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If Not America, Who Shall Rule the Middle East? PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Wednesday, 01 November 2006 09:25
If Not America, Who Shall Rule the Middle East?

- Patrick Seale - Richard Haass, one of America?s leading foreign policy specialists, has pronounced that "the American era in the Middle East? has ended." His controversial judgement -- which President George W. Bush would certainly not agree with -- is to be found in the very first paragraph of an article he wrote in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs, the prestigious journal of the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations -- of which Haass is President.


Patrick Seale provides a comprehensive perspective on the current state of U.S. influence in the Middle East and suggests how the United States can regain its authority in the region.

Has America Lost the Middle East?

Patrick Seale

Agence Global
November 1, 2006

Copyright ? 2006 Patrick Seale
[Republished at PEJ News with AG permission]


Haass argues that, in the Middle East?s recent history, America?s supremacy can be seen as the fourth period of domination by outsiders. The first period was Ottoman control up to the First World War, then British and French colonial rule between the wars, followed by the Cold War, in which Moscow and Washington competed for influence and shared the region between them. The collapse of the Soviet Union some 16 years ago ushered in a period when America ruled supreme, enjoying what Haass calls "unprecedented influence and freedom to act."

But now, he says, this era too is drawing to a close, and may indeed already be over. He predicts that the region is entering a phase "in which outside actors have a relatively modest impact and local forces enjoy the upper hand."

Is Haass right? Or is he being a little hasty? Are his gloomy conclusions unduly influenced by the misjudgements, omissions and foreign policy blunders of the Bush presidency? Could America recover its authority under a new administration? These are questions of considerable interest to the region.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that, in spite of its recent failures, the United States is still not seriously challenged in the Middle East by any other external power or group of powers. The Iraq war may have all the makings of a major disaster, but what other power could afford to spend $500 billion dollars and deploy an army of 140,000 men for an indefinite period half way across the world?

The European Union, which many had hoped would serve as a counterweight to the United States, has conspicuously failed to forge a common foreign and defence policy. Its members pull in different directions. They are divided on major issues such as the war in Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and how best to confront the threat of Islamic militancy. On Iraq, Britain chose to side with the United States rather than with its principal European partners, splitting the EU down the middle.

Because of its spectacular economic growth, China is emerging as a strategic challenger to the United States, particularly in East Asia. It is certainly a formidable competitor in the feverish world-wide search for raw materials. It has made deep inroads into Africa, where some 500,000 Chinese are already at work, many of them on construction sites.

But China?s economic partnerships and alliances have still not been translated into the sort of naked power the United States can project by means of its numerous deepwater fleets, its global network of military bases and its technological supremacy.

Russia?s economy, in turn, has improved on the basis of oil and gas revenues, but it is still very far from recovering the considerable influence it used to have in the Middle East as an arms supplier and great power protector of several Arab states.

As for local actors, which Haass predicts will soon "enjoy the upper hand," it is hard to see whom he has in mind. All too often at odds with each other, the Arabs are even more divided than the Europeans. Their oil wealth -- their main material asset -- has still not been put to any consistent political purpose.

Iran poses a more serious challenge to American power, but its ambitions would seem to be purely local and defensive. It seeks to break out of the artificial isolation the U.S. has imposed on it. It wants to be recognised as a major Gulf power, and as the protector of Shi?a communities everywhere. Militarily, it seeks the means to confront or deter an attack on itself -- to avoid devastation such as Iraq has suffered -- rather than to attack others.

As for non-state actors like Hizbullah and Hamas, they pose no credible challenge whatsoever to the United States. Their quarrel is with Israel -- and with what the United States has allowed Israel to do in Lebanon and in the Palestine territories. Their ambitions are strictly limited to their own societies. If their legitimate grievances were addressed, they would cease to be any sort of a threat.

As the United States faces no serious challenger in the immediate future, either from inside or outside the region, could it recover its authority? There is no doubt that the United States is now deeply unpopular in the Arab and Muslim world, even an object of loathing in many quarters. Militant groups would like to strike at it, if they could.

Many Arabs look back with nostalgia to the era of President Eisenhower, who put an end to the Anglo-French-Israeli aggression at Suez in 1956 and, more recently, to the presidency of Jimmy Carter who, although he only managed to do half the job -- by forging the Egyptian-Israeli peace -- made a valiant effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in its entirety.

What then should the United States do to regain trust and credibility? It should perhaps begin by recognising its many mistakes.

Perhaps the greatest mistake over the past 25 years was to allow Israel to expand its settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. There is no greater obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and to Israel?s integration into the region, than the nearly half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The relentless erosion of the rump of Arab Palestine has created the militant movement Hamas and has aroused hostility to the Ubited States throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

Another mistake, made under Ronald Reagan?s presidency, was to allow Israel to invade Lebanon in 1982, killing over 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians. The United States even attempted to reward Israel for its invasion by forcing Lebanon to conclude a separate peace which would have put it in Israel?s orbit. When that attempt failed, the United States allowed Israel to remain in south Lebanon for the next 18 years until 2000 -- an invasion and occupation which created the militant movement Hizbullah.

A third mistake was the failure to re-establish friendly relations with Iran in the 27 years since the Ayatollah Khomeini?s Islamic revolution, and indeed to have backed Iraq in the long and brutal Iraq-Iran war (1980-88.) Instead, outraged at the seizure and incarceration of its diplomats for 444 days at the start of the Iranian revolution, the United States allowed itself to be trapped in a posture of unrelenting hostility towards a major regional power -- and is now paying for that mistake by Iran?s defiance over the nuclear issue.

A fourth mistake which dwarfs the others was America?s rash and intemperate reaction to the traumatic terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The war against Iraq, waged on false and fraudulent premises, has proved a catastrophic error. It was driven by a wish, in the heat of the moment, to teach the Arabs a lesson about America?s military power; by the ambition to control Iraq?s vast oil resources; and also -- and perhaps primarily in the minds of pro-Israeli officials in the U.S. administration -- by a bid to improve Israel?s strategic environment by smashing a major Arab state.

Not only has the war -- and the "Global War on Terror" of which it is a part -- squandered America?s human and material resources, it has also done tremendous, perhaps irreversible, damage to America?s moral standing.

What should the United States now do? It should regain the independence of its foreign policy by freeing itself from the pressures of lobbies and special interest groups. It should punish those responsible for gross human rights abuses, such as torture. It should announce a firm date for its withdrawal from Iraq. And it should bend every effort -- and every resource -- to solving the Arab-Israeli conflict on a basis of equity and justice.

George W. Bush has two more years in office. Can he -- will he -- act? Or will Haass? prediction of an end to the American era come true?


Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

Copyright ? 2006 Patrick Seale

Released: 01 November 2006
Word Count: 1,375

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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, The American Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein


Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 November 2006 09:25

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