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Why Won't Anyone Listen to the World's Sole Superpower?

The Middle East keeps rebuffing Uncle Sam

| Mon Sep. 30, 2013 12:16 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

What if the sole superpower on the planet makes its will known—repeatedly—and finds that no one is listening? Barely a decade ago, that would have seemed like a conundrum from some fantasy Earth in an alternate dimension. Now, it is increasingly a plain description of political life on our globe, especially in the Greater Middle East.

In the future, the indecent haste with which Barack Obama sought cover under the umbrella unfurled by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis will be viewed as a watershed moment when it comes to America's waning power in that region. In the aptly named "arc of instability," the lands from the Chinese border to northern Africa that President George W. Bush and his neocon acolytes dreamed of thoroughly pacifying, turmoil is on the rise. Ever fewer countries, allies, or enemies, are paying attention, much less kowtowing, to the once-formidable power of the world's last superpower. The list of defiant figures—from Egyptian generals to Saudi princes, Iraqi Shiite leaders to Israeli politicians—is lengthening.

The signs of this loss of clout have been legion in recent years. In August 2011, for instance, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ignored Obama's unambiguous call for him "to step aside." Nothing happened even after an unnamed senior administration official insisted, "We are certain Assad is on the way out." As the saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Similarly, in March 2010, Obama personally delivered a half-hour-long chewing out of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a politician Washington installed in office, on the corruption and administrative ineptitude of his government.  It was coupled with a warning that, if he failed to act, a cut in US aid would follow. Instead, the next month the Obama administration gave him the red carpet treatment on a visit to Washington with scarcely a whisper about the graft and ill-governance that continues to this day.

In May 2009, during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama demanded a halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in occupied East Jerusalem. In the tussle that followed, the sole superpower lost out and settlement expansion continued.

These are among the many examples of America's slumping authority in the Greater Middle East, a process well underway even before Obama entered the Oval Office in January 2009. It had, for years, been increasingly apparent that Washington's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with several lesser campaigns in the Global War on Terror, were doomed. In his inaugural address, Obama swore that the United States was now "ready to lead the world." It was a prediction that would be proven disastrously wrong in the Greater Middle East.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

Invaded and occupied Afghanistan was to be the starting point for phase two in the triumphant singular supremacy of Uncle Sam. The first phase had ended in December 1991 with the titanic collapse of its partner in a MAD—that is, mutually assured destruction—world, the Soviet Union. A decade later, Washington was poised to banish assorted "terror" constellations from nearly 80 countries and to bring about regime change for the "Axis of Evil" (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea). Having defeated the "Evil Empire" of the Soviets, Washington couldn't have felt more confident when it came to achieving this comparatively modest aim.

Priority was initially given to sometime ally and client state Pakistan, the main player in creating the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. Much to the chagrin of policymakers in Washington, however, the rulers of Pakistan, military and civilian, turned out to be masters at squeezing the most out of the United States (which found itself inescapably dependent on their country to prosecute its Afghan war), while delivering the least in return.

Today, the crumbling economy of Pakistan is in such a dire state that its government can keep going only by receiving handouts from the US and regular rollover loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Since the IMF arrangement is subject to Washington's say-so, it seemed logical that the Obama administration could bend Islamabad to its diktats. Yet Pakistani leaders seldom let a chance pass to highlight American diplomatic impotence, if only to garner some respect from their own citizens, most of whom harbor an unfavorable view of the US

A case in point has been the daredevil actions of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder-leader of the Lashkar-e Taiba (Army of the Pure, or LeT), listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department and the United Nations following its involvement in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, which killed 166 people, including six Americans. In April 2012, the State Department announced a $10 million reward for information leading to Saeed's arrest and conviction. The bearded 62-year-old militant leader promptly called a press conference and declared, "I am here. America should give that reward money to me."

He continues to operate from a fortified compound in Lahore, the capital of Punjab. "I move about like an ordinary person—that's my style," he told the New York Times's Declan Walsh in February. He addresses large rallies throughout the country and is a much sought-after guest on Pakistani TV. According to intelligence officials based in the country, the militants of his organization participate in attacks on NATO forces and Indian diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan.

In August, when Saeed led a widely publicized parade on the nation's Independence Day, protected by local police, all that a spokeswoman at the US Embassy in Islamabad could helplessly say was: "We remain concerned about the movements and activities of this person. We encourage the government of Pakistan to enforce sanctions against this person."

Far more worrisome for Washington was the critical role that the al Qaeda-affiliated Pakistani Taliban, also listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, played in determining the outcome of the country's general election in May. It threatened to attack the public rallies and candidates of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) because its membership was open to non-Muslims. This tied the party's hands in a predominantly rural society where, in the absence of reliable opinion polls, the size and frequency of public rallies is considered a crucial indicator of party strength. The outcome: a landslide victory by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif, which drastically reduced the strength of the PPP in the National Assembly. 

In mid-September, Prime Minister Sharif returned the favor by securing an all-party consensus in the National Assembly to negotiate peace with the Pakistani Taliban without conditions. Militant leaders then raised the stakes by insisting that his government first devise a policy to halt the ongoing US drone campaign against them in the country's tribal borderlands.

This compelled the Sharif government to announce that it would raise the issue of the American drone campaign at the United Nations General Assembly. Its move is likely to coincide with a report by Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, on US drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to be presented to the General Assembly in October. Emmerson has already described Washington's drone campaign as a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty.

In addition, ignoring Washington's reported disapproval, Sharif's government has started releasing Afghan Taliban prisoners—one of them "of high value" in the lexicon of the White House—from its jails to facilitate what it calls "reconciliation" in Afghanistan. As yet, however, there is no sign that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban (widely believed to be under surreptitious Pakistani protection), is ready to negotiate with the government of Karzai whom he regularly denounces as an American puppet.

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In early August, in his annual Eid al Fitr (Festival of Breaking the Fast) message, Omar was unmistakably hawkish. "As to the deceiving drama under the name of elections 2014, our pious people will not tire themselves out, nor will they participate in it," he said. He then called for continued struggle against US-led NATO troops and their Afghan allies, and urged Kabul's security forces to direct their guns at foreign solders, government officials, and Afghans cooperating with the US-led troops.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been pressuring Karzai to sign an agreement that, among other things, would allow the Pentagon to maintain a significant "footprint" in Afghanistan under the rubric of "training Afghan forces" after the withdrawal of US and other NATO combat troops by December 2014.  So far, despite his dependence on Washington for his political survival, Karzai has been playing hardball.

In this, Washington is heading down a familiar path. In Iraq, both the Bush and Obama administrations tried to reach an agreement with a government the US had helped install to leave behind 10,000-20,000 military trainers and special operations troops. It failed when the pro-Tehran, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki doggedly refused.

These days, despite the repeated US complaints and requests, the Maliki government continues to allow Iranian arms to be sent overland and through its air space to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In late August, during the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, Iraq even declared that it wouldn't allow its airspace to be used for military strikes on Syria.

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