Middle East serves US some humble pie
By Sreeram Chaulia
Since World War II, the Middle East has been one of the most penetrated regions
in the world in terms of American presence, influence and domination. Apart
from South America, no other area on the planet has experienced as gigantic a
footprint of the United States, stretching during its zenith from Cairo in the
west to Tehran in the east. If great powers are prone to throwing their weight
around where they perceive vital interests, the US has done it with all means
in the Middle East for over six decades.
By imposing itself on Middle Eastern countries in a rainbow of avatars -
exploiter, peacemaker, ally, enemy, eminence grise and occupier - the US became
an arbiter of the region's destiny. One measure of the colossal impact that
Washington had as a result is that no major diplomatic initiative could afford
to ignore "what
the Americans want".
On the occasion of any significant political event in the Middle East, it used
to be commonplace to ask whether it had an American hand or if it reflected
American will. The very axes of change were shaped by American preferences and
opposition to them. Until recently, that is.
A series of new developments raises doubts about whether the US can still be
the ultimate intersection in the Middle East through which all roads must
cross. The just-hammered ceasefire between Hamas and Israel to halt violence
across the Gaza Strip lacked American inputs and bypassed Washington's stated
goal of marginalizing the democratically elected Islamic militant movement.
The reason why Egypt could mediate the ceasefire without apparent American
backing is because both parties to the conflict had confidence in the
contextual neutrality of Cairo. If Egypt had taken the advice of its American
friends and brought in American wishes through backdoor channels, Hamas and
possibly even Israel would have walked out of the dialogue process. The hostile
and punitive policies of the George W Bush administration towards Hamas ruled
out any chance of Washington itself being a mediator or facilitator of the
A similar logic underlies the "indirect peace talks" being held in Turkey
between two long-time antagonists, Israel and Syria, the first in eight years.
Turkish mediation is palatable to Syria and Israel due to Ankara's general
non-involvement and neutrality in Arab-Israeli disputes. As the only non-Arab
Muslim country in the region besides Iran, Turkey is viewed favorably in Tel
Aviv. Ankara is also acceptable as a third party for Syria as a means of
breaking free from the American stranglehold that denies Damascus the chance to
normalize relations with so-called "moderate states" of the region.
Turkey's mediation of the ongoing Israel-Syria entente went against
Washington's desire of isolating Damascus owing to its closeness to Tehran.
Absence of the writ of American blessings thus did not deter either Egypt nor
Turkey from enacting constructive roles. These actions bring to the fore the
question of how unbalanced the US's patron-client relationships in the region
have grown. If Egypt and Turkey, two staunch "friendly regimes" cultivated by
the US, are setting out on their own in ways that displease their patron, it
conveys distinct loss of American leverage.
The most startling departure of a client regime from the American patrimonial
grip is the announcement that Saudi Arabia has signed a massive $4 billion arms
deal with Russia, breaking the American monopoly over military hardware
supplies to the kingdom. The Saudis had earmarked $12 billion for defense
upgrading this year and the revelation that one-third of it was awarded to
Russian companies dismayed Washington to no end. The deal places Russia in an
enviable position in the Middle East as a seller of weapons to both Saudi
Arabia and Iran, a luxury for potential future Russian mediation to manage the
intense rivalry between the region's predominant Sunni and Shi'ite powers.
So weak is the US in its current state of dependency on Saudi Arabia to
overcome the staggering price of oil that it could not convince Riyadh to spurn
the Russian arms manufacturers. In fact, in a bid to placate Riyadh, the Bush
administration is mooting a new civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the
Saudis against stiff opposition from Congress. The irony of the world's largest
oil producer being offered nuclear technology for alleged energy generation
purposes is not lost on observers.
Apart from the Russian angle, the proposed US-Saudi nuclear cooperation is
aimed at countering Iran's own obstinate march towards nuclear power status. In
the American imagination, Washington is the stabilizer of last resort in the
Middle East. Since Iran is thumbing its nose at the US and EU by playing
hardball on its nuclear ambitions, Washington thinks that it must stoke Saudi
Arabia's nuclear program in order to keep the "balance of terror" in the
Iran's shadow also looms heavily on the US's difficulties in getting Iraq's
Nuri al-Maliki government to acquiesce in the new "Status of Forces" agreement,
which legalizes permanent American military bases and immunizes American
soldiers and contractors from prosecution. Prime Minister Maliki's latest
assurances to Iranian leaders that he "would not allow the use of Iraqi
territory for staging attacks against Iran" are clear signals that Baghdad
shares Tehran's concerns about prolonging the American occupation of Iraq.
Maliki's threat of asking US troops to go home at the end of the year when
their United Nations mandate expires might be political posturing for domestic
consumption, but it certainly adds to the erosion of American traction in the
region. If one of the original intentions of occupying Iraq was to use it as a
bridgehead to topple the Iranian government, Washington is being forced to eat
Last, but not least, in the saga of depleting American hegemony in the Middle
East is Washington's loss of face in last month's stand-off between Hezbollah
and pro-Western forces in Lebanon. Hezbollah emerged as the victor of the tense
showdown with the Lebanese government and bagged a favorable negotiated
settlement in a manner that rubbed the American nose to the ground. Washington
could only watch as a bystander as Iran and Syria demonstrated that their
proxy, Hezbollah, was strong enough as a state within the state to dictate to
As was the case with Egypt and Turkey, another American ally - Qatar - mediated
an end to the worst internal Lebanese conflict since the end of the civil war
in 1990. Thanks to its image as an honest broker, Doha was instrumental in
bringing about a crisis closure that benefited Hezbollah.
So widely appreciated was Qatar's intervention in the Lebanese case that
speculation now rages that it might be able to pull off a rapprochement between
Hamas and Fatah in Palestine. Here too, the Americans have been working
overtime to keep the two main Palestinian guerrilla groups divided and
weakened. If Qatar or Saudi Arabia can wheedle Fatah and Hamas into an elusive
truce, it would further sideline the US as the grandmaster that wins most
outcomes of the Middle East chessboard.
It is still early to conclude that the Middle East is the graveyard of Pax
Americana. The flow of localized negotiated settlements could clog and return
to old stalemates, necessitating grand "roadmap for peace"-style solutions that
Washington espouses. The array of American troops and battleships in the Middle
East is quite formidable and far from being quickly routed. Most autocratic
Arab regimes are beholden to the US for survival, another card that Washington
can bank on.
However, the paradox that the world's largest possessor of diplomatic resources
and skills has to rely on its military machine and the loyalty of despots to
remain relevant in the Middle East speaks of how poorly Washington harnessed
its cachet under George W Bush. It is now left to a possible Barack Obama
administration to ensure that the American voice gets heard again in the
region, not due to fear of attack but respect for its wisdom.
Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell
School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, New York.