The Shifting Sands of State Power in the Middle East

Alastair Crooke

Article posted on The Washington Quarterly, June 2010

In his commendably candid interview with Time in January 2010, President Barack Obama noted that managing politics in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict “is just really hard.” The president, however, might well have been speaking about the Middle East as a whole. It is not just the Israeli-Palestinian track that has been difficult, so too have the Iranian and Syrian tracks, where engagement has not taken traction. Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria—nothing has been exactly easy for US policymakers this past year. To be fair to the president, he has taken office at a time when the whole region is journeying into a new era. In a sense, the president is facing the consequences of three key events that took place in the region more than 20 years ago.

That the dynamics for change arising from this triumvirate of events should have culminated at the outset of Obama’s term is unfortunate. But the reality is that the strategic balance within the Middle East was already tipping. Change on several planes—at conventional state politics, economics, and within Islam—were already underway. The consequence of this is that the United States’ old allies in the ‘‘southern tier’’—namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia—are likely to wield less influence in the future. The ‘‘northern tier’’—which includes Turkey along with Iran, Qatar, Syria, and possibly Iraq and Lebanon—represents the nascent “axis of influence” for the coming regional era, barring war.

The prospective bitter struggle—already begun—over the future of the region, and over the shaping of Islam closely interconnected to the balance of power, will not see a region that becomes any “easier” for the United States to deal with. The question is whether or not the United States can accommodate some of the unfolding changes. As it remains obsessed with dissections of Israeli politics and bilateral relations, can it even recognize the broader regional changes? Will it adjust to them, or will the United States seek to inoculate itself by clinging to nation-state structures from the 1920s?

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