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Last Man Standing: Is America Fading in the New Middle East?

Lewis Libby & Hillel Fradkin

More than forty years ago, then National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger revealed the Nixon administration’s strategy to expel Soviet influence from the Middle East. The Vietnam War had bled America’s international standing, but Kissinger aimed to show key Middle Eastern states that, despite Soviet military strength, Moscow could neither help friends nor punish enemies, leaving America as the only country that could achieve important regional ends. 

To a considerable extent, Kissinger’s strategy worked. But today, our adversaries have renewed hopes of expelling the United States from the Middle East. They hope to show that now it is America that will not support friends, punish enemies, or achieve our aims. For the first time since World War II, they have some reason to expect success. 

Two broad and interrelated trends have dramatically increased the chances of diminished American influence. First, some of our traditional friendships in the region have become badly frayed, if not yet quite torn. Second and perhaps more decisive, US policies have fostered a growing perception of American retreat from a sixty-five-year effort to restrain the region’s self-destructive tendenciestendencies that render it vulnerable to dangerous regimes.

Taken together, these trends have called into question a number of strategic concepts on which American diplomacy in the Middle East has rested for decades:

  • that a prosperous and democratic Turkey, anchored in the West, would, by example, draw other Muslim countries westward;
  • that the failures of fascism, communism, and Shia theocracy, coupled with the enticements and pressures of a global economy, would in time lead the region, with Western help, to realign toward a liberal future in the broader community of nations;
  • that the peace Israel reached with Egypt and Jordan would in time radiate outward into peace with other Arab states, and thus minimize the prospects of a major regional war;
  • that the world community would prevent states in the region from getting nuclear weapons; and
  • that regional divisions and American strength would prevent forces hostile to the US from dominating the region.

    American strategists face a changed landscape: our ties have eroded with states that once supported much of our agenda. Turkey, once a reliable NATO ally firmly tied to the West, has steadily shifted toward a Muslim-centric orientation. Increasingly embracing Iran, Turkish diplomacy now regularly thwarts our major initiatives: countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions and quieting Israeli-Palestinian discord. A recent poll revealed that a large plurality (forty-two percent) of Turks now regard the US as Turkey’s greatest enemy.

    Meanwhile, spreading uprisings against exploitive regimes have toppled or crippled regional leaders who had once supported, or at least reached accommodation with, US leadership. Ironically, the revolts in the Arab world have proved most fatal to those leaders who were least willing to respond with deadly forcethat is, those on whom Western influence could exert a restraining hand. Friendly leaders in Tunisia and Egypt departed quickly. Egypt’s post-Mubarak foreign minister now echoes Iran’s call for relations between Egypt and Iran, severed in 1979, to be restored. Iranian warships now transit the Suez Canal, entering the Mediterranean in an unprecedented signal of the regime’s new confidence and power. While Egypt’s Western orientation may survive the dramatic changes of recent weeks for now, the long-term prospects are unclear.

    Similarly, long-term US allies in the Gulf are under new pressures, and these also have opened fissures with the US. America has differed with the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet, over efforts to quell unrest among its Shiite majority. Fearing the spread of Iranian and Shiite influence, Saudi Arabia and its fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council sent troops to help Bahrain’s King Hamad, a step taken without the approval of, and with little advance notice to, the United States, creating a divide between the US and the Saudis, its oldest ally in the region. Nawaf Obeid, a leading analyst close to the Saudi government, describes Saudi Arabia’s independent course as a “tectonic shift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship” in which “Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.”

    Libya and Yemen, regimes with which the US had reached accommodations on weapons of mass destruction and the fight against Islamist terror, have also become destabilized. Muammar Qaddafi’s legacy has long been written in blood, and Yemen’s President Saleh has been an uncertain ally; but until a few months ago, their removal was not on our crowded strategic agenda. Soon, hurriedly improvising, we wanted them gone.

    The long-suffering peoples of the Middle East should live in freedom; but whether they will preserve it if it comes, and whether they will accommodate our interests in the long run, are new mysteries in a region from which American influence, for now, is becoming increasingly untethered.

    Around the year 1000, the great Islamic theologian Ibn Hazm wrote, “If you treat your friend and enemy the same, you will arouse distaste for your friendships and contempt for your enmities, and you will not be long for this world.” This test, oft-cited in the Islamic world to this day, is one that the US is now widely thought to be failing.

