The Decline of the American Brand in the Middle East

In the geopolitics of the Middle East, the heavy hand of the Bush administration is increasingly overshadowed by bottom-up initiatives of local powers.

Commentary By: Raymond McInnis

A survey of opinion in the foreign press (posted below) registers a decline of American influence in the middle east. My question would be: ‘œIs the alleged decline affecting the current presidential campaign?’ The Republicans wouldn’™t have you believe it.

But here’™s another question: ‘œDo you know how to make a foreigner roll his eyes?’

Answer: make the triumphalist claim, that ‘œAmerica is the greatest nation on earth!’ I heard McCain utter this phrase yesterday, and as a transplant, know that, for foreigners, it is ‘œinflammatory talk’.

I know that such rhetoric is for domestic consumption, but in today’™s climate of instant messaging, cable TV, and the like, the phrase ‘” and many more like it ‘” has no boundaries.

What about McCain and the decline of America? Checkout the following:

John McCain and the Decline of America
An Unnatural Disaster
Gary Indiana on Hobsbawm’™s ‘On Empire’™

Is this Decline of American Power in the Middle East Affecting the Campaign? (Also see links above) ‘” basically any question about America’™s decline is political, of course, one that, according to political bent, necessarily, elicits different responses. For Republicans, for America to embrace a more internationalist stance ‘“ promoted by liberal Dems ‘“ is a sign of decline, especially anything that signals a warmer embrace of the UN. For Liberal Dems, not to embrace the UN is a sign of decline.

Back to the original question:

IN THE GEOPOLITICS OF THE MIDDLE EAST, THE HEAVY HAND OF THE BUSHIES IS INCREASINGLY OVER-SHADOWED BY BOTTOM-UP INITIATIVES OF LOCAL POWERS

The Beirut Daily Star columnist Rami G Khouri writes that,

The Doha agreement that resolved the immediate political crisis in Lebanon is the latest example of the new political power equation that is redefining the Middle East. It reflects both local and global forces and, 18 years after the Cold War ended, provides a glimpse of what a post-Cold War world will look like, at least in the Middle East.

Several dynamics seem to be at play, but one is paramount: the clear limits of the projection of American global power, combined with the assertion and coexistence of multiple regional powers – Turkey, Israel, Iran, Hizbullah, Syria, Hamas, Saudi Arabia and others. These regional actors tend to fight and negotiate at the same time, and ultimately prefer to make compromises rather than perpetually wage absolutist battles. ‘¦

Iran, Turkey, all the Arabs, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Israel all share one and only one common trait: They routinely ignore the advice, and the occasional threats, they get from Washington’¦

Condoleezza Rice was correct in summer 2006 when she said we are witnessing the birth pangs of a new Middle East. But the emerging new regional configuration is very different from the one she fantasized about and tried to bring into being with multiple wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia and Lebanon, and threats against Iran and Syria.’¦

America is ‘œMissing in Action’

In McClatchy Newspapers, Warren Strobel and Hannah Allam wrote:

In a week of dramatic developments in the Middle East, the most dramatic development of all may have been the fact that the United States, long considered the region’™s indispensable player, was missing in action.

As its closest allies cut deals with their adversaries this week over the Bush administration’™s opposition, Washington was largely reduced to watching.

More painful for President Bush, friends he’™s cultivated – and spent heavily on – in Lebanon and Iraq asked the United States to remain in the background, underlining how politically toxic an association with the US can be for Arab leaders.

Over the past few days, Strobel and Allam claim,

  • The Lebanese government, which has received $1.3 billion and political support from the Bush administration, compromised with the Hezbollah-led opposition, giving the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group, which Washington considers a terrorist organization, a greater role in running the country.
  • Israel ignored U.S. objections and entered indirect peace talks with Syria through Turkey, another longtime U.S. ally.
  • The U.S.-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki deployed military forces to Baghdad’™s Sadr City slum under an agreement that specifically excluded U.S. troops.
  • Saudi Arabia, a crucial oil supplier and long a major buyer of U.S. weapons, is quietly closing what could be a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Russia, according to a U.S. defense official.

