The United States’ strategic position in the greater Middle East is disintegrating. The repercussions of the Arab Spring have undercut the tacit alliance among Washington, Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and Jerusalem with auxiliary members in Yemen and Tunisia among other peripheral states. Mubarak is gone while his former military cohorts sap the revolution’s zeal through symbolic acts that include untying their bonds to Israel while cultivating an alliance with Turkey. Both pillars of the regional sub-system are animated by deepening anti-American feelings among their populace that are spreading across the Islamic world. In Ankara, moreover, the Erdogan government now has its own calculated view of a diplomatic field that no longer has the United States as its hub. The House of Saud is so badly rattled that it is turning on Washington as the cause of its new-found sense of vulnerability. Iraq’s sectarian Shi’ite leadership spurns the idea of a special relationship with us while incrementally building structures of cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran will not bend the knee in response to our relentless campaign of shunning and sanctioning it – leaving Washington with the bleak choice of war or an indefinite period of tense onfrontation – in the absence of any readiness to speak seriously with its leaders about the terms of a modus vivendi.
Farther afield, Afghanistan is an endless slog with the vain hope of turning that ill-starred land into a Western oriented, pro-American country fading like the swirls of smoke from a lost pipe dream. Pakistan is now pronounced our enemy condemned routinely by our belligerent leaders as the source of all that stymies us in both places. Levels of anti-Americanism are so high as to leave those with favorable views of America within a statistical margin of error that reaches to 00.0. The country’s political elite is unifying around the hard position of giving a blunt ‘no’ in response to bellicose demands from Washington that it do our bidding. Everywhere we look, never has America’s standing been so weak, its authority so low, it credibility in such tatters, and its judgment so suspect.
Little of this registers in official Washington, or in the ante-chambers of power that is unofficial Washington. We continue to bluster and fume, we issue ukase, make declarations, scold and instruct, cast our failures as incidents in the mythic pageant of illusory triumphs from Baghdad to Kandahar to Somalia. The echo chamber keeps reality at bay. Each of these myriad failures has its own saga of hubris, incompetence, willful ignorance and flawed thinking. Iraq stands out only for the brazen deceit and mindlessness that were its hallmark from the inception.
The kaleidoscope of shards that depicts the broken remnants of the American position in the greater Middle East convey incoherence and fragmentation. This is one common element. It is the Israel/Palestine issue – more specifically, Washington’s progressive subordination of its own interests to the compulsions of Israel’s cynical rulers. It has grown from being a dark shadow that casts suspicions over American actions in the regime to a fatal flaw that has eaten away our authority to act as underwriter, our reputation for integrity and our protestations of concern for the well-being and interests of all peoples. Thus, it aggravates relations, inflames radicalism and sows distrust about Washington’s intentions. Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations last week confirmed the worst fears of doubters and skeptics. America no longer was just Israel’s protector; it was now Israel’s shill. The President of the United States acted as the shameless mouthpiece for an unsavory client. Obama declared before all the world that he placed his personal electoral advantage above the values and interests of the country – still the potentially most influential state on the face of the earth. His abject behavior humiliated the United States in a way that leaves American diplomacy throughout the Islamic world – and beyond – severely compromised.
Predictably, these tragic consequences were little noted nor will they be long remembered among a political class whose insularity from the realities of the world is surpassed only by their insularity from the realities of their own nation.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.