    Many were perplexed when President Obama, in one of his first acts, suggested that an opened hand to Iran would unclench the regime’s fists. Apologizing for America’s role in a 1953 coup, he overlooked the misdeeds of the regime since 1979. Vainly hoping for engagement, he stood quiet as President Ahmadinejad ruthlessly suppressed the Iranian dissidents who contested his fraudulent reelection. “Obama,” the youth in the street chanted desperately, “are you with us or with them?” When, amid growing criticism of his timidity, the president at last spoke out against the violence, the taint of irresolution and calculation sapped the strength of his words.

    While Israeli computer sabotage may have delayed Iran’s nuclear program, America’s diplomacy of openness has had no visible effect. Soon after the attack, the IAEA declared the centrifuges spinning again, as the Iranian opposition revealed new secret nuclear facilities.

    Nor has the Obama administration forcefully supported its friends. The region watched America do little as the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, friendly to Western interests, fell in 2010 to Hezbollah, a tool of Iran and its proxy Syria. In fact, America had stood by for several years as Hezbollah systematically reduced Hariri’s allies, convincing them that America had lost the will for this battle. To add insult to injuryno small matter in a region obsessed by honorHezbollah deposed Hariri while he was meeting President Obama in the Oval Office. To either insult or injury, America had no response.

    No people in the region had staked more on America than the Iraqis who stood for democratic government and defied Iran. But as a candidate, Obama had declared the war lost even as the surge was turning it around. As president, too, his theme has been withdrawal. Determined to be quit of this conflict, whatever his caveats, he made it clear that time, more than success, would mark the end of America’s role. The region saw that, even in this land of vast energy reserves and geostrategic importance, President Obama had little taste to stay a course that could stabilize Iraq.

    Still, by the fall of 2010, there was an Arab leader by whom the Obama administration comfortably stood: President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. In one of his first acts as chief executive, the president had travelled to Cairo in 2009 to deliver a speech seeking truce with the Islamic world. Of the few paragraphs on democracy, one apologized for imposing it in Iraq, although his Egyptian audience that day could only dream of casting such votes. After Cairo, President Obama slashed the Bush budget to promote democracy in Egypt and, by September 2011, hosted Mubarak in the White House, a gesture of support that Bush had long refused.

    So President Obama had been neither the instigator nor the champion of those students who first seized Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Initially, his administration supported Mubarak; but as a stubborn opposition swelled, the US asserted that Mubarak should move onemphatically “now” or “yesterday,” taking a harder line than it had when Iran was murdering its students. The clumsy US role in Mubarak’s exit, however overdue it was, suggested to regional observers that our policy was determined by an eagerness to bend to whatever faction seemed likely to prevail.

    In the Libyan phase of the rolling Arab revolts, we have explicitly rejected a leadership role. Events there led Obama’s deputy national security adviser to explain that the administration has “a different conception of US leadership. . . . We believe leadership should galvanize an international response.” But the region knew that it was France and Britain, not the US, that galvanized this response. Where we claimed “leadership,” regional observers saw a reluctance to lead.

    As Arabs took to the streets, our chief concern often seemed limited to decrying violence on any side. This has been perhaps most stark in Syria, a regime that we unaccountably saw as capable of advancing our interests even though it has placed itself at Iran’s right hand and thwarted US policy repeatedly. As Syria has violently attacked its citizens, President Obama sternly condemned violence by both President Assad and protesters. The odd result: Assad would be targeted by US sanctions, Syrian protesters by Syrian bullets.

    As the Arab revolt progressed, President Obama declared that, “No one can say for certain how this change will end, but I do know that change is not something we should fear.” Earlier, a US official had characterized the administration’s reaction more candidly: “It’s a roll of the dice, but it’s also a response to reality.” President Obama may hope that such rhetoric carries an implication of shrewd calculation, but the administration cannot long disguise that bad outcomes to this gamble are at least as likely as good ones.

    Henry Kissinger advanced, but did not invent, the notion that America had compelling interests in the Middle East; events and subsequent presidentsincluding postCold War presidentshave steered America to take on an ever larger role. Earlier, our role derived from Cold War rivalry; later, from the dysfunctional politics of the region and its incapacity to address them itself. It was the latter that produced, since 1990, our deepest involvement.

    While the Obama administration has sought to reduce America’s profile in the region, it has articulated at least four objectives that it still considers crucial: defeating al-Qaeda and preventing further attacks by it on the American homeland; settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to reduce regional anger against us; stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and deterring threats to energy flows.

