America's Fading Middle East Influence

By Bar, Shmuel | Policy Review, April-May 2011 | Go to article overview

America's Fading Middle East Influence

Bar, Shmuel, Policy Review

THE MIDDLE EAST has gone through eras of projection of power by external powers, and it has adapted to the balance of power between them. This was the case during the age of colonialism (predominance of Britain and France), the Cold War (competition between the U.S. and the USSR), and the period of American predominance since the end of the Cold War. For the last two decades, the region has been characterized by the conflict between "status-quo" and "anti-status-quo" forces. The former were represented by the existing regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc., and the latter by Iran, the Islamic movement, Hezbollah, and their allies. For over two decades, the United States has been the predominant superpower in the region and the main force in maintaining the status quo.

However, today, the Middle East is undergoing a sea change. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were the result of developments within the countries themselves: deep economic and social malaise and the perception of the loss of domestic deterrence by ossified regimes led by aging leaders. However, the popular perception that the United States had abandoned its erstwhile allies to support those revolutions facilitated their spread to other theaters. This turnabout in American policy is not seen in the region as reflecting American power though intervention, but rather the decline of American power, manifested in a policy of "bandwagoning" after years of proactive American policy. Clearly, the decline of American projection of power in the region will have as profound an effect as the projection of American power had at its height.

The policies of the United States under the Obama administration have given rise to a broad perception in the region that the United States is no longer willing to play the role of guarantor of the security of its allies there; America is indeed "speaking softly" but has neither the present intention nor the future willpower to wield "a big stick" if push comes to shove. This perception is reflected in seven, key interrelated regional issues: (1) Islam and jihadi terrorism; (2) revolution and democratization in the region; (3) nuclear proliferation; (4) Iran; (5) the Israeli-Arab peace process; (6) Iraq; and (7) Af-Pak. In all these issues, the U.S. is perceived as searching for the path of least resistance, lowering its strategic profile, and attempting to accommodate the de facto powers in the region. In all these areas, the United States is projecting an aversion to proactive action, disinclination to project power, and lack of resolve to support its allies. Remaining American allies in the region realize that they cannot rely on the United States and must adapt themselves to pressures of the masses, predominance of radical ideologies, and Iranian strategic hegemony.

Obama's strategic Weltanschauung

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION views the revolutions in the Arab I world as a rerun of the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989, which resulted in a surge of democracy that was conducive to American strategic interests. However, the transformation of America from staunch supporter of status quo (even in Iran) to surfer on the wave of revolutionary change is not without a price. Having lost the already waning confidence of its remaining allies from the "anciens regimes" in the region, it has not gained that of the new regimes, which have yet to take form.

This transformation, though, did not take place overnight. It came after a long-perceived decline in the American support of its allies against external and domestic challenges, decline in its resolve to employ force to support them, and decline in its willingness to persevere. This perception was not unfounded; the Obama administration came to office with an agenda, according to which the United States is strategically overstretched and must implement a drastic reduction in its strategic profile. Such a change could be brought about, according to the worldview of the administration, only through engagement and dialogue with those very forces which had been perceived as anathema to the previous administration and by eschewing the confrontation--the projection (not to mention actual use) of hard power and unilateralism--which characterized the Bush administration. …

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