Blinken's faltering regional tour shows declining US influence

The Houthi decision to launch its biggest-ever attack in the Red Sea while Blinken was in the region is an acute example of his failure

Blinken's faltering regional tour shows declining US influence

In the 50 years since former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger launched his famous shuttle diplomacy mission to bring peace to the Middle East, nothing better illustrates the recent decline of US influence in the region than the faltering efforts being made by the current holder of the office, Antony Blinken.

Ever since Hamas launched its devastating attack against Israel on 7 October, one of the key priorities for the Biden administration has been to limit the suffering inflicted against Palestinian civilians by Israel’s military response.

As US President Joe Biden responded when heckled by pro-Palestinian supporters while on the campaign trail in South Carolina earlier this week, "I understand your passion," Biden said. "I've been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce significantly and get out in Gaza."

But with Israel showing no signs of easing up on its military offensive to destroy Hamas in Gaza and UN officials warning of a deepening humanitarian disaster, Washington has been forced to send Blinken on yet another shuttle diplomacy mission to the region - his fourth since hostilities began in October — in a desperate bid to end the carnage.

Apart from seeking to persuade Israel to scale down its offensive against Hamas, one of the main items on Blinken’s agenda during his week-long mission to the region has been to formulate a reconstruction plan for Gaza once the fighting has finished.

With this in mind, Blinken embarked on a series of high-level meetings with leaders in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and Bahrain while also taking time to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority. In addition, there were stopovers in Turkey and Greece.

In every meeting, the US envoy pressed the case for reaching a consensus among the various regional players on Gaza’s future, an argument that topped his agenda when he met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the oasis town of AlUla.

Blinken contends that he has already secured the support of key Arab states and Turkey to begin planning for the reconstruction and governance of Gaza once Israel’s war against Hamas has ended.

Read more: Why Turkey was Blinken's first stop on regional tour discussing post-war Gaza

As he later explained at a press briefing, the US believes it has reached an outline agreement with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey “to work together and to coordinate our efforts to help Gaza stabilise and recover, to chart a political path forward for the Palestinians and to work toward long-term peace, security and stability in the region as a whole”.

If this initiative proves successful, it might lead to the Saudis and other Arab leaders pursuing normalisation of relations with Israel, so long as an enduring Israeli-Palestinian political settlement was part of the deal, he said.

Nothing better illustrates the recent decline of US influence in the region than the faltering efforts being made by the current holder of the office, Antony Blinken.

Reality sets in

Yet, for all the optimism Blinken expressed during his meetings with Arab leaders about securing a better future for the Palestinians, as well as the rest of the region, the reality of the situation was laid bare during his visit to Israel, where he came face-to-face with the Israeli government's intransigence to any notion of an independent Palestinian state.

Having discussed Washington's backing for a two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian issue during his meeting with Abbas, his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made little headway.

Not only did the Israeli premier reiterate his objection to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but he repeated his view that Israel will assume responsibility for security in Gaza long after the fighting against Hamas has ended.

Perhaps the most graphic illustration of Blinken's failure to make any significant progress during his four-day mission was the fact that his presence in the region was accompanied by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels launching their biggest-ever attack on merchant shipping in the Red Sea.

Preventing the Gaza conflict from escalating into a wider Middle East conflict has been another key objective of the Biden administration since hostilities erupted in Gaza.

To this end, the US and its allies have warned the Houthis to cease attacking international shipping in the Red Sea or face the consequences.

The Houthis' decision to launch a major attack in the Red Sea during Blinken's tour of the region was yet another example of how America's ability to assert its influence in the region has waned in recent years.

Perhaps the most graphic illustration of Blinken's failure was the fact that his presence in the region was accompanied by the Houthis launching their biggest-ever attack on merchant shipping in the Red Sea.

Stark contrast 

The atmospherics surrounding Blinken's inconclusive tour certainly stand in stark contrast to the attention former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attracted 50 years ago when he sought to cool tensions in the region in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.  

During two years of intense shuttle diplomacy in the region, Kissinger successfully negotiated two disengagement agreements between Egypt and Israel and a third between Israel and Syria, which ultimately paved the way for Egypt to strike its historic peace deal with Israel in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter.

Read more: Peacemaker or evil genius? Kissinger's mixed legacy in the Middle East

It could even be argued that his efforts led to the normalisation agreements known as the Abraham Accords that were signed by several Arab states with Israel at the end of the Trump administration.

One of Kissinger's more notable shortcomings, though, was his failure to resolve the fate of the Palestinians — an omission that lies at the heart of the crisis that today faces the region.

Indeed, shortly before his death last year, the elder statesman warned that the attacks carried out by Hamas on 7 October could have profound consequences for the region — especially Israel.

"In the Middle East, a barbaric attack by terrorists has redefined the problem for Israel and its allies," Kissinger said in remarks posted on his website shortly before he died in late November, warning that the US needed to revitalise its leadership role in the region if further bloodshed was to be avoided. 

"The immediate question is whether the Jewish state can fulfil its aspirations for freedom in the face of these accumulated arms, both to the north and to the south," Kissinger warned, "and the seemingly implacable hostility to Israel of some Palestinians that produced this latest disaster."

The problem Washington faces, though, as Kissinger himself would no doubt accept, is that, after years of deliberately ignoring the political challenges of the Middle East, Washington's influence in the region, as Blinken's latest tour has demonstrated, is today at a very low ebb.

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