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The Death Spiral of US Influence in the Middle East

May 26, 2013 | Updated Jul 26, 2013
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Enough has been said about President Obama's speech on counter-terror last Thursday. Useful takes are Juan Cole's good news/bad news analysis, and Stephen Walt's Twitter comment, "Obama's speech was step in right direction, but have learned to watch for what he does, not for what he says. #DeedsNotWords." In short, Obama vowed to be a better global citizen by not killing innocent civilians, using drones less often, making their use more transparent, protecting press freedom at home, and generally thinking about winding down the war on terrorists.

There's a broader scope for this speech and the implied policy changes, however, which hasn't earned much comment, and that is the long and increasingly sad history of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Because the promiscuous use of drones, the spying on journalists, the prosecution of leakers, and all the other troublesome bits of "the long war" are mainly about the Middle East and al Qaeda. And what has gone so, so wrong in that tumultuous region is due in part to colossal mistakes of the United States, many of which we persist with and yet deny involvement with at the same time.

This is not just Obama's doing. The policy begins with oil and Israel in the 1940s and has seen only minor variations since. The rise of OPEC, the end of the Cold War, the technology revolutions and other momentous turns of history have never shaken the core policy of preserving and protecting Israel and access to oil at all costs (and those costs are nearly unimaginably large). Braced by the power of the Israel lobby, oil corporations, and an increasingly militant right wing, the twin pillars of U.S. policy have endured and are now embraced by most Democrats as well.

This is not news. What underscores this old narrative of woe in the Levant, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf is a death spiral of U.S. objectives and influence. It is now more apparent than ever, and accelerating.

Among the ruins of American hegemony is a region in a violent and intractable war with itself. The most obvious manifestation of this is the Syrian civil war, involving not only some 100,000 to 200,000 deaths and one to two million refugees, but spillover to Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. Washington's unwillingness -- and, in truth, lack of capacity -- to deal competently with the Syrian situation is glaring. The civil war appears to be headed for a chronic and destructive equilibrium, fueled on one side by Qatar and Saudi Arabia (funding and arming salafists, action somehow beyond the scope of U.S. dissuasion), and the other by Iran.

The Arab transition countries of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen all present daunting prospects for American "values" and power as well. In addition to authoritarianism in Egypt and continuing violence in Yemen and Libya, all four countries are setting back women's rights significantly. This is in flux, as local women's organizations are struggling to hold their place. "America is viewed with skepticism, and for good reason," observes Sanam Anderlini, a leading rights advocate who works with women activists in the region. "The U.S. claims to support human rights and women's rights, but it's letting its own allies foster and foment extremists with highly regressive agendas that damage women and democracy now and for decades to come."

What I find peculiar is the Obama administration's strange silence on this pivotal issue. If the United States cannot articulate strong support for women's rights -- including protection from domestic violence -- and make this the center of its policy in the region, it's a saddening moral failing.

In this regard, the role that Israel plays in shaping U.S. priorities is crucial. Was the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt the highest priority of the post-Mubarak era for Washington, as it was before? Has it made all other matters, including human rights, an afterthought? Something roughly similar is imaginable with regard to Syria. As many strategists know, Israel has an interest in seeing a weak Assad prevail in Syria in "the devil you know" thinking. One hopes that Netanyahu is not imposing Israeli thinking on Obama, but it's just conceivable that he is.

Little evidence suggests that's not the case with the fate of the Palestinians. Despite Secretary of State John Kerry's energetic efforts to restart the Israeli-PLO negotiations (Hamas is excluded, of course), complacency seems to reign in Jerusalem and indeed in Washington itself. The unwarranted expectation in some liberal circles that the elevation of Kerry at State and Chuck Hagel at Defense was going to be a game changer for Israel-Palestine were ignoring deep structural reasons for inertia, an inertia that has lasted for more than four decades. Few people cling to the hope for a viable two-state solution, a sharp departure from just a few years ago.

Shadowing the impasses in the Levant is Iran. Stuck on outdated proposals at the nuclear talks and blaming Iran for everything that goes awry in the region, the United States is gradually forfeiting leadership on dealing with Tehran apart from its bullying, which is straight from the Likudnik playbook. The current sanctions were imposed because Iran was pursuing uranium enrichment without the safeguards that would satisfy the major powers on the UN Security Council. If Iran ends the enrichment that is viewed as a nuclear-weapons threat then sanctions should come down. But the U.S.-led talks offer nothing close to that, and so Iran is being resistant, which then becomes its own crisis -- Israel threatens, Saudi Arabia huffs and puffs, and so on.

And then there's Iraq and Afghanistan, where American clout seems to dissipate by the hour. We won't know for several years the full extent of the chaos and ruin caused by U.S. intervention. Iraq has returned to fractious sectarian conflict that is claiming lives at a rate not seen since 2008. New reports suggest stratospheric rises in cancers associated with U.S. weapons. And the full impact of the extraordinary levels of killing in 2003-2008 are a chronic condition that impoverishes the estimated one million female heads of households and 4.5 million children who have lost one or both parents. There is virtually no acknowledgment of this devastation or continuing instability by American elites. As British journalist John Pilger writes in the Guardian, the Iraq War's "emblem might be a lavish new movie of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Two of the main characters, as Fitzgerald wrote, 'smashed up things and creatures and retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness ... and let other people clean up the mess.'"

And isn't that a perfect metaphor for America's Middle East policies? Vast carelessness indeed.