When Egypt and the United Arab Emirates secretly launched a series of coordinated airstrikes against Islamist targets inside Libya in August, the news went off like a guided munition inside the foreign affairs community. Few outside of it were, however, equally concerned about the implications of this development.
The move signaled that both Egypt and the UAE were willing to project power outside of their borders. They reportedly executed those strikes without previously informing Washington, an indication of the mistrust with which they hold an administration that is seen as increasingly close to their chief regional adversary, Iran. It indicated the extent to which the bilateral relationship between Washington and Cairo had soured, and signaled the dawn of a new era of regional competition that would include a military component. To most observers, however, this development indicated that some Middle Eastern states were finally taking responsibility for security in their own neighborhoods and taking that burden off of American backs. What could be wrong with that?
A lot, as it happens. Following a new series of strikes in Libya conducted by Egyptian and UAE pilots this week, the Pentagon is expressing its reservations about this tectonic shift in geopolitics.
“We discourage other nations from taking a part in Libya’s issues through violence,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters. “We want the issues solved in Libya to be done peacefully and through good governance and politics and not violence.”
When asked why the Pentagon did not see this development – Arab states taking action against Islamist elements in their region — as an undiluted good, Kirby issued a misleading response. “What we don’t want is more violence on top of violence that’s already existing inside Libya,” he said. “It’s already a tenuous enough security environment as it is.”
That’s not exactly true. The Pentagon doesn’t care a whit for the Islamists on the receiving end of a missile no matter who fires it. What they do care about is the rapidly coalescing terms of an increasingly apparent competition between aspiring regional hegemons in the Middle East. Turkey is looking increasingly eastward rather than toward its NATO allies. Iran now controls proxies operating freely in no fewer than four Arab capitals. The Saudis and Egyptians still command the most influence over the region’s Sunni elements who are not predisposed to gravitate toward the rapidly expanding caliphate. Given these conditions, it is unsurprising that the Pentagon would express its dismay over dangerous demonstrations of force from any one member of this multipolar dynamic.
But what else could these two nations do? When facing a threat to their national securities, and confronted by the fact that their Western partners simply refuse to address those regional challenges comprehensively, of course Cairo and Abu Dhabi would take matters into their own hands as is their sovereign right. Unless the United States is willing to extend its security umbrella over the Middle East and to absolve these nations of their responsibility to provide for their defense (thus filling the vacuum the administration created), who can blame these nations for serving as custodians of their own interests?
History is returning to the Middle East as aspiring powers vie to fill the void created when the West abandoned Iraq. While the Pentagon can issue half-hearted objections to the inevitable consequences of American retrenchment, there is little they can do to stop them. It is a small comfort that Kirby is not pretending that these nations going it alone is a welcome development in order to curry favor with those who will welcome American disentanglement from this volatile region.