Is the U.S. Balance of Power in the Middle East Shifting?

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s London Correspondent

The U.S. has valued its influence in the Middle East for many decades. A region filled with oil and dictatorships, the Middle East captivates U.S. foreign policy makers on both ideological and economic levels. Yet the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 have dramatically changed the political landscape in the region, and the U.S. must now learn to deal with the developing situation that will eventually lead to a new status quo in the Middle East. Considering that one of the U.S.’s main foreign policy goals is encouraging democracy abroad, have these revolutions been a good thing for America’s standing in the region? Unfortunately for U.S. policy makers, if not for citizens of Middle Eastern countries themselves, these revolutions have not only overthrown old dictatorships, but also the U.S.’s ability to influence politics within the region.

On an ideological level, the growth of democracy in the Middle East fits perfectly with American interests, as the U.S. government has stated repeatedly and publically that it seeks the growth of democracy in the region. Once no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq, the liberation of the Iraqi people from their cruel dictator Saddam Hussein became one of the main pretexts for the war. If the U.S. wishes to appear even vaguely consistent in its approach to foreign policy, it should therefore celebrate the homegrown revolutions that overthrew other dictators in Iraq’s neighbors.

However, although increased democracy may benefit the people, it automatically means reduced U.S. influence, as the U.S. can no longer focus its efforts on pleasing a single sustained ruler in each country. In fact, almost every move towards democracy in the Middle East in recent years has moved the region in a direction that is bad for U.S. interests. For example, the 2006 Palestinian elections brought Hamas into power, a party whose goals include eradicating U.S.-supported Israel. In Lebanon, meanwhile, Najib Miktai became prime minister in January 2011, and although he claims to be pro-West, he is backed by the terrorist organization Hezbollah. Even Turkey’s democratically elected leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been causing problems for U.S. foreign interests, as he attempted to block UN sanctions on Iran and declared Israel a state sponsor of terrorism. While Mubarak in Egypt was generally positive towards the U.S. and could be relied on to support American interests, the new Egyptian government, one that represents the will of the people, may be far less friendly to the U.S. and its interests. Indeed, the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood is gaining popularity in Egypt, and they are unlikely to welcome any American interference in the country’s affairs in the future.

Obama has attempted to build new relationships with the developing governments in the Middle East by proposing economic aid to nations that are engaged in democratic reforms. His proposed initiatives include forgiving $1 billion of Egyptian debt and offering loan guarantees of up to $1 billion for Egypt and Tunisia to help the countries get back on their feet after the turmoil of revolution. However, the turmoil is currently ongoing: Egypt has only an interim government, battles are still ongoing in Syria, and it could be years before the rule of law is reestablished in Libya. Even if the U.S. goes to lengths to support new governments in these countries, they could be replaced by parties with more anti-American sentiments once democratic rule has been fully established.

Indeed, the U.S.’s chances of finding democratically elected parties in the Middle East who have pro-American sentiments are slim, considering the extent of distrust for the U.S. that exists in the region. Polls by Zogby International and the Pew Research Center in 2011 suggest that less than 25% of respondents in a range of Arab countries held a favorable view of the U.S., and despite Obama’s promises of a new, positive relationship with the Middle East in 2009, the favorability rating has dropped in many countries, including from 22% to 20% in Egypt and from 19% to 13% in Jordan. In five out of six countries surveyed by Zogby International, no more than 11% of respondents said that Obama had met the expectations set in his Cairo speech in 2009, and this has made many people skeptical of the U.S.’s intentions and trustworthiness in the future.

Recent events in the Middle East already demonstrate that the U.S. is losing influence over the area. In September 2011, for example, Palestinian leader Abbas applied to the UN for statehood for Palestine, a move that directly contradicts the U.S.’s support of Israel and undermines the U.S.’s role in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Once the petition comes to vote in the UN, the U.S. must make the difficult choice of whether to veto the application; either move will cause tension and further damage the U.S.’s ability to play a positive role in any peace deals that are made.

This is a turbulent time in Middle Eastern politics, and the U.S. should expect its role and influence to be equally unstable as revolution spreads and countries reform themselves under new systems of government. However, considering anti-American feeling in the region, the U.S. should not attempt to cling to its already declining influence by interfering in events or seeming desperate to court the favor of the new government. The U.S.’s best chance at having positive relations with Middle Eastern countries in the future is to support democratizing revolution, but not to attempt to play any role in the reforming of government beyond neutral economic assistance when necessary. By making no empty promises and avoiding the appearance of having an agenda in the region, either for resources or for the purpose of political posturing, the U.S. has a chance of fostering a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with these new governments in the future. But this can only happen if the U.S. accepts that its power in the region will be, in turn, diminished.

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