February 16, 2018

How Does U.S. Power in the Middle East Today Compare to What It Was During the Previous Administration?

Jim Mattis
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, third from left, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Afghanistan, Sept. 27, 2017. (DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

By most objective metrics, U.S. hard power (military), soft power (scientific, cultural, and humanitarian), and “sticky” power (economic) in the Middle East is largely unchanged from four or eight years ago. Washington is still the predominant outside force in the region, and, arguably, the single most influential player in the region.

However, American leverage has been declining in recent years due to a combination of factors: U.S. reticence to use military force; a concomitant rise of regional powers, such as Iran, and the return of Russia as a Middle Eastern player; and a perception that American leadership has been ineffective—whether in Iraq and Syria, in containing Iran, and even in mediating an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

The Trump administration has repaired frayed ties with traditional partners such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and adopted a tougher rhetorical stance against Iran’s destabilizing activities. But it has yet to do anything substantial to dispel the widespread impression that American power is gradually and irretrievably declining both globally and in the Middle East. Therefore, U.S. power today is, at best, comparable to that during the Obama administration, and arguably has continued a slow but steady deterioration that began after the invasion of Iraq.

This article was originally published by the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.