Is the US now in the same position as the Soviet Union in 1989, when it had to allow its satellites to collapse around it? World View Shortlisted as Columnist of the Year THE COMMENT AWARDS FROM EDITORIAL INTELLIGENCE
Are the days of American predominance in the Middle East coming to an end or is US influence simply taking a new shape? How far is Washington, after refusing to try to keep Hosni Mubarak in power in Egypt, facing the same situation as the Soviet Union in 1989, when the police states it had sustained in Eastern Europe were allowed to collapse?
The US is obviously weaker than it was between 1979, when the then Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, signed the Camp David agreement and allied Egypt with the US, and 2004/05, when it became obvious to the outside world that the Iraq war was a disaster for America. At the time, General William Odom, a former head of the National Security Agency, the biggest US intelligence agency, rightly called it "the greatest strategic disaster in American history".
Since then, the verdict of the Iraq war has been confirmed in Afghanistan, where another vastly expensive US expeditionary force has failed to crush an insurgency. In the last few weeks alone, Taliban fighters have succeeded in storming Camp Bastion in Helmand province and destroying $200m worth of aircraft. So many American and allied soldiers have now been shot by Afghan soldiers and police that US advisers are under orders to wear full body armour when having tea with their local allies.
The Arab Spring uprisings posed a new threat to the US, but also opened up new options. Support for Mubarak was decisively withdrawn at an early stage, to the dismay of Saudi Arabia and Israel. But the Muslim Brotherhood had long been considering how it could reach an accommodation with the US that would safeguard it against military coups, and enable it to chop back the power of the Egyptian security forces. This was very much the successful strategy of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party, explaining why it was prepared to join the US in invading Iraq in 2003 and why it has become the chief instrument of American policy towards Syria in the past year.
This alliance with Islamic but democratic and pro-capitalist parties in Egypt and Turkey is obviously in the interests of the US and the Atlantic powers. But their support for democratic change in North Africa and West Asia is determined by self-interest. It does not, for instance, extend to Bahrain where the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy has been busily locking up its Shia opponents and retreating from promises of meaningful reform. But new allies must at some point mean fresh policies. In sharp contrast to the Mubarak regime, a new government in Egypt is unlikely to support covertly Israeli military action such as the bombardment of Lebanon in 2006 and of Gaza in 2008.
A problem for the White House is that American voters have not taken on board the extent to which US influence has been reduced. For all the rhetoric about the Iraq war being a strategic disaster, the American political and military elite has also failed to appreciate the extent and consequences of failure. It is extraordinary to discover, according to recent revelations, that as late as 2010 Vice-President Joe Biden was under the impression that he could blithely decide who would be president of Iraq. Biden's grip on Iraqi geography appears to be as shaky as his understanding of its politics. On one occasion in Baghdad, he lauded all the good things the US had done for Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, having apparently mistaken it for Basra in southern Iraq.
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