Remember those thrilling days of yesteryear? When we thought the hyperpower was poised to steamroll any and all evildoers in the Middle East, and when the "real men" were ready to go to Tehran? When it was simply assumed to be Truth that (as Bush pere had said 11 years before) "What we say, goes"? That Middle Eastern potentates would quiver, quake, and crumble if America's stern gaze were to be fixed upon them?
We just passed the 8 year anniversary - dating back to May 2003, early in the Iraq war, when Thomas Friedman claimed that the US invasion was the US's way of telling bad guys in the Middle East, "Suck on this!" Yet, in what the cosmic scale would reckon as less than the blink of an eye, we've been presented with (to channel Bush papa again) a new world order. But the former hyperpower has been reduced to a Rodney Dangerfield punchline: it gets no respect.
Robert Fisk - surely among the most intrepid and experienced journalists covering the Middle East today, as well as the last 30 years - makes that point early and often in his recent essay in The Independent:
Indeed.While Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu played out their farce in Washington – Obama grovelling as usual – the Arabs got on with the serious business of changing their world, demonstrating and fighting and dying for freedoms they have never possessed. Obama waffled on about change in the Middle East – and about America's new role in the region. It was pathetic. "What is this 'role' thing?" an Egyptian friend asked me at the weekend. "Do they still believe we care about what they think?"
The Israelis surely don't care about what the US president thinks. No sooner had Mr. Obama asserted that the 1967 Green Line would be the proper baseline for an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, did Mr. Netanyahu throw it back into his face - both in Obama's White House home, no less, and in a speech to the US Congress, whose 55 standing ovations for a foreign head-of-state who had serially insulted their own resembled (as Fisk noted) the kind of terror-induced adulation that the parliament in Damascus would have lavished on Bashar al-Asad (or, for that matter, what Saddam's might have done in Baghdad). Even as Israel's former spy-in-chief (Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad) questions the wisdom of Israel's top leaders, those leaders can count on America's most powerful politicians as an amen chorus.
And America's Saudi "friends"? Those pals to whose rescue the US claimed to be riding in 1991, when it orchestrated the Desert Storm war that knee-capped Saddam? Those allies with whom the US just made yet another mega-deal in arms sales, to the tune of $60+ billion?
Going their own way now. When Mr. Obama (even as belatedly and, in truth, ineffectually as he did) decided to back Egypt's young democrats against Hosni Mubarak's repressive autocracy, the Saudi leadership told off team Obama. Ever since, they've made it known that, as far as they're concerned, their own interests completely trump any wishes the US might have in the region. When young Bahrainis (many of them impoverished, disenfranchised Shia) protested for a better deal from the Sunni monarchy, the Saudis (under cover of the Gulf Cooperation Council) sent in tanks and troops, with which the Bahrain monarchy brutally quelled the demonstrators - and in the process, dissed team Obama yet again, provoked Iran and raised the spectre of a regional Sunni-Shia war.
Moreover, at a time when Mr. Obama touts the US's support (as self-servingly selective as it is) for democratic reformers across the Middle East, the Saudis have now created a new fraternity of Arab kings, orchestrating the invitation of Jordan and Morocco into the GCC. (Last time we checked Google maps, neither country had been relocated to the Persian Gulf.) The rulers of both of those resource-poor authoritarian regimes just got access to lots of oil-money and pro-monarchy soft power.
Yemen? The US wants to engineer Yemen's president Ali Abdullah al-Saleh out of his now embattled capital of Sanaa, where today he was wounded by shells fired by tribal forces arrayed against him. Yemen is sliding into a civil war; and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula stands to gain, at the expense of the US's war on terror. The Saudis seem not opposed to Saleh sticking around. As the NYT noted recently,
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia joined the coalition seeking to ease out President Ali Abdullah Saleh because it thinks the opposition might prove a more reliable, less unruly southern neighbor. But Arab diplomats noted that even the smallest Saudi gestures provided Mr. Saleh with excuses to stay, since he interpreted them as support. This month, for example, the Saudis sent in tanker trucks to help abate a gasoline shortage.
