US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is a man in a hurry. His president expects him to produce foreign policy success stories.
Success stories are desperately needed as post-Afghanistan, the superpower has become a laughing stock universally. The trans-Atlantic alliance is seriously disoriented and Russia is on the prowl in the heart of Europe with natural gas to sell.
The Iranians are yet to give a date for the resumption of talks on the US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear accord.
As for China, the less said the better. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, senses something close to a “Sputnik moment.” Russian and Chinese warships exercise “freedom of navigation” on the forbidden seas of Japan’s eastern coastline littered with top-secret military installations.
The list goes on and on. The unkindest cut of all is that America’s traditional client regimes in West Asia are also asserting themselves. They look to diversify their relations and project their power through broader alliances. And the more they look eastward, the more deeply they engage with China.
Blinken must worry. After the US refusal to sell armed drones to Arab Gulf states, China struck a deal to set up a drone factory – the Gulf region’s first – at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.
Things came to such a pass that President Joe Biden’s administration is agonizing that the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) risks China gaining access to some of America’s latest military technology.
A recent Financial Times report cited a Pentagon paper on China’s military power, released last year, that listed the UAE among countries Beijing “likely considered” as locations for “military logistics facilities.” Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the regional heavyweights, have taken formal steps to deepen their relations with China in recent years.
The Pentagon is also getting frantic. General Kenneth F McKenzie, the commander of the US Central Command, told a webinar this year: “We need to recognize that competition against Russia and China simply doesn’t only occur in the Western Pacific or in the Baltic, it occurs in places like the Middle East, where they are expanding and coming in.”
Blinken is trained as an aide drafting memos for senators in Congress. But all that has no relevance to the Middle East with a political culture steeped in intrigues, skulduggery and cynical realism. In Blinken’s place, Jared Kushner would have found a better way to communicate with the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Blinken must be a secret admirer of Kushner to steal so sheepishly the jewel in the crown of the roving prince in the Trump White House – the Abraham Accords. Blinken simply picked up the threads where Kushner left them and strove to do one better on the Accords.
Possibly, the Israelis advised Blinken, given their own growing unease over Iran’s imminent surge with the lifting of sanctions and US retrenchment upturning the regional balance.
Indeed, the strange thing about the Abraham Accords is that they cannot be left unattended. A standstill would mean attrition and risk ignominy. Kushner’s original plan was that Saudi Arabia would come on board, which would have been a game-changer. But instead, a Saudi-Iranian normalization got underway.
Credit must be given to Iranian ingenuity to figure out that the Abraham Accords would eventually come to haunt the UAE. Iranian analysts saw advantages insofar as the torrid affair between the Emiratis and the Israelis that had been going on for years was at last in full public view, and the sheer incongruity of it would start worrying the Sheikhs until its legitimacy was established regionally.
Now, what better way to legitimize the Abraham Accords than by bringing India into them? The idea of a virtual meeting of the foreign ministers of the US, Israel, the UAE and India on October 18 was intended as a masterstroke. The project was hailed as “Indo-Abraham Accords” by American lobbyists.
Conceivably, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar didn’t need any persuasion. He saw another golden opportunity to cement India’s quasi-alliance with the US and to create synergy with the US-Israeli game plan to counter China’s cascading influence in the Persian Gulf region.
However, the Indo-Abrahamic Accord exposes a bloc mentality, an archaic Cold War mindset. Blinken is used to that. But the regional states have left the Cold War behind.
Unsurprisingly, the week-old Indo-Abraham Accord was quickly upstaged by dramatic developments in Sudan. That country can no longer reconcile with the original Abraham Accords.
Contradictions are rife. The military leadership in Khartoum is close to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Coup leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan was trained in Egypt’s military college and has made multiple visits since 2019 to the Emirates’ de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The generals also get along splendidly well with China and Russia. (The Russians even swung a submarine base on the Red Sea.) Israel is hoping against hope that the generals will not give up power.
Actually, as the Middle East Eye estimated, “Israel is trapped in a catch-22 situation. A military government that wants to form ties with Israel cannot deliver. On the other hand, if Sudan has a civilian democratic and free government, the chances of having peace with Israel are very slim.”
Yet the US cannot propagate democracy in Sudan either. The catch is, an “Arab Spring” may well produce the very same results in Sudan as it did once in Egypt – political Islam. The Sudanese developments show the limits to the Quad-type of diplomacy that the US practices in the Middle East: “You’re with us, or against us.”
Simply put, the Abraham Accords have no future. Why defame the common patriarch of the great Abrahamic religions by naming a Faustian deal after him? Kushner was probably lucky to have scooted from the scene at the right moment.
Blinken is wasting time by creating cabals in the Middle East. It is a hopelessly discredited strategy to keep the US somehow embedded in West Asia when its diplomacy is clearly losing traction. What happens if the clutch fails while driving?
Sudan has highlighted that there is a serious issue. What is unfolding in Khartoum is a classic symptom of a failing clutch that needs to be attended to. The military never took the 2019 deal’s transition to democratic rule.
Trump knew it but pretended not to notice, since the obsession was to hustle Sudan into the Abraham Accords. Didn’t the UAE and Israel know it too? Of course they knew. But Blinken apparently was unaware that the Abraham Accords stood on weak foundations and imposing an Indian superstructure on it would be sheer madness.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.