Friday, May 20, 2011

The US as "Dispensable Nation"

I can't recommend highly enough the new essay posted by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett to Foreign Policy.  They not only pan the Obama speech for its shortcomings; they expose the US's increasing irrelevance in a region where, as they note, the most important actors are charting their own courses to suit their own interests rather than kowtowing to US dictate.

I'm especially impressed with their portrait of the turn the region has taken, and on how the US needs to adjust its thinking:
It is now absolutely imperative for the United States to revamp its posture toward Islamist movements in the Middle East, including Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, as well as Hamas. By continuing the same dysfunctional approach as his predecessors -- demanding, up front, that these groups recognize Israel's right to exist and disarm before negotiations and surrender everything else that makes them distinctive as political actors -- Obama is not isolating the Islamists. He is only deepening America's isolation from some of the most vital political forces in the Middle East today, whose leaders have precisely the kind of democratic legitimacy the president claims to want to encourage.

The president's rejection of serious engagement was even more stark with regard to the Islamic Republic. We have argued, from early in Obama's presidential tenure, that he was never serious about productive engagement, much less "Nixon to China" rapprochement, with Tehran. But in his speech, Obama dropped even a façade of interest in negotiations with Iran.

Obama depicts the Islamic Republic as the antithesis of the Arab Awakening. It is certainly the case that there is no significant constituency outside the Islamic Republic for replicating precisely its form of government. But, however much the U.S. president and his administration try to deny it, the Islamic Republic is, in broad terms, a prototype of the sort of political order that other Middle Eastern populations want to create for themselves -- orders that may be imperfect, but which will be indigenously authentic, highly competitive, and not subordinated to an overbearing American hegemon (as with Mubarak's Egypt) or any other external power.

The fact is that any political order in the Middle East which becomes at all more representative of its people's values, beliefs, and positions will, by definition, become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with America. (That's why Tehran thinks it is "winning" relative to the United States as the Arab Awakening unfolds.) But, rather than face this reality and take on the real challenge of thinking through how the United States pursues its interests in the Middle East in ways that don't offend most of the people who live there, Obama resorts to rhetoric and policies that have already manifestly failed.

Moreover, even people close to the administration are admitting that the $1 billion in debt forgiveness and the offer of $1 billion in loans to Egypt and Tunisia hardly represent a Marshall Plan for the region.  (And Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has already criticized the loan forgiveness as money that an economically troubled US needs back home.  So sad.) 

Public opinion in the Arab countries has greeted Obama's speech not only warily, but even with apathy and derision.

Incredible.  In 20 years, the US has gone from "hyperpower" that helped engineer the "end of history" (as Francis Fukuyama put it) to a declining power steadily fading back into the pack.

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