Three years ago, then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter attributed Iran’s growing dominance to its being “in the game, on the ground.” He urged its regional rivals to do the same, thus expressing a widely shared sentiment in policy circles at the time: Arab Gulf states needed to rely less on the United States and play a greater role in their neighborhood.
In many ways, that is exactly what these countries have been attempting to do since 2015, and now Carter and others have reason to revisit their advice.
In the absence of strong American leadership, now spanning two administrations, the future of the region hinges on what local powers define as priorities, and how they go about trying to achieve them. Even if Washington decides to wake up, it will now find it far more difficult than in the past to assert itself.
What’s happening in the Middle East today can be traced back to the 2011 Arab Spring, which sparked a desire for democratic change among ordinary people and, among governments, a countervailing desire for stability based on the status quo ante.
To go back in time, as it were, the counterrevolutionary bloc—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and their allies in Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere—believes the future must be more authoritarian than ever. Based on extensive conversations with senior Arab officials, I’ve found that the dominant outlook could be summed up as follows: A heavy-handed domestic and regional approach may well carry risks, but the alternative is worse.