Friday, December 31, 2010

For HIST 3805 students -- the Middle East and US policy at New Year 2011

Two informed summaries.

From the Economist, America and the Middle East:

Several reasons lie behind America’s loss of potency. Some reflect changes within the Middle East. Allies such as Israel and Turkey long followed American wishes reflexively because they felt imperilled and dependent on American largesse. They have now grown too strong for that. With its thriving economy, Israel feels able to take a more independent line. Turkey has also become an economic power and its government, unlike the dictatorships elsewhere in the Middle East, is now democratic. And although the region’s two strongest states still pursue policies that dovetail with America’s, they have grown unhelpfully estranged from each other.

Other allies that once augmented American power by proxy have grown too weak to help. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia packs financial clout, but its ruling princes are ageing and absorbed by a struggle for succession. Egypt, the most populous and diplomatically agile Arab country, is also run by old men. Once they could rally Arabs behind American objectives, but the Egyptians have struggled lately even to get the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, to talk to each other. The Mubaraks and the Al Sauds have little impact any more on the Arab Street: “resistance” and defiance carry more appeal. “The sense of how weak we are is a factor of how weak our partners are,” says Scott Carpenter, a Bush-administration official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
 Fingers burned
America’s own mistakes, tactical and strategic, have speeded its decline. The failure to find banned weapons in Saddam’s Iraq and the torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib have tainted America’s moral authority. The application of American firepower has, ironically, also raised the bar for defying America’s will. Iran and its allies, including Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia, feel they can call America’s bluff because they think that, having burned its fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will no longer back harsh words with invasions.
You can see how they might reach that judgment. Aside from nearly 6,000 American fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the expenditure, so far, of more than $1.1 trillion on military operations in those theatres has sapped the will for more campaigns. The cost of keeping a single soldier on the ground now exceeds $500,000 a year—a strong reason for a poorer America to reduce its presence in the region.

The incoming, Tea-Party-infused Congress is likely to make things harder. Whereas rivalry between Democrats and Republicans used to end at the water’s edge, it now extends into foreign policy. Despite the ratification of the New START treaty at the end of 2010, Congress is beset by partisanship, even in petty matters. Solely because of partisan obstruction, Mr Obama has yet to secure approval for his choice of two career diplomats as ambassadors to Turkey and Syria.

America’s pro-Israel lobby shows no sign of losing strength. Jonathan Broder, foreign-affairs editor of the Congressional Quarterly, discerns an effort by Republicans to woo Jewish voters, long more supportive of Democrats, by outbidding the administration over Israel. Eric Cantor, the incoming House majority leader, has proposed moving the $3 billion annual military grant to Israel from the foreign-aid budget to the Pentagon, in effect shielding it from spending cuts. “Not only would this remove a lever for American pressure,” warns Mr Broder, “it would make us silent accomplices in the settlement process.”

However, other Washington observers lament that the lessons of failure in the Middle East have yet to be learned. “Obama said that we had not only to change the war in Iraq, but to change the mindset that led to the war, and this has not happened,” says Brian Katulis of the Centre for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think-tank. Despite a view that soft power can be as potent as military muscle, he says, this has not translated into policy. Marc Lynch, of George Washington University, agrees: “The lesson we seem to have learned from Iraq is not, ‘Disaster, don’t do it again’, but rather, ‘Now we know how to do counterinsurgency.’”

Issander el-Amrani at the National (United Arab Emirates):

Yet, even so, there is no easy alternative to America's Middle Eastern dominion. As frustrated as they are with American policies, the WikiLeaks cables also show that the region's leaders ultimately depend on US leadership. No regional actor has the capacity to single-handedly shape the region, and despite a decline in its credibility and influence, Washington remains the indispensable actor. The question is now about its ability to deliver. The "new Middle East" that Barack Obama inherited from his predecessor has yet to take shape - its centre is congealed but not yet set - but increasingly appears to be directionless.

Washington's friends and enemies, therefore, look attentively for signals from an Obama administration midway through its first term, with enthusiasm about a less belligerent America having given way to worries about its dwindling influence. Major regional diplomatic powers that rely on their inclusion in American initiatives - Egypt's monopoly on talks with Hamas is the most flagrant example of this - worry that their own credibility will suffer from US setbacks. Gulf states that have effectively subcontracted their security to the US worry both about the risks of a regional confrontation with Iran and the weakened value of this external security guarantee. Iran, mired in domestic troubles, seeks regional prestige as Washington's challenger but its unnecessarily belligerent rhetoric reduces its margin of manoeuvre to honourably avoid a confrontation that could devastate it. Syria, disappointed by a lukewarm overture from the Obama administration as it tries to "flip" it away from Iran, plays hard to get, stretched in all directions by its multiple overlapping alliances.
 Not unlike longtime junkies, the region's actors have developed a habit - an expectation that someone else will do the dirty work of managing a fractured Middle East, so they won't have to. After the heroin hit of Bush's creative destruction, they must do with the methadone of Obama. But they are still addicted to America.

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