Special to WorldTribune.com
By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs
Senior-level sources in numerous Middle Eastern governments have privately expressed bewilderment at recent and current U.S. government strategies and policies toward the region.
But a closer examination of U.S. policies, now almost entirely dictated by the Obama White House, shows no cohesive national goals or policies exist, but rather an ad hoc set of actions and reactions which are largely dictated either by ideological positions, ignorance, whim, or perceived expedience.
This is unique in U.S. history.
In short, the consistent pattern of policies developed over the past century has now been broken up, apart from some of the physical consistencies of legacy military deployments and basing, and by some trade and weapons program commitments. Even there, military deployments have contracted substantially in the past few years, and new U.S. defense systems sales to the region have been lost to suppliers from France, Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Germany, Pakistan, and the like.
In the 18 months until January 2016, the U.S. missed possibly $12- to $15-billion in sales of defense and energy systems in the Mideast, and a range of major new defense acquisitions from non-U.S. suppliers are under consideration by Middle Eastern states. At the same time, some of the U.S.’ major traditional allies in the region — Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, in particular — have felt compelled, for their own survival, to turn their back on Washington because of a perception of a divergence in values and goals.
Most U.S. policy officials — especially in Defense — insist that U.S. commitments and strategies in the region have not changed, but the actions and policies dictated directly by the Barack Obama White House, and mirrored at Secretary of State level, have proven antithetical to most states in the greater Middle East, with the exception of Turkey and Qatar. Some regional states, such as Oman, are concerned; others, such as Ethiopia and Djibouti, are now left feeling strategically abandoned.
The sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from their deployment at the Ethiopian air base at Arba Minch — from where Reaper UAV sorties were conducted against al-Shabaab in Somalia — was done in September 2015 without forewarning to the Ethiopian Government in Addis Ababa, and kept secret until an Ethiopian website disclosed it in early January 2016.
The U.S. had signed a series of multi-year supply agreements with Ethiopian companies to support the base in the weeks leading up to the withdrawal, a firm indication that the decision to vacate Arba Minch was sudden and hastily planned.
The Arba Minch withdrawal coincided with growing U.S. hostility toward the Government of Djibouti — which is strategically integral to Ethiopia’s fortunes — and the very pointed siding of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Djibouti. This resulted in Saudi and UAE strong military commitments to Eritrea (to compensate for the loss of their Djibouti basing in the war in Yemen), another blow to Ethiopian security. But it also coincided with the visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Addis Ababa to talk at the African Union, where he was accorded a very mixed reception based on his insistence on African states accepting his — Obama’s — stance on gay marriage, among other things.
Significantly, although President Obaba’s team was warned against such provocations in advance of his Addis and Nairobi visits, most Obama Administration officials do not understand what they have done to offend some of the nations in the region. Even Kerry’s support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the rift with Djibouti did not win their support for Washington, as both states feared that the U.S. now supported Iran rather than the lower Persian Gulf states. The Iranian Government, however, has been under no such illusions, even among those who supported the G5+1 treaty with Iran to end some of Iranian nuclear weapons programs in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. They, too, see U.S. support for the Saudi coalition against them in Yemen.
The net result has been a bonanza for the PRC, and the deal by Djibouti to welcome a PRC naval base in the country was confirmed and cemented when Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh met in South Africa with PRC President Xi Jinping in early December 2015. This was a strategically successful gathering of African leaders with the PRC leader within weeks of the Indian summit in New Delhi with African leaders.
The U.S. has done nothing of consequence to rebuild its position, which means that the strategic framework in the Middle East and Africa will, within a decade, be profoundly different from the beginning of the 21st Century.