Saudi Arabia recently became the first nation to voluntarily give up a seat on the United Nations Security Council. It is tempting to look at this as an example of the dangers of letting your foreign policy be dictated by an aging monarch and leave it at that. But there are more interesting ways of understanding what happened.
One could look at it as one brushstroke in the larger painting. The abrupt Saudi departure, in protest over Western inaction over Syria and Palestine, is just one feature of the overriding truth, that we are witnessing the end of the American dominance of the Middle East.
This is not because of any sort of much-vaunted “American decline.” Iraq and government infighting in Washington may have somewhat dented American power, but the clout of this nation remains unrivaled. No, the fault lies not in our stars (or our military readiness) but in ourselves.
The domestic debate over air strikes in Syria was immensely revealing. Right and Left have both coalesced into a neo-isolationist coalition. Americans have made it very clear that they are far more interested in jobs and healthcare than in any more foreign crusades. Gone are the memories of quick and decisive victories in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans and in their place are dystopian visions of perpetual war, courtesy of Iraq and Afghanistan.
If this trend continues, it means the Middle East is heading toward a period of apolarity, or one in which no state is strong enough to dominate the region at all. After all, who is it that could replace us?
Russia may have had some diplomatic success in Syria, but Russian power projection is a ghost of what it once was and a nation still fighting a bloody insurgency in the Caucuses holds will win few popularity contests.
Iran could step in, but their conduct in Syria has won them no love in the region. That is on top of the unease that their revolutionary Shiism and Persian culture already inspires. Add in the debilitating effect of sanctions and it’s hard to see Iran being capable of all that much beyond its borders anytime soon.
Turkey is probably the most promising nation to fill in the gap, but it has struggled to deal with the effects of Syria, especially the refugee crisis, and recent protests have shown that there may not be enough of a domestic consensus to support the neo-Ottoman dreams of Prime Minister Erdogan.
China is in no hurry to get dragged into the region’s endless quarrels, the countries of Europe lack either the will or the capacity to get involved and Israel is the object of too much hatred to ever lead the Mideast to much of anything.
For the United States, leaving the Middle East to its own devices will probably be a good thing. Not many of us will miss losing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars on countries they can’t find on a map and thanks to hydraulic fracturing, the importance of regional oil reserves becomes less and less every year.
Still, I have a lingering sense of uneasiness.
Right now, with American influence at its lowest in decades, Egypt is turning into a military dictatorship, Iraq is spiraling back into sectarian bloodshed, and Syria is in the middle of outright civil war with no end in sight. It’s hardly a vision to inspire confidence in the post-American Mideast.
Since becoming a great power the U.S. has only turned its back on the world once, during the 1920’s and 30’s. History is never doomed to repeat itself, but still, it is not much of an encouraging precedent for a world where American power is firmly in retreat.