Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The end for America in the Middle East?

by Michael Young

Overstatement in the service of truth is no vice, some might say. But where is truth, or indeed overstatement, in the observation that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of America's 60-year domination of the Middle East, unless the Obama administration reverses its policies? Alarmingly, no one has any answers.

The notion sounds absurd. America lose the power that it has managed to retain for as long as most of us have been alive? Perhaps it is absurd. But consider this: given President Barack Obama's lack of a coherent strategy for the region, everywhere we see deepening vulnerabilities, when not a conscious decision by Washington to downgrade its ambitions in the face of more dynamic regional actors. These actors have shortcomings of their own, but they appear to be better prepared to deal with the consequences than the United States.

And let's add one more item to the bleak mix: Washington's listlessness actually increases the chances that it will enter into a war with Iran, which Obama has been so understandably keen to avoid. 

The Arab state system may well be caught up in a phase of terminal deterioration. Most Arab regimes are old and have lost much legitimacy by consolidating their authoritarianism while offering their younger, expanding populations little in the way of consensual social contracts, useful educational opportunities, and better living conditions. Stalemate prevails, and the onetime sway of leading Arab states has devolved to non-Arab states on the region's periphery: Turkey, Israel and Iran.

This has had negative consequences for the United States, whose political preeminence in the region rested on the old Arab order. Longstanding American allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are weaker than ever before. At the same time, the Obama administration is in the throes of psychological retrenchment over the Middle East, the result of myriad factors, above all a sense that the US cannot financially afford the vast empire it once controlled.

Looking at American policy, what do we see today? For starters, we see an Iran actively challenging America in the region. This may look like hubris, but the Iranians see little that is worrisome. Take Iraq, which the US fought long and hard over and ultimately stabilized after the spectacular blunders of the immediate postwar years in 2003-2005. Today, Obama's stubborn priority is to withdraw, effectively denying Washington the primary terrain needed to contain Iran, but also to exercise its power over Syria and to an extent Saudi Arabia.

Iraq's election results provided an opportunity for the Obama administration. Iran's closest allies lost ground, in contrast to the blocs led by Ayad Allawi and Nouri al-Maliki. Instead of trying to impose some compromise between the two men that could have created the basis of a more stable Sunni-Shiite order, therefore of a new strategic relationship between Washington and Baghdad, Obama did nothing. Iran saw an opening and is now helping establish a Shiite-led government that will doubtless favor Iranian interests.

Washington's refusal to develop a strategic relationship with Iraq to hold back Iran, means the US will have to rely, instead, on the frail Gulf states to push back against the Islamic Republic. Not surprisingly, Iran sees very few serious obstacles coming from its Gulf Arab neighbors. And these would dissipate completely if Tehran were to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran has the added ability in places such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait, but also in Yemen, of being able to mobilize members of disgruntled Shiite minorities.

The impact of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement on the Gulf and Iraq, the critical playing field in the American-Iranian rivalry, would be relatively limited. The Palestinians have been a tool used by Iran, as has Lebanon, to protect its core objective: building up its supremacy in the Gulf. Iran's priority is to progressively undermine America in the Middle East, with other regional tensions, in themselves of less immediate importance to Tehran, feeding into this. Hizbullah and Hamas act as useful shock absorbers for Iran while it develops a nuclear capability, the cornerstone of its bid for regional hegemony.

Which brings us to the shipwreck that is Afghanistan. Obama has locked himself into an impossible situation there. The president has set a deadline for the start of a withdrawal from the country in July 2011, and if he fails to win the midterm elections next November, which is probable, we can be sure that he will begin implementing his pullout before the next presidential election, unless there is a dramatic improvement in American fortunes. Until now the signs are not good. Washington finds itself fighting the Taliban while striving to find common ground between the conflicting objectives of its two major (and mistrusted) allies in the Afghan war, President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan. Add to that that Pakistan has no real desire to see the US succeed, preferring to reassert its own authority in Kabul.   

This is excellent news for Iran. An Obama administration trapped in the tentacles of Afghanistan makes more likely American retreats in the Middle East. And if Barack Obama decides next year that it is time to wind down his Afghan adventure, the implications for America's view of itself, and the world's view of America, could be dramatic, particularly if Iran uses that opening to finalize a nuclear weapon. Obama will have presided over two major military withdrawals while allowing Iran to become a major adversary in the Middle East.

But there is another possible scenario. Obama may realize that he's been cornered by Tehran, and resort to the one thing he can still call upon with some sense of superiority, military power. Having stood down in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and in all probability on the Palestinian track; having seen his major allies becoming steadily more marginal; having seen all this, the president may finally decide that enough is enough, and go to war. Whatever happens, Obama's bad choices today are pushing him in the direction he most dreads.


Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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