The waning of US influence in the Middle East has been truly remarkable, in its rapidity and extent, and in its causes: namely, the degree to which it was self-inflicted by a Congress that refused to see beyond its myopic obeidance to the dictates of the Netanyahu govenment and the overweaning influence of the Israel lobby and its Christian Zionist partners. Combine that with the ineptitude of a once-promising young president who pledged to transform US relations with both the Arab countries and Iran, only to betray that promise in the face of a savvy, much more experienced Israeli prime minister . . . and the result is shocking, and saddening to any of us who still clung to hopes that, after the debacle of George W. Bush, the US might re-emerge on the international stage as a force in which we might have some modicum of pride.
Instead, the evidence of our leaders' myopia and boneheaded decision-making confronts us wherever we look:
- as the Arab uprisings (the Arab "spring") play themselves out, the US has hamstrung its ability to be a force for good by emptying its treasury to fight ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, running up a massive debt from under which we have little prospect of escaping and which has trashed our ability to contribute significantly to pro-democracy movements in Egypt and elsewhere.
- As a report in today's WaPo makes clear, we're reluctant to make any such contributions because Congress cannot stomach the likelihood that Islamist parties may emerge with some modicum of political power. The calculus? Islamism = bad for Israel. As it happens, though - and as a superb analysis by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the NYRB illuminates - we're highly likely to see (in Egypt, especially - and what happens there may well be a lynch-pin for much of the region) a victory of counter-revolutionary forces in the shape of an alliance between the Egyptian military and the well-positioned, well-organized Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, not much of a democracy - but a regime whose military leaders will need to pay some heed to widespread anti-Israeli sentiments on the "street," but also play ball well enough with the US to ensure continued weapons shipments and military help. If the US plays along, the reward is hope for a stable relationship with Egypt, under a military regime. So much for support for democracy.
- In Iraq, more evidence that the "Surge" perhaps gave the US a feel-good moment, and enabled what's become a highly repressive Saddam-lite government under Nuri al-Maliki to cement its control of Iraq's security apparatus, but failed to do what it was supposed to do: provide breathing space for a political reconciliation that would draw together Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Kurds (and Turkmens) under a new national compact. Ain't happening; probably ain't gonna happen; and meanwhile, Sunni insurgent groups (including al-Qaeda in Iraq) are regularly attacking Iraqi security forces and perpetrating bombings (like the latest, at the Shii holy city of Karbala, which killed as many as 10). And as the US still tries to wrangle some kind of permission from the Iraqi government to maintain US forces in Iraq after the 31 December withdrawal deadline, Muqtada al-Sadr has militia members (the Mumamidun) ready to take up arms if American troops do indeed say - and Iran will surely provide them with any assistance they might need.
- And Mahmoud Abbas has returned to the West Bank, the conquering hero (even if his people still have no state) who thumbed his nose (long overdue, I might add) at what Rami Khouri recently- and very aptly - referred to as "Israel-America" (and the new South Africa, to boot).
One could go on and on: the debacle at the UN, the ongoing blood-letting (and night raids) in Afghanistan, the drones that will do oh-so-much to win hearts and minds in Somalia and Yemen, the thousands of hearts and minds that US drones and general arrogance toward the Pakistani leadership have cost us there.