Thursday, 17 January 2013

Grand Waffle in the Middle East

Over the past half century or so the United States has pursued two main but disconnected objectives in West Asia and North Africa: on the one hand, Americans have sought strategic and economic advantage in the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, and Egypt; on the other, support for the consolidation of the Jewish settler state in Palestine.  These two objectives of U.S. policy in the Middle East have consistently taken precedence over the frequently professed American preference for democracy. 

These objectives are politically contradictory.  They also draw their rationales from distinct moral universes.  U.S. relations with the Arab countries and Iran have been grounded almost entirely in unsentimental calculations of interest.  The American relationship with Israel, by contrast, has rested almost entirely on religious and emotional bonds.  This disconnect has precluded any grand strategy.

Rather than seek an integrated policy framework, America has balanced the contradictions between the imperatives of its domestic politics and its interests.  For many years, Washington succeeded in having its waffle in the Middle East and eating it too – avoiding having to choose between competing objectives.  With wiser U.S. policies and more judicious responses to them by Arabs and Israelis, Arab-Israeli reconciliation might by now have obviated the ultimate necessity for America to prioritize its purposes in the region.  But the situation has evolved to the point that choice is becoming almost impossible to avoid.

The Middle East matters.  It is where Africa, Asia, and Europe converge.  In addition to harboring the greater part of the world’s conventionally recoverable energy supplies, it is a key passageway between Asia and Europe.  No nation can hope to project its power throughout the globe without access to and through the Middle East.  Nor can any ignore the role of the Persian Gulf countries in fueling the world’s armed forces, powering its economies, and setting its energy prices.  This is why the United States has acted consistently to maintain a position of preeminent influence in the Middle East and to deny to any strategically hostile nation or coalition of nations the opportunity to contest its politico-military dominance of the region. 

The American pursuit of access, transit, and strategic denial has made the building of strategic partnerships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt a major focus of U.S.  policy.  The partnership with Iran broke down over three decades ago.  It has been succeeded by antagonism, low-intensity conflict, and the near constant threat of war.  The U.S. relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are now evolving in uncertain directions.  Arab governments have learned the hard way that they must defer to public opinion.  This opinion is increasingly Islamist.  Meanwhile, popular antipathies to the widening American war on Islamism are deepening.  These factors alone make it unlikely that relations with the United States can retain their centrality for Cairo and Riyadh much longer.
The definitive failure of the decades-long American-sponsored “peace process” between Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs adds greatly to the uncertainty.  Whether it yielded peace or not, the “peace process” made the United States the apparently indispensable partner for both Israel and the Arabs.  It served dual political purposes.  It enabled Arab governments to persuade their publics that maintaining good relations with the United States did not imply selling out Arab or Islamic  interests in Palestine, and it supported the U.S. strategic objective of achieving acceptance for a Jewish state by the other states and peoples of the Middle East.  Washington’s abandonment of this diplomacy was a boon to Israeli territorial expansion but a disaster for American influence in the region, including in Israel.

Over the years, America protected Israel from international rebuke and punishment.  Its stated purpose was the preservation of prospects for a negotiated “two-state solution” that could bring security and peace to Israelis and Palestinians alike.  A decade ago, every member of both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation endorsed this objective and pledged normalization with Israel if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations succeeded.  In response, Israel spun out its talks with the Palestinians while working hard to preclude their self-determination.  It has now succeeded in doing so. More

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