Is this Decline of American Power in the Middle East Affecting the Campaign? (Also see links above)

According to Strobel and Allam,

Not even Mr Bush’™s allies at home feel comfortable being visibly associated with him. For the first time in nearly three months, the Republican presumptive presidential nominee, Senator John McCain was seen in public with Mr Bush this week. The appearance, during which neither spoke to the press, lasted 47 seconds.

(Update 6-1-08: According to NYT’™s Frank Rich, it was 29 seconds, not 47: read Rich’™s take on how McClellan’™s What Happened has impacted the McCain campaign.)

Diplomatically, Qatar is on the Ascendant

As American influence in the Middle East falls into the background, a new trend is emerging fostering home grown solutions for the region’™s problems. Most prominent among these recently have been Qatar’™s role in bringing about political reconciliation in Lebanon and Turkey’™s mediation in talks between Israel and Syria.

In Lebanon, political rivals made a major step towards reconciliation when they signed the Doha agreement. The first result of the accord was seen in the election of Gen Michel Suleiman as Lebanon’™s new president. Qatar’™s instrumental role in advancing this diplomatic initiative led to emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani being given the unusual honour of addressing the Lebanese parliament.

For IPS, Meena Janardhan wrote: ‘œQatar’™s latest diplomatic success could be attributed to its ties with the rival factions and regional powers with influence in Beirut.

‘œWhile Doha is a close ally of Washington, which also supports the government in Beirut, it has maintained good relations with Tehran and Damascus, which back the Lebanese opposition led by the Shia militant movement Hizbollah. Recent reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, which also supports the Lebanese government, helped in the process too.

The mediation efforts, according to Doha-based political analyst Mehran Kamrava, is consistent with Qatar’™s ‘increasingly proactive diplomacy’™ over the last few years both in the Gulf region and larger Middle East.

The Christian Science Monitor added:

Qatar’™s nonaligned role in regional politics may be a survival mechanism in an unforgiving corner of the world, given its small size and enormous oil and gas riches. But it may also signal a shift from the polarisation of the region during the tenure of President Bush toward a greater emphasis on negotiation and compromise. Turkey, for example, has emerged as a key player in quietly brokering initial peace moves between Israel and Syria.

The actions of Turkey and Qatar suggest we are moving away from the black-and-white dichotomies of the higher Bush years,’ said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’™s Middle East Center in Beirut. ‘œNow mediators, like Qatar and Turkey, are trying to find accommodation between players previously considered as either good or evil.

Turkey Sponsoring Talks Between Israel and Syria

The announcement last week that Israel and Syria have opened indirect peace talks through Turkish mediation has rapidly been overshadowed by uncertainty over the Israeli prime minister’™s future.

The New York Times said:

Israel’™s defence minister called on Wednesday for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to remove himself from his post pending the outcome of a high-profile corruption investigation in which Mr Olmert is embroiled.

The defence minister, Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, was the first senior member of Israel’™s coalition government to insist Mr Olmert relinquish his office over the corruption case.

‘The prime minister must disconnect himself from the daily running of the government,’™ Mr Barak said at a lunchtime news conference broadcast live from the Parliament building.

Iran/Syria Ties Continue

Meanwhile, in the Los Angeles Times, Borzou Daragahi wrote:

Iranian and Syrian officials poured a bucket of ice water this week on Israeli hopes for a rupture in the long-standing Tehran-Damascus relationship.

Israeli officials had demanded Syria break ties with Iran in exchange for returning the occupied Golan Heights to Syria.

Instead, Syria this week appeared to strengthen its ties with Iran, signing a defense cooperation pact in a showy Tehran photo-op on Tuesday.

Friday, May 30th, 2008 by Richard Blair |
Category: Iraq,Middle East

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