to have a spotlight in US foreign policy, the Obama administration has made it clear that the region will need to share the limelight (and the DoD budget) with Asia and Africa, dealing with inevitable consequences of having the US’s very much divided attention.

EDITOR’S PICK Middle East lobbying in the United States