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VERDA ÖZER > Obama’s twist of fate

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These days it is even more popular than the Gangnam-style dance to argue that the United States is pulling out from the Middle East and shifting its resources to Asia instead.

It is true that Washington is increasing its ties with Asia. However “a pivot to Asia” does not mean a pivot away from the Middle East, as Jon Alterman argues. It’s just the opposite. While the United States imports relatively little energy from the Middle East, its Asian allies import it in growing amounts from the region, using it to manufacture goods to sell to the United States. Hence the United State’s indirect imports of Middle Eastern oil and therefore its engagement with the region remain robust.

The Arab Awakening also secures long-term U.S. engagement in the Middle East. It is not only Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria in political turmoil. The inspiration for further democratization has also triggered the United State’s main allies in the region. In March 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced a $130 billion benefits package improving wages and job opportunities in order to settle the increasing uprisings along with the fatwa against demonstrations issued by the Saudi Grand Mufti. In February 2011 Riyadh also ordered tanks into neighboring Bahrain to put down popular uprisings of the Shia majority against the Sunni monarchy. Likewise there have been occasional violent demonstrations in Jordan since early 2011, such as in late 2012 when protesters complained about rising gas prices. Also in Kuwait, the most politically mature one of the Gulf States, political tension is increasing. In light of this picture the United States will certainly keep a close eye on its Arab allies to secure its interests in the region.

In addition to the increasing sectarianism in the region, the Arab uprisings also led to the rise of political Islam which will keep Washington even busier in the region. Since only Islamists had the infrastructure to mobilize supporters and address popular grievances, Salafi Islamist groups and moderate Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have been the main beneficiary of these movements. Radical Islamist groups also gained greater freedom of movement to fill the emerging vacuum of power. The goal to counterbalance Iran, not only to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons but also to keep its regional ambitions under control, is another motive for engagement. Similarly the free flow of energy resources at reasonable prices is crucial since the U.S. imports 23% of its crude oil from the Arab world.

President Obama gave hints about his Middle East policy during his second inaugural speech last week, saying that “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe and support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East”. Signals about U.S. engagement in the region will most probably be redundant in his annual State of the Union speech to take place on Feb. 12.

This all reminds me of Trotsky’s famous motto: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” U.S. President Barack Obama does not have the option of losing interest in the Middle East.

January/29/2013

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