The Saudis have made it crystal clear: we will do what we will do. Their ultimatum to the US? Dance to our tune, or get out of our way. (After all, we hold that oil card.) The consequences: the hyperpower is looking more and more the stooge. Hossein Askari (posting at The National Interest) sums it up:
Undoubtedly Saudi Arabia should be a highly important partner for Washington’s policy in the Arab world, but could collaboration with the al-Sauds despite continuation of their rule as before, especially with the ongoing sea change in a number of Arab countries, be of benefit? Theanswer is an emphatic no. The citizens of the Middle East, if not of the entire world, will simply dismiss US claims of supporting self-determination if the administration continues to support change everywhere except in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. The omission of Saudi Arabia from Obama’s presidential addresses cannot protect the US from ridicule.
On the one hand, if most countries in the region succeed in adopting representative government, better institutions and progressive economic systems, then US support for the al-Sauds will be seen as the sole reason for the plight of Saudis and other GCC citizens. On the other hand, if most countries in the region fail to adopt change successfully,the US will be blamed for not providing sufficient leadership and momentum, thus encouraging those opposed to change to reverse the success of initial protests in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. The administration policy course is a dead end.
Washington is planning to authorize huge arms sales to the GCC, principally to Saudi Arabia followed by the UAE. The US firm Blackwater,with a contract in the hundreds of millions of dollars in Abu Dhabi, isreportedly training an elite rapid deployment mercenary force of nearlyone thousand men. The US military, for its part, is training and equipping a new 45,000-man force in Saudi Arabia. The GCC is reportedly planning to build joint-military bases in each of its member countries. Most recently, the al-Sauds have decided to actively lobby against US initiatives toward representative government. In other words, Saudia Arabia is directly undermining Washington’s efforts. All of this is being justified on the basis of the alleged “Iranian threat.” Middle Eastern activists have already voiced the opinion that future crackdown sare likely to be harsher than anything we have seen to date. In this event, who will Middle Easterners blame? In the end, change will come toSaudi Arabia and the GCC. The only questions are how and when. . . .
President Obama’s approach in the Mideast is also exacerbating the Sunni-Shia divide in the region and in particular in the Persian Gulf. How long does he expect the Shia, the majority Muslim sect in the Persian Gulf, to do nothing while their brethren in Bahrain are being arrested, tortured and imprisoned by Saudi and Bahraini forces?
In the Middle East as elsewhere in the world, countries are known by their policies as well as by the company they keep. This administration’s implicit and explicit support of the al-Sauds will identify it with their abusive policies, destroy what popularity Washington enjoys in this region, embarrass the United States on the global stage and endanger our national interests. Only special interest groups—those selling arms, Washington lobbyists and others with service contracts in Saudi Arabia and in the rest of the GCC—could support this administration’s flawed policy.
OK then, what about Turkey? The Turks belong to our NATO club, no? We have a base there, at Incirlik, right? Turkey must respect us. They'll do what we ask . . . won't they?
Well, actually . . . Despite our concerns, Turkey is providing a launching point for a new armada of international aid ships that in late June plan to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The last time such a fleet set sail from Turkey, the Israeli boarded the ships and killed 8 Turks, and an American. Turkey still demands an apology from Israel; Israel won't apologize; Israel and the US want Turkey to stop the next attempt; but the Turks are saying that it will take appropriate action against Israel, our best pal in the region, that "Turkey will give the necessary response to any repeated act of provocation by Israel on the high seas.”
Of course, the neocons aren't about to give up on that dream of American hegemony in the Middle East. Want the evidence? Take a look at the logic-impaired pleading of Fred Kagan (in a propaganda piece dressed up as an "Iraq Threat Assessment" from the "Critical Threats Project" of the American Enterprise Institute - that war-cheerleaders' guild that helped bring you the 2003 invasion - and endowed with an imprimatur from another of America's uber-hawks, Max Boot, who calls Kagan's "report" a "must-read"). He importunes: "Iraq can't survive without more military help, 'cause Iran's gonna attack 'em (oh? really?); but we can't let Iraq really have a military, 'cause that will scare the Saudis too much; so . . . we gotta make the Iraqis let us stay. After all, we're pals . . . aren't we?"
Oh, those neocons. Persistent, aren't they?
Or maybe, just pathetic.
Come to think of it, weren't they always?