    Unfortunately, the factors contributing to ongoing changes in the region, including more assertive Islamist parties, fraying US alliances, and the growing perception that America lacks the will to shape the Middle East, have so far pushed the administration’s objectives farther from reach. Bleaker prospects loom:

    • Near-term counterterror cooperation will likely diminish in Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, where leaders that had cooperated with the US against al-Qaeda have been weakened or replaced. While democracy may one day undermine terrorism in these countries, one or more of them may also end as repressive regimes that spur terror or leave new, ungoverned areas in which radicals thrive.
    • With anti-Israel forces seemingly on the rise and US influence waning, Palestinians unreconciled to Israel’s existence are less likely to accept meaningful compromise, and Israel will be less likely to trust US influence as it is asked to take risks for peace. As Hamas aims to unite with Fatah, Hezbollah runs Lebanon, post-flotilla Turkey stirs the anti-Israel pot, Iran and Syria arm Hamas and Hezbollah without fear of retaliation, and less friendly regimes loom in Egypt and possibly Jordan, the administration’s strategically misguided and tactically incompetent early elevation of the settlements issue, and more recent elevation of the 1949 armistice line, has set back even an interim resolution.
    • Hopes fade that the US can curb Iran’s nuclear program. In the eyes of the region, the US will not force compliance with international requests, which are themselves watered down by US partners. Iranian hard-liners can credibly point out that by giving up nuclear weapons, Qaddafi freed the US to bomb him.
    • While the US can deter direct military attack against regional energy facilities, it seems increasingly unable to counter more limited aggression by nuclear-armed bullies, or external support for internal subversion. The region watches America’s ineffective response to nuclear North Korea’s murderous behavior, or to Iranian and Syrian support for subversion and intimidation in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza. For the Saudis, Gulf states, and others that may have to meet such challenges, either an independent course or a growing accommodation may come to seem safer than relying on questionable US support.

These and other difficulties America faces in the region, President Obama noted in his most recent address on the Middle East (in May 2011), reflect in part regional leaders’ tendencies to blame their societies’ ills on Western colonialism. Yet in his 2009 Cairo speech, the president sought a “new beginning” with the Muslim world in part because of tensions “fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” And as American combat troops left Iraq, President Obama described them as leaving in the dead of night, an image of shame, while America, he said, dwelt in the “pre-dawn” hours. America’s day would come, he seemed to be saying, only when we were altogether quit of that land.

In fact, observers such as Leon Wieseltier have described Obama administration policies as the reflex of a president haunted by charges of American imperialism, charges that have been levied against the US in the Middle East for the last fifty years.

Fair-minded people might question the assumption that the US has a legacy of shame in the Middle East. While acting in our interests, we have also regularly helped peoples of this region. But the issue for the moment is not whether America deserves the charges levied against it, but how the region will react if it perceives that we are constrained by them. Those in the region who must chart their future course will weigh the strength and constancy of ours. Practical men, they will consider our self-interest as the surest rock upon which our policy, and their security, might be built. If they perceive that we shrink from our own interests, they will neither value them nor feel that they can rely on us. Then we will have very little influence left in a region that presidents of both parties have long considered vital.

President Obama’s recent address on the Middle East is unlikely to dispel a perception of American drift. It offered little more than the promise to support whatever changes the protests might bring about, and offered nothing new on the broader regional challenges that bedevil us. He has now endorsed a freedom agenda much like President Bush’s, which he had previously disdained; but he brings less fervor to it. He noted that Middle Eastern leaders often deflect their people with criticism of Israel; but then he concluded his speech calling for bolder Israeli action and reversing earlier American positions on Israeli-Palestinian borders, a stance reminiscent of his earlier thrust and retreat on Israeli settlements that had derailed peace talks. His promises of regional economic support won little acclaim; the region has long since passed expectations that American aid will transform it.

Ghaith al-Omari, an Arab analyst, observed that “it’s become fashionable to ‘dis’ the Americans. The prevalent mood now is to say that the United States is no longer relevant.” No one policy brought us to this point. No one policy will reverse the impressions we have made. Meanwhile, our remorseless adversaries wake each morning keen to push us aside. If we allow their hour to come, the uncertainties and problems of tomorrow will dwarf those of today. Ultimately, we may be forced once again to take aggressive action that might otherwise have been avoided, or have come at a lesser cost.

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