A Sixty-Year Bluff

[caption id="attachment_55245886" align="alignnone" width="619"]US President Barack Obama and US Vice President Joe Biden greet troops during a ceremony to mark the return of the US Forces-Iraq Colors and the end of the Iraq war on December 20, 2011 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. (Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images) US President Barack Obama and US Vice President Joe Biden greet troops during a ceremony to mark the return of the US Forces-Iraq Colors and the end of the Iraq war on December 20, 2011 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. (Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images) [/caption]Recent months have seen the opinion that US power and prestige in the Middle East is in a terminal state of decline aired more and more often in the media, on both the left and the right. In one example, the Independent’s Robert Fisk wrote “Once Lebanon and Syria and Egypt trembled when Washington spoke. Now they laugh.”

The US climb-down over plans for an attack on Syria (now fading from view thanks to developments in US-Iran relations and the government shutdown) was held up by some critics of the Obama administration as a blunder bound to embolden America’s adversaries. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, for instance, called the agreement with Russia to dismantle Syria’s stockpile an “act of provocative weakness.”

The agreement with Russia follows on the heels of the withdrawal from Iraq, and the on-going draw-down of US forces from Afghanistan after years of frustrating and bloody stalemate, exposing the limits of both American military power and its willingness to take on long-term ‘nation-building’ projects. This is to say nothing of the events of the ‘Arab Spring,’ which took the US—and everyone else—by surprise, and the subsequent instability in Egypt and elsewhere, which Washington has wisely stayed out of.

Overall, the cumulative impact of all of these events has been to create an impression that the US is either becoming less willing to intervene in internal problems abroad, or less able to. Leaving aside the possibility that this line of reasoning is mistaken, it is worth considering another option: the US was never as powerful as many assumed it was in the first place. Underlying the calls for the US to do more in Syria, or Egypt, or elsewhere, lies an unspoken assumption that the US can fix the problems in those countries, but that the current leadership lacks the will. There is little evidence that it can.

This is not to say that the US is or was helpless—no other state could have deployed half a million troops with state of the art weapons to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s claim that the US held “99 percent of the cards” also held more than a grain of truth, and reflected Washington’s ability to bring both Egypt and Israel to the negotiating table, and pay billions of dollars in aid to each country to back up the subsequent peace agreement.

However, for all the billions of dollars of economic aid it has provided, the US does not seem to have gained much leverage with the Egyptian or Israeli governments. Nor have the economic sanctions it has imposed on Iran (and in the past, Iraq) been very successful at bending the Iranian government to its will, despite the damage it has inflicted on the Iranian economy. Admittedly, the US was able to force Saddam Hussein to dismantle his arsenal of chemical weapons and his nuclear program by leveraging its military power and predominant position on the UN Security Council, but ‘regime change’—its overall goal—had to wait until the invasion of 2003.

In purely military terms, the US attacks on Iraq in 1991 and 2003 were successful—they destroyed Iraq’s military power. But as the subsequent occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated, destruction is only the first half of the equation. If the purpose of war is to advance a political agenda by other means, as military theorist Carl von Clausewitz suggested, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have basically been failures: the results of American efforts to rebuild both countries have been paltry, despite enormous expenditure in both money and lives, with underlying political realities in both countries taking their course regardless of American wishes.

Calls on the US to do more to promote democracy in the Middle East also ignore the fact that American endorsement would probably be the kiss of death for nascent pro-democracy movements in Egypt, Iran, or elsewhere. As the Obama administration once observed, the last thing Iran’s Green Movement needed in 2009 was to be accused of acting as agents of a foreign power. Would Americans accept the attempts of a foreign-backed movement to change their political system?

Part of the problem resides in the fact that much of the turmoil in the region stems from popular unrest. When a country’s people are mobilized, “the street” becomes both the site and the means by which political questions are settled. This is not something the US can influence with its military power or checkbook. Mubarak and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi were backed by the US. When their own people rose up against them—and when their own military forces couldn't or wouldn't save them—the US watched helpless as they were ousted.

Overall, it seems that over the past 60 years, the US has succeeded only when it has been confronted with a problem amenable to a military solution. It was a mistake to think Washington could ever have done more to influence events in the region, at least unilaterally. It is not the case that the US has lost its power, but more a case of the limits of its power being forgotten or overlooked.