Is a Changed U.S. Policy Possible in the Middle East?

Who will emerge victorious on November 6? Will it be the sitting President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney? In no part of the world will the outcome of the U.S. presidential election be awaited with greater anxiety than in the Middle East. Last Monday’s foreign policy debate between the two contestants was not reassuring. It did not give Arabs and Muslims any reason to believe that their fundamental problems would be addressed by whoever occupies the White House over the next four years.
The United States has for decades been the dominant external power in the Middle East, having replaced Britain and France in that role after the Second World War, and seen off the Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Yet America today is being challenged as never before. Local populations are rebelling against its policies -- and with some justice. Instead of being above the fray, mediating conflicts as an honest broker, and helping spread peace and prosperity, the United States has waged hugely destructive wars, killed and wounded great numbers of innocent people, imposed punishing sanctions on alleged enemies, and -- above all -- put Israel at the very centre of its Middle East policies.
One of the clearest messages of the Islamic wave now unfurling across the region is that Arabs and Muslims have lost confidence in the United States. They do not want to be interfered with or bossed around by the U. S. any more, still less to be on the receiving end of America’s militarized foreign policy. This is the message coming from Cairo to Baghdad, from Gaza to Kabul, from south Beirut to Tehran, from Timbuktu to San‘a. Never has the United States been so resented and disliked -- even fervently hated.
Can the United States restore its tarnished reputation? Can it change course? Any rehabilitation would require a radical revision of current policies, of which there is no sign. Few Arabs have any hope in Mitt Romney. When he declared, as he did last Monday, that “This nation is the hope of the earth,” many Arabs and Muslims must surely have burst into incredulous laughter. “If I‘m President,” he said, “America will be very strong!” That is indeed the problem the Middle East faces. Romney’s blind devotion to Israel -- his repeated pledge that “There must be no daylight between the United States and Israel” -- and his arrogant bluster about America’s power arouse nothing but acute anxiety. He is definitely not the man the region wants to see in the White House.
But is Obama any better? His 2009 Cairo speech, in which he pleaded for a “new beginning” with the Arab world, was soon replaced by bitter disillusion when he collapsed before Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Instead of pursuing the quest for a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has tolerated Israel’s continuing land-grab of Palestinian territory and has blocked the Palestinians’ attempt to win recognition of their state at the UN. Will he do better if re-elected? Nothing is less certain.
Although Obama has managed to extricate the United States from Iraq, he has so far failed to negotiate an honourable exit from the unwinnable Afghan war. Worse still, he has outdone his predecessor, the belligerent George W. Bush, by greatly increasing targeted killings of alleged militants by U.S. drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and, soon perhaps, in the Sahel. There is no more effective way to create ‘terrorists’ and inflame anti-American sentiment.
Why is the United States so wedded to being the military bully in the Middle East? The usual answer is that it wishes to control the region’s vast oil and gas resources. But experts say that shale gas is freeing the United States from dependence on Middle East oil. In any event, the figures show that last year the Middle East exported 72% of its crude to Asia -- mainly to China, India, Japan and Singapore -- rather than to the United States. None of these countries sees the need for military bases in the Middle East.
America’s concern to protect Israel is often given as another reason for America’s overwhelming military presence in the region. At this very moment, the United States is conducting a three-week missile-defence drill with Israel, described as “the largest exercise in the history” of their long relationship, with the aim of strengthening Israel’s comprehensive air defences.
Protecting Israel is one thing; guaranteeing its military supremacy is quite another. This is the meaning of America’s pledge to guarantee Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) -- that is to say its ability to defeat any combination of its neighbours. The pro-Israeli lobby has managed to get this guarantee written into U.S. law. The U.S. tolerates, indeed assists, Israel in its attempts to destroy resistance movements like Hamas and Hizballah -- movements the United States portrays as terrorists -- whose crime has been to seek to protect their respective populations in Gaza and Lebanon from Israeli attack. At the same time, the United States is doing its best to bring down the Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah “resistance axis” which has tried to hold Israeli power in check in the Levant. Much of America’s current campaign to bring Iran to its knees -- the unprecedented sanctions against its oil industry and central bank, the cyber-attacks against its industrial installations -- seems to be driven by a wish to destroy any potential threat to Israeli dominance.
No one is allowed to relieve the besieged population of Gaza. When an unarmed Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmari, carrying peace activists, tried to breach the cruel Gaza blockade, it was attacked by Israeli commandos in international waters. Nine Turks were killed, including one activist of duel U.S.-Turkish nationality. Turkey is waiting in vain for an Israeli apology. Its once warm relations with Israel have cooled to freezing point. The United States criticised the flotilla, not Israel. The last thing the proud Turkish nation will do is acknowledge Israeli dominance.
Egypt, now under Muslim Brother leadership, is seething at the restraints its American-brokered 1979 peace treaty with Israel has put on its freedom of action in Sinai and in Gaza. Nevertheless, President Mohamed Morsi has vowed not to let the Palestine cause go by default.
Henry Kissinger, who presided over U.S. foreign policy from 1969 to 1977, used to say that the closer the United States drew to Israel, the more the Arabs would come running to Washington. This cynical view is now being challenged by the populations of the region, if not yet by all their leaders.
Instead of propping up Israel against the entire Middle East -- and destroying any state or resistance movement daring to defend itself against Israeli power -- the United States might be wiser to encourage the emergence of a balance of power between Israel and its neighbours. History proves that a balance of power keeps the peace, whereas an imbalance causes war, because the stronger party will always seek to impose its will by force.
This could be something the next U.S. President might care to consider if he is concerned to restore America’s influence and authority in the turbulent Middle East. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global