Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman wrote on Jan. 20 that "the most important emerging theme in world politics is America's slow retreat from its role as global policeman."
He cites numerous examples of countries reconsidering their options now that the United States is unwilling to be drawn into crises; among those countries Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which are made deeply insecure by America's choices in their neighborhood. Neither country considered Saddam Hussein's Iraq the main security problem in the region; both had encouraged the United States to focus on Iran instead. Both countries were alarmed at the colossal mismanagement of the Iraq war by George W. Bush's administration and the consignment of it to the dumpster by Barack Obama's administration. Both countries believe that America's choices about Iraq, democratization in the Middle East, and Syria have assisted Iran in attaining its regional aspirations of influence for itself and destabilization of governments in Lebanon and the Persian Gulf. Both countries complain that the United States has no strategy for the region, making its policies impossible for allies to synchronize with and easy for enemies to take advantage of. Both are terrified -- especially after the red-line debacle with Syria -- that a dangerous gap exists between Obama's declaratory policy that the United States will prevent, by force if necessary, Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and his willingness to carry out that policy. And they are justified in that fear.
The inability of the U.S. government to understand that it cannot successfully compartmentalize policy toward countries and issues in the Middle East (and elsewhere) is where the problem begins. The president may boldly say that he doesn't bluff, but the Iranian government believes it just watched his bluff get called on Syria. And this cannot but affect the Iranian government's judgments about his willingness to hold to his red line on Iran's nuclear program. That reaction would be further reinforced by the White House marketing its interim Iran deal as "the only alternative to war, and the American people don't want another war in the Middle East." America is undercutting its friends and emboldening its enemies by such actions. And given the gale-force dangers whipping around the Middle East right now, the country ought to be doing an awful lot more to help its friends cope with difficulty and create opportunity.
The ally of America in the greatest need at the moment is Jordan. The kingdom is teetering precariously under the weight of external events while navigating political reforms. The government of Jordan has been better than most in its support for American interests in the Middle East: recognizing Israel, training Syrian rebel forces in conjunction with Saudi Arabia when the United States wanted it done but was too squeamish to undertake it, offering its territory and assistance in training Iraqi counterterrorism forces. King Abdullah II was the first head of state to call for Syria's Bashar al-Assad to step down. He has included the Muslim Brotherhood in the political opening he is seeking to usher into being in Jordan, taking a much more moderate line than the Saudis or revanchist Egyptian government. But the government of Jordan rightly fears Assad remaining in power, and it rightly fears an Islamist government coming to power by force in Syria that could threaten Jordan outright, complicate Jordan's domestic political reforms, drain the limited resources of the government, and jeopardize a foreign policy that has been extraordinarily beneficial to American interests.
The Jordanians have been generous to Syrians fleeing into their country, taking in 600,000 -- making refugees now 10 percent of the country's population. The magnitude of comparison would be the United States taking in 31 million refugees; in actuality, the United States has admitted fewer than 100. The Zaatari camp with 100,000 refugees is Jordan's fifth-largest city; half its inhabitants are under 18. And 40 percent of Jordanians live along the border with Syria, meaning that refugee camps abut areas already heavily populated and refugees are straining social services designed for local needs. Moreover, 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan aren't living in refugee camps, but have taken up residence in cities and towns, which further increases the strain on local services and the difficulty of providing international aid to the refugees. To its credit, the government of Jordan has allowed Syrian refugees to register for school and provides them free health care. It also allows them to work even though Jordanians are enduring 16 percent unemployment.
Jordan is a country still coming to terms politically and culturally with the permanence of Palestinian refugees who came to their country two generations ago. Syrian refugees are unlikely to leave for years, even if the civil war in Syria burns out: There will simply not be enough social trust to justify the risk for many refugees. As the CEO of the NGO Mercy Corps emphasizes, "Host communities bear an unsustainable burden as hundreds of thousands of refugees compete for scarce jobs, resources, and services. We need to deliver aid in a way that tackles these and other long-term issues." Add to that helping manage the potential destabilizing effects of Syrians organizing politically as a force in Jordanian politics and possible Islamist infiltration, both of which pose long-term risks for Jordan's polity.
The United States has been forthcoming in providing material assistance, principally through fast-acting military accounts but also in contributing to the UNHCR effort and facilitating work of private organizations like Mercy Corps that carry out so much of U.S. foreign assistance. The United States is the largest international donor to Syrian refugee efforts. But a much larger and more diversified inflow of aid to Jordan is urgently needed and long overdue. The United Nations provisionally estimates that the cost to Jordan of hosting Syrian refugees will be $3.2 billion in 2014. The United States needn't be the provider of that aid, but drumming it up from others is something it can and should do.
And here is where the Obama administration could perhaps make a virtue out of the catastrophe that is its Middle East policy, harnessing the newfound willingness of unlikely partners in the region to productive effect. The U.S. government should develop a strategy for raising not just that $3.2 billion but also providing political, economic, and other assistance to the government of Jordan, webbing it into regional cooperation made possible by allies worried about U.S. policies. The approach should expand from the refugees themselves to also having lines of operations for affecting Jordan's own people and also supporting the government of Jordan.
It should increase trilateral U.S.-Israeli-Jordanian efforts on water sharing and security, folding other regional allies in to fund and share Jordan's burdens. Jordan should also be given a starring role in Palestinian peace talks, both to reward its support for Israel but also to help in managing its domestic Palestinian population -- if a peace deal is reached, Jordan will be a major beneficiary.
It should incorporate contributions from all the Gulf states (some of which pledged help to Jordan before, some now, as part of their inner-GCC struggle for power), not just for refugee relief but also for development projects that reward Jordan's openness to those refugees and its political engagement with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (Qatar is especially well placed to moderate the Brotherhood's demands) and tribes (here perhaps Saudi Arabia could be relied upon). It will be a delicate balance to prevent Jordan from becoming the next battleground for the pro- and anti-Brotherhood forces in Egypt and the Gulf, but that contest is already taking shape within Jordan. What is needed is active political engagement that supports the government of Jordan rather than those actors at the government's expense.
Such an approach need not overturn or be a major diversion from the initiatives Obama is committed to: a deal with Iran and progress on peace between Israel and Palestine. It need not reconsider flawed policies that exacerbated many of these problems, such as the writing off of Iraq or America's erratic support for democratic movements. But a Middle East policy built around shoring up Jordan and then other countries that are making the right kinds of domestic and international choices would go a long way in giving America's allies in the region a higher degree of confidence that the United States isn't turning its back on them. It could begin rebuilding their belief that the United States can be relied on. And the cost of stabilizing Jordan is nowhere near the cost we will pay if King Abdullah II is unable to hold the country steady and maintain its current policies.
Photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images