The Middle East Thinks America Is Going Crazy

Arab countries are looking for partners who aren’t bogged down by chaos ranging from impeachment to Iowa.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes part in a meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 18, 2019. MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP

When I landed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, last week, the United States was in the throes of a bruising debate about Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, and the Super Bowl halftime show. It was either the worst halftime show ever or the best, women were either shamed or empowered, and the kids were forever damaged. The next day, things got more serious with the absurd debacle that was the Iowa Democratic caucuses, whose winner could not be announced until the following Sunday due to “quality control” issues. Almost immediately, the conspiracy theorists kicked into high gear, ignoring the most obvious explanation for the problems Iowa Democrats encountered: incompetence.

On my second morning in the Emirates, I woke up to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address and all the fury that it produced over Rush Limbaugh’s Presidential Medal of Freedom—which surely debases the value of the honor for all past and future recipients—and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripping up the president’s speech. Before I got on the plane back to Washington, the Senate acquitted Trump of abusing his power and obstructing Congress. The lone Republican dissenter in the abuse of power charge, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, was promptly disinvited from the Conservative Political Action Conference because organizers could not assure his safety. Watching these events unfold in succession from 7,000 miles away rather from my usual perch inside the Beltway made America’s apparent crackup feel all the more real.

I was not the only one paying attention. So were the Emiratis. They carefully noted the three-ring circus. To a person, those I spoke to on my trip were horrified at the incompetence of the Democrats in Iowa, stunned by the lack of civility during and after the State of the Union, and firmly of the belief that Trump will be reelected in November. The confidence that there will be a second Trump administration, however, does not allay a sense of disbelief and discomfort about America’s growing dysfunction. They are concerned about the pathological polarization they see and what it might mean for their ties with the United States.

They also aren’t waiting around to find out. The Emiratis are keenly aware of America’s ambivalence about the Middle East and are unapologetic about plans they already have underway to join find new partners to help them achieve their objectives. And, across the Middle East, they are not alone.

For all of the talk in Washington about relitigating U.S. ties with its regional allies, Middle Eastern leaders are doing much the same with regard to the United States. I first got a hint of this a number of years ago during a conversation with an Egyptian official who related that what he called the “isolationist” worldviews of politicians like Sens. Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders—and the apparent appeal of these ideas to large number of Americans—raised questions in the minds of leaders in Cairo whether the United States would in time relinquish its role as Egypt’s strategic partner and stabilizer of the Middle East.

In their own way, the Turks have been asking similar questions about American fecklessness over U.S.-Syria policy and Washington’s ties to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which are connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—a terrorist group that has waged a violent campaign against Turkey since 1984. The Saudis, stung by the criticism heaped upon them from almost every corner after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, recognize the need for change even as they continue emphasize the importance of the bilateral relationship to them.

It is not so much that America’s regional allies are realigning, though there is some of that, but that they are diversifying their foreign policies. The Emiratis believe that their economic future lies with China, though they haven’t taken a side in the great-power competition that everyone is talking about. Still, the Emiratis have a keen sense of how global power dynamics are shifting. They hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Emirates for three days in the summer of 2018 and inked agreements with Beijing on energy, financial, military, and commercial ties. Russian Vladimir Putin received an elaborate welcome when he visited a little more than a year later, which resulted in $1.3 billion worth of deals in the health, technology, and energy sectors.

The Egyptians are more explicit about returning to something akin to the “positive neutralism” of the Gamal Abdel Nasser era, when Cairo sought to extract as much assistance as it could from competing powers. They do not want American officials to demand that Egypt choose between Washington and Beijing at the same time being left alone to strengthen Cairo’s relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, as Turkey’s differences with the United States have grown, the Turks and the Russians have grown closer, notwithstanding significant differences over what is happening in Syria’s Idlib province. And even as the United States remains the biggest investor in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis understand the importance of doing business with China—Riyadh’s largest trading partner. They have also come to understand that having Russia at the table is at least prudent, which is why Putin received a warm welcome to Saudi Arabia in the fall of 2019.

Of course, none of America’s allies regard Russia or China as replacements for the United States yet, but as long as U.S. officials and politicians talk of pivots and declare their intention to end so-called forever wars, Middle Eastern leaders are going to explore their options. Added to these geopolitical calculations is the perception that the political warfare consuming every aspect of life in the United States has rendered America unhinged and thus either uninterested in or unserious about the world. The predictable result is not just hedging with other big powers but also taking matters into their own hands, which is how conflicts in places like Yemen, Libya, and Syria have become bloodier and more destabilizing.

From a personal perspective, it was sobering to watch the debate about the Super Bowl halftime show, the Iowa clown show, the monstrosity that was the State of the Union address, and the aftermath of the president’s acquittal from half a world away. The much-discussed adults in the room are either cowering in the corner or have been intimidated into silence. I do not think I am being melodramatic when I say it feels like this moment has done irreparable harm to the United States and its aspirational promise.

The effect on U.S. foreign policy may be less spectacular, but that does not mean it is not profoundly damaging. Across the political spectrum, the idea of leaving the Middle East is deeply appealing—even if Americans do not know what it would mean in practice. The region may feel far away, but the United States still has important interests and goals there. Achieving them will be harder so long as U.S. partners, however flawed, regard the United States as untrustworthy, incompetent, and downright crazy.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.