admiller1_Omar Haj KadourAFP via Getty Images OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images
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The New-Old Middle East

As much as the United States would like to extricate itself from the Middle East, that simply is not a realistic option. While the region has experienced a rapid geopolitical change in response to US disengagement, it remains maddeningly complex and fraught with potentially systemic risks that America cannot afford to ignore.

WASHINGTON, DC – Like some modern-day Gulliver that is tied up by powers large and small in a region that it needs to understand better, the United States confronts a Middle East in a period of extraordinary change. But it does so with fewer illusions and a clear determination to reorder its priorities in a region that has unduly preoccupied its attention for the past several decades. The growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, an increasingly aggressive Russia, independence from Arab hydrocarbons, and a sense – following the failed trillion-dollar social science experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq – that most of what ails the region is beyond America’s capacity to repair have forced a welcome downgrading of the Middle East in US foreign policy. And when a great power recalibrates, smaller powers will readjust in ways that both advance and harm its interests.

Five features define the region’s new political landscape. They have been emerging for quite some time, and correctly reading the changed terrain is vital if the US is to maximize the chances of protecting its interests in a region where, more often than not, American ideas go to die.

The Arab Winter

To paraphrase the first-century Roman historian Tacitus, the best day after the death of a bad emperor is always the first day. Despite the promise and possibility of the so-called Arab Spring more than a decade ago, when Arabs young and old rallied in the streets to oppose several authoritarian regimes’ cruel and arbitrary political and economic policies, there ultimately was no redemption or deliverance, only backlash. In Bahrain and Syria, the old regimes hung on. In Egypt, the military seized power after a year of chaotic Islamist rule. In Yemen, a brutal civil war is ongoing. Even in Tunisia, the only country to have emerged with the real possibility of democratic reform, an authoritarian now holds near-absolute power. And in Lebanon, Libya, and even Iraq, intractable internal disputes and outside meddling have made functional and equitable governance almost impossible.

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