The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The unintended consequences of U.S. disengagement in the Middle East

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia at the Pentagon on March 22. (Cliff Owen/AP)

An Arab diplomat recently chided an American audience for speculating about what “the new Middle East” may look like. Open your eyes, he said: The new Middle East is already here.

And, personally, I fear its baseline expectation is that American power and values won’t matter the way they once did.

The diplomat was Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’s ambassador to the United States, and he was speaking at a public gathering last month at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. He explained to an audience of policymakers and journalists the consequences of disengagement: “One very senior [U.S.] official looked at me once and said there’s no constituency in the U.S. for us doing more in the Middle East. When we hear that, it means we need to do things on our own.”

What does “doing things on our own” look like for Middle East nations? Well, it means closer relations with Russia and China, for starters. Otaiba noted that on the very day (July 19) he was giving his Aspen talk, President Xi Jinping of China had arrived in Abu Dhabi. And why not? China is the UAE’s largest trading partner.

Otaiba gave another example of the traditional regional order, transformed. He remarked that this year, “the prime minister of Israel is [visiting] Moscow more frequently than he visits Washington.” Otaiba noted that if he had made such an observation 10 years ago, “you would have thought I was absolutely crazy.” (By my count, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has this year made three Moscow trips but just one to Washington.)

A country that has dreamed, during the Obama and Trump presidencies, of being less entangled in the problems of the Middle East may finally be getting its wish. The United States is less involved, and inevitably, it is less influential.

Maybe I’m a foreign policy dinosaur. But I still want a modernizing Middle East that shares America’s values, and I regret our loss of influence — and even more, the way that decent people and ideas suffer when the umbrella of U.S. hegemony is withdrawn or discarded. Since Otaiba’s remarks, I’ve seen new examples of bad decisions when leaders decide that Uncle Sam doesn’t matter.

Topping the list of this summer’s most significant Middle East mistakes is Saudi Arabia’s move to punish Canada for criticizing human rights policies in the kingdom. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, looked hypocritical and harshly repressive for allowing Saudi women to drive while simultaneously cracking down on female activists.

MBS may not realize it, but the human rights squeeze also makes him look weak under fire: It causes Western analysts to review their assessments about the possible spread of dissent against MBS within the Saudi royal family, business community and military. Sorry, your highness, but confident leaders don’t expel Canadian ambassadors.

I’m still rooting for MBS to succeed in reforming culture, religion and society in the biggest, most important Sunni Arab economy. But it’s harder for him to do the right thing in a post-U.S. Middle East, where the role models are authoritarian leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi — and the current avatar of U.S. power is Donald Trump.

Even Trump seems to be having trouble managing MBS. The Saudis reportedly raised oil production in June to help pressure Iran; but in July, the Saudis reversed 40 percent of the increase, according to the Financial Times. Maybe MBS’s deal with Putin to manage oil prices through a so-called OPEC Plus matters more than any promise to Trump.

The summer’s second lesson in post-American folly is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a leader who seems convinced he can intimidate anyone. The trigger for this latest crisis is Erdogan’s refusal to release the detained U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, apparently unless he is exchanged for a convicted Turkish felon in a U.S. prison.

Erdogan seems ready to abandon the NATO alliance itself rather than compromise. He apparently thinks (like so many other leaders in the region) that if he riles the United States, he can make alternative deals with Russia or China. (You have to credit Trump for being as intractable in this feud as Erdogan.)

But guess what? Even in a world where the United States’ military and diplomatic power seems to be in retreat, there is an element of the U.S.-led order that’s as strong as ever — our dominance of the global economy. Erdogan may think he can bluff his way through the Brunson crisis, but Turkish banks, construction companies and bondholders know better.

In the still-global economy, going it alone really isn’t an option, folks. This summer, as ever, we sink or swim together.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Daniel Hollander: Forget the two-state solution. Let’s try six.

The Post’s View: A positive sign from the Middle East: Iraq’s democratic election

Joe Scarborough: Trump isn’t the first president to follow his gut into Mideast trouble

Fareed Zakaria: There’s a lot to be optimistic about these days. And then there’s the Middle East.