State Department spokesman John Kirby rejected that the United States has disengaged from the Middle East under the Obama administration on Thursday, asserting that Washington has shown strong diplomatic leadership to end the civil war in Syria and a military commitment to counter the Islamic State and maintain a “robust” presence in the region.
Kirby defended current American Middle East policy during an appearance on Fox News with host Bill Hemmer, as analysts, commentators, and politicians from both parties have claimed the Obama administration is stepping back from America's traditional, leading role as security guarantor in the Middle East, which some argue has created a vacuum being filled by actors opposed to U.S. interests.
Hemmer asked the spokesman about what the U.S. is doing to de-escalate the growing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia after the Saudis executed a prominent Shiite cleric on Saturday and Iranian protestors subsequently attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
The assault on its embassy led Riyadh to sever diplomatic ties with Iran, with other Sunni countries soon following suit. The situation has only escalated since then with Iran accusing Saudi Arabia on Thursday of hitting its embassy in Yemen with warplanes as the Islamic Republic continues to back the Shiite Houthi rebel group there, which overthrew the Saudi-supported government from the Yemeni capital early last year.
Kirby told Hemmer that Secretary of State John Kerry is reaching out to his counterparts in both countries and other foreign ministers throughout the region to ease tensions while calling on Iran and Saudi Arabia to engage in bilateral dialogue to end the ongoing feud.
Hemmer followed up by asking, “If I may suggest, others would argue we've withdrawn from that region. Are they listening to us, sir?”
“I think it is a complete fallacy to say that we have withdrawn from the region,” Kirby said in response. “The United States is very, very active in the Middle East. We have a robust military presence there, and we have been very energetic and active on a diplomatic front.”
Kirby explained how the United States put together a 65-nation coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and has been “a real leader” in trying to move the political process forward to end the Syrian civil war.
“So far from it,” Kirby said. “We have not disengaged at all. We are very active.”
Some analysts have argued that Saudi Arabia is growing more aggressive to counter Iranian influence without consulting Washington because it feels the U.S. is abandoning its traditional Sunni Arab allies in pursuit of a strategic partnership with Tehran.
The nuclear deal struck last summer between the U.S., along with five other world powers, and Iran has raised those concerns for the Persian Gulf states, who see Iran as their primary nemesis.
“The accelerant for this [Saudi-Iranian conflict] has been the nuclear arms deal that the United States has been pursuing for four years,” former Vice Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army Jack Keane said this week,” adding that the agreement “has been done at the expense of our Arab allies in the region.”
Keane also said that Saudi officials told him they do not believe the Obama administration would come to their defense in a conflict, which he argues is because of a consistent policy of disengagement from the Middle East.
The administration's strategy to counter ISIS has also come under fire in recent months, with some of President Obama's Democratic allies on Capitol Hill joining Republican lawmakers in calling for a greater U.S. commitment to the fight.
The president has defended his policy as the right one, saying it is making progress while cautioning that it will also take time.
ISIS has lost 30 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria over the past year but has retained the same number of fighters since U.S. airstrikes began in August 2014, according to the Pentagon.
Regarding the civil war in Syria, the U.S. has led diplomatic efforts to bring an international body together, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, to end the conflict and bring about a political transition away from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The administration has been criticized for softening its stance on Assad's future, however. President Obama has long called for the dictator's departure, but the Associated Press reported Wednesday that the U.S. is now prepared to let Assad stay in power until at least March 2017.
Syria has become a focal point of the Saudi-Iranian feud, with Tehran supporting Assad and Riyadh supplying rebels trying to depose him.