Diminished US role in the Middle East was long in the making
There is no way anyone, except perhaps a Trump administration spokesman, would argue that US influence is ascendant in the Middle East. In the region’s political hubs — Cairo, Damascus, Ankara, Baghdad, Riyadh and Tehran — leaders can be found pursuing their own national interests, forging necessary alliances and, at best, paying lip service to Washington.
To assess the political winds in the Middle East, look to Ankara, Moscow and Tehran; for the economic winds, look to Riyadh and Beijing.
Does this mean that US President Donald Trump single-handedly destroyed America’s once dominant position in this vital region? That if Hillary Clinton were president the United States would loom large and powerful over the Middle East?
The declining US role in the Middle East has been long in the making and is the result of four powerful factors: 1) imperial overreach and the domestic backlash it caused, 2) diminished US reliance on Middle Eastern energy, 3) the rise of China as the primary challenger to US global dominance and 4) an unhealthy and apparently unbreakable alliance with Israel.
If you insist on a precise date for the beginning of the United States’ decline in the region, it would be March 19, 2003 — the day that US forces launched the unprovoked invasion of Iraq.
The consequences of that day have been widely documented: civil war in Iraq; growing Iranian influence over and eventually domination of Iraqi politics; and the rise of Sunni jihadist groups such as the Islamic State. The list goes on.
Another consequence of that fateful day was: When George W. Bush became US president in January 2001 he inherited a national budget surplus of $128 billion. When Barack Obama was sworn in as president in January 2009, the budget was in deficit to the tune of $1.4 trillion.
Obama had campaigned in 2008 as the anti-war candidate, promising to disengage the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan. He promised a less-imperial policy towards the Middle East, one based on mutual respect and the pursuit of human rights and democracy, including national rights for the Palestinians.
When the first opportunity arose to actively promote democracy — Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution — the Obama administration stayed largely on the sidelines. Direct intervention would have been risky and US officials determined that the regime would prevail, which it did.
Two years later, the “Arab spring” offered Washington another opportunity to exert leadership. Instead, the administration seemed confused and uncertain, especially regarding Egypt: Do we bolster Hosni Mubarak, our long-time ally, or shove him out? Do we advocate for early elections — before Egypt’s society and political parties are ready — or encourage a slow-but-steady transition? Do we support the democratically elected Muhammad Morsi government, even if it stands against our values? Do we endorse the popular ouster of Morsi or punish the new regime?
No clearly articulated answers emerged.
By the time the bottom-up revolts spread to Syria, provoking a brutal response from the Bashar Assad regime, it was clear that the United States wanted nothing to do with the mess. Even when Moscow — the Obama administration’s bete noire — intervened militarily, Washington just wagged its finger. The low point occurred when Obama allowed his “red line” — Assad’s use of chemical weapons — to be crossed.
Obama was probably one of the most intelligent people to inhabit the Oval Office and, unlike Trump, he respected the expertise of professional diplomats. So what accounts for this muddled policy?
Obama was elected on a promise of disengaging the United States from the Middle East and repairing the country’s dire fiscal straights. With re-election looming in 2012, he was loath to more deeply engage the United States in the region.
Moreover, Obama was in many ways America’s first Asian president: He was born in Hawaii and spent much of his childhood in Indonesia. He believed, not without reason, that the US future lay in expanding its commercial and strategic presence in Asia. One country stood in the way: China.
To Obama, the Middle East was an annoying sideshow and if the United States got entangled in the region’s intractable conflicts, China would merrily march its way towards global dominance.
Meanwhile, the expanding US fracking industry, which, along with advances in energy efficiency and alternative energy, was transforming the United States into an energy powerhouse. Reliance on Gulf oil was ancient history.
Obama did not want to cut and run from the Middle East, however. He wanted to leave some kind of order behind, not out of the goodness of his heart but to make sure the United States did not get drawn again into the region.
He had two goals: First, a deal with Iran that would freeze Tehran’s nuclear program while luring Iran into normality. The mullahs, Obama reasoned, would be less reckless if they enjoyed economic gains from Western investment and trade, and delaying their nuclear programme would make them less dangerous.
Obama’s second goal for bringing about a modicum of order in an unruly region was to achieve a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He was serious about this goal and genuinely tried to bring it about but was foiled by an Israel that, under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was becoming a Praetorian ethno-nationalist enclave and a US political establishment, including leaders of both political parties, that was beholden to Israel regardless of its actions.
Trump continued and furthered this policy of regional disengagement. He combined it with the rhetorical bluster of power but no one was fooled. Since Trump assumed office, Moscow and Tehran have expanded their influence, Turkey is acting solo and in its own interests, Riyadh is starting to behave (as it should) as a regional power and not as a US ward and Cairo is looking to Russia for arms and China for investment.
The one constant is US support for Israel’s brazenly colonial government — and Trump’s declaring that Washington will move its embassy to Jerusalem may end up removing the United States from the role of Israeli-Palestinian mediator.
As for the idea of a Pax Americana in the Middle East: Requiescat in pace.