U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled last week to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait to thank allies who helped in the U.S.-led airlift from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. Yet, America’s traditional allies in the Middle East, along with the rest of the world, must have taken note of the killing of over 100 people at the gates of Kabul airport – including 13 U.S. service members – as one of the horrific consequences of the shambolic exit from Afghanistan ordered by President Joe Biden.
This single incident accounted for more U.S. military deaths than in all of 2020, when there were several thousand more U.S. troops in the country. The ignominy of the precipitous retreat by the Aug. 31 deadline – with an unknown number of American nationals and allied Afghans remaining behind as the Pentagon pulled out its last troops – cannot be lost on Arab leaders in the Middle East.
It’s evident that the expedited retreat of American forces from Afghanistan was not part of any credible military plan, which would have run a civilian-evacuation campaign before an orderly withdrawal of troops and the destruction of left-behind matériel and military bases. Biden insisted on his bungled exit for the political optics of announcing “mission accomplished” by the iconic date of Sept. 11. Few foreign observers would disagree with former Vice President Mike Pence’s view that the botched withdrawal “is a foreign-policy humiliation unlike anything our country has endured since the Iran hostage crisis.”
The American retreat must confirm to the Gulf Sunni states that relying on the U.S. security presence is a risky proposition, at best. The willingness of the United Arab Emirates to open diplomatic and economic relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration and Biden’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan almost exactly one year later are not unconnected. The events of the past few weeks in Afghanistan are the logical denouement of a process that started during Barack Obama’s two-term presidency. Obama’s hubristic vision – a U.S. disengaged from the Middle East, a legitimized Iran and the Gulf Sunni states “sharing” the Persian Gulf, and Israel finding its rightful status as just another state in the region, with no special relationship with America – is shared by the Biden administration.
Indeed, if anything, the Biden administration has been cast as Obama 2.0, staffed with familiar national security and foreign policy faces, in service of the former administration’s vision of an America that leads from behind. Within weeks of Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. withheld arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, revoked the “terrorist organization” designation imposed on the Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen by the Trump administration, and appointed the same diplomats who negotiated Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran to resume negotiations for re-entering the deal. To further cement the Obama legacy, the Biden administration appointed anti-Israel staffers to his policy team.
The Abraham Accords – signed in August 2020 by the UAE, followed by Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco – represented “at long last the victory of self-interest over ideology,” in the words of Elliott Abrams. This was an ideology that had given free pass to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas despite their links with Iran and Turkey, and that held onto the unquestioned presumption that Arab states would never normalize relations with Israel without a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The Bahrain and UAE agreements with Israel under the Abraham Accords jettisoned that presumption. The accords hedged the Arab Gulf states’ security dependence on what was correctly perceived to be an unreliable incoming U.S. administration, while cementing relations with Israel, the only proximate actor able to challenge Iranian and Turkish attempts at regional hegemony. Ever-closer security relationships with the Sunni Gulf states, whether formal or less so behind closed doors, could indeed be one of Israel’s “upsides” from Biden’s Afghanistan debacle. The recent visit to Moscow by the Saudi deputy defense minister, in which he signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Russia, may be seen as another sign of hedging security options by a key Gulf state. Nevertheless, the relations that both Russia and China have with Iran, and the limits on their military force-projection capabilities, mean that neither of these powers is willing or able to play a security-guarantor role in the Gulf.
The return of a medieval, jihadist emirate in Afghanistan might well be a monument to U.S. perfidy. For the moderate Gulf state leaders in the neighborhood, it will concentrate their minds on the realpolitik of regional security. For the rest of Biden’s term, at least, they will have to do without the comforting assumptions of an American security blanket that was an established feature of the regional political order since Saudi King Ibn Saud met with President Franklin Roosevelt on board a U.S. navy cruiser in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal in 1945.
Close allies of the U.S. in Asia and nearby – such as India, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam – will be conducting similar calculations of statecraft in their geopolitically fraught neighborhood.