If we go beyond the general readings of the US foreign policy focused on higher national interests and the requirements of national security, which are almost constant principles in the foreign policy of any country in the world, and seek out instead more specific features of the US policy in the Middle East (with reservations on the term “Middle East” which we use here to deliver our argument), there are five key constant features of this policy, especially in the past fifty years. Regardless of whether the president and his White House administration is Republican or Democrat, these features remain the same, and are:
First, Israel is the cornerstone of US policy in the region. Preserving Israel’s security and qualitative military edge as a major regional power is a fundamental component of US strategy.
Clearly, any other policy must be compatible with this principle, as an overriding benchmark. This principle also requires providing military and financial support for Israel, cover for its occupation of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Judaization schemes including in Jerusalem, as well as the siege of Gaza Strip. In addition, it requires blocking any international measures against Israel, consecrating the latter as “a state above international law,” and blocking any binding measures against Israel at the Security Council.
This, however, does not mean that there is full convergence between the two sides, or that the US policy is always subordinate to Israeli desires. However, various US administrations sometimes struggle in dealing with the “spoiled child,” and often go against some of its goals, especially when they conflict with US higher interests, or with how best to serve Israeli interests and stability in the region, when the US vision for this contradicts that of the ruling coalitions in Israel.
Second, the need to maintain US supreme domination of the region as an area of American influence, in the context of the struggle for global supremacy with other rival major powers. However, this policy has faced many challenges, with Russia successfully breaching US influence in some time periods, in countries like Syria, Iraq, South Yemen, and Libya. Some countries in the region have also escaped the US pull, such as Iran. And despite its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and adoption of free market economics, Turkey has also adopted independent policies, which achieved some success especially in the past two decades, undermining US and Western influence, after it has developed its homegrown economic and military capabilities and international relations, emerging as a key regional player that can preserve its interests and alliances.
It also should be noted that in the past decade, US policy has shifted its priorities to countering China’s rise, especially in the Pacific region. This may have somewhat weakened the US focus on the Middle East, albeit it has not affected the foundation of its policy per se.
Third, the need to maintain US control over oil-rich regions, especially the Gulf, to secure oil supplies to the US, its European allies, Japan, and others at “reasonable” prices; and to leverage this dominance against rival powers. Although US need for oil imports has decreased over the past few years, the essence of this US policy remains extant and constant.
Fourth, the need to maintain US control over international trade and navigation routes passing through the region, and secure their continued accessibility commensurate with the interests of the US and its allies, and prevent any regional or international power from blocking them, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, and the Suez Canal.
Fifth, the need to secure support, protection, and international political cover for regimes allied to the US, and to coerce or change regimes that diverge from US dictates.
Regarding the variable aspects of the US policy, these include the policies, measures, and instruments Washington uses to preserve its interests and implement the fixed and constant aspects of its policy. A number of factors are of relevance here, linked to the political, religious, and cultural inclinations of the US president and his team; the economic conditions in the US and the world; external threats to the US, perceived or otherwise; and competition with international rivals and major powers, and their political, military, and economic behavior that could affect or rival US interests in areas of US influence.
There is no space in this article to tackle the theories that have sought to interpret US foreign policy and the directions that have shaped it. However, for the sake of brevity and simplification, it is worth mentioning that there are two main trends in US foreign policy.
The first is a conservative trend that assigns more value to US might and its strategic military, economic, and political power. This trend has a supremacist view, claiming to represent the “Free World” and its religions and cultural heritage and values.
In this category belong the representatives of right-wing, racist, and religious forces, who find the Republican Party to be their natural incubator. When this trend takes control of the White House, US support for Israel takes on an intense and overt nature. The US also rushes to use economic sanctions and coercion, steps up support for dictators, ignores repression and election rigging in allied countries, and may resort to military intervention in contravention of international laws and norms.
Examples include the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, whose tenures saw the 1991 Gulf War, the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Trump’s attempt to impose the Deal of the Century plan in Palestine, and his transactional approach to Gulf rulers and other Arab countries.
The other, opposite trend, meanwhile, seeks to serve US interests using “soft” power, that is indirect and non-crude methods. This trend deploys pretexts and instruments linked to the values of “freedom” more than those linked to the values of “might” and “power,” albeit it resorts to force when it deems it necessary. The natural incubator of this trend is the Democratic Party.
This trend shows more understanding of ethnic, religious, and cultural differences and diversity; invokes development and human rights (from within the US hegemonic perspective); leverages financial aid for political objectives; and invokes international “legitimacy,” UN platforms, and the UN Security Council to punish dissenting regimes, before resorting to other “hard” instruments. This trend usually seeks to reduce defense spending overseas, and exhaust all means available before resorting to military intervention. It also seeks to build international alliances and relations, and reach accords with international powers to manage shared interests and tensions, while preserving US supremacy, all in a way that avoids antagonizing rival and emerging powers and preserves relations with allied and friendly countries.
Examples include the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and most likely, the incoming administration of Joe Biden.
Consequently, the margin for change in US policy in the Middle East is limited, in terms of its fixed elements, tactics, and flexibility. In all cases, US policy will not side with the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation, will not side with peoples seeking to change corrupt and tyrannical regimes that serve US interests, and will not allow the resistance and “political Islam” forces, who have a project for independent civilizational change and revival, to assume leadership of their countries. However, the US may adopt pragmatism and realism when peoples succeed in imposing their will, or events go in a direction that do not suit US interests. Yet even then, the US will seek to reconfigure itself to serve the imposition of its interests, by supporting its local “proxies” or “allies,” or using various means of obstruction and frustration to co-opt political regimes.
In conclusion, it should be noted that US policy is not a “foregone conclusion,” an inescapable destiny, but is subject to change as history and human experience have shown. When the Ummah (nation) and its people resolve to fulfill their independence, they will be able to impose their will and bring about their revival, whether the US likes it or not.