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How American Foreign Policy Is Hurting American Power

Washington's international power has been waning despite policy designed to expand influence.

| Tue Nov. 5, 2013 3:13 PM EST

President Obama talk with the president of Turkey at a luncheon.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America's awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.

Twelve years after the US invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq—both designed to consolidate and expand America's regional clout by removing adversaries—Washington's actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the United States, but no one really fears it, either—and increasingly, no one pays it any mind at all.

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There are plenty of reasons why America's previously unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East is in free fall. The disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq generated anti-American fervor in the streets and in the elites. America's economic crisis since 2008 has convinced many that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to sustain an imperial presence. The Arab Spring, for all its ups and downs, has challenged the status quo everywhere, leading to enormous uncertainty while empowering political forces unwilling to march in lockstep with Washington. In addition, oil-consuming nations like China and India have become more engaged with their suppliers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. The result: throughout the region, things are fast becoming unglued for the United States.

Its two closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are sullenly hostile, routinely ignore Obama's advice, and openly oppose American policies. Iraq and Afghanistan, one formerly occupied and one about to be evacuated, are led, respectively, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an inflexible sectarian Shiite closely tied to Iran, and President Hamid Karzai, a corrupt, mercurial leader who periodically threatens to join the Taliban. In Egypt, three successive regimes—those of President Hosni Mubarak, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the chieftains of the July 2013 military coup—have insouciantly flouted US wishes.

Turkey, ostensibly a NATO ally but led by a quirky Islamist, is miffed over Obama's back-and-forth policy in Syria and has shocked the US by deciding to buy a non-NATO-compatible missile defense system from China. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have little or no government at all. They have essentially devolved into a mosaic of armed gangs, many implacably opposed to the United States.

This downward spiral has hardly escaped attention. In a recent address to the National Council on US-Arab Relations, Chas Freeman, the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described it in some detail. "We have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many situations unfolding there," said Freeman, whose nomination by Obama in 2009 to serve as head of the National Intelligence Council was shot down by the Israel Lobby. "We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region."

In an editorial on October 29th, the New York Times ruefully concluded: "It is not every day that America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel." And in a front-page story on the administration's internal deliberations, the Times's Mark Landler reported that, over the summer, the White House had decided to scale back its role in the Middle East because many objectives "lie outside [its] reach," and henceforth would adopt a "more modest strategy" in the region.

Perhaps the most profound irony embedded in Washington's current predicament is this: Iran, for decades the supposed epicenter of anti-Americanism in the region, is the country where the United States has perhaps its last opportunity to salvage its position. If Washington and Tehran can negotiate a détente—and it's a big if, given the domestic political power of hawks in both countries—that accord might go a long way toward stabilizing Washington's regional credibility.

Debacle in Syria

Let 's begin our survey of America's Greater Middle Eastern fecklessness with Exhibit A: Syria. It is there, where a movement to oust President Bashar al-Assad devolved into a civil war, that the United States has demonstrated its utter inability to guide events. Back in the summer of 2011—at the very dawn of the conflict—Obama demanded that Assad step down. There was only one problem: short of an Iraq-style invasion of Syria, he had no power to make that happen. Assad promptly called his bluff, escalated the conflict, and rallied support from Russia and Iran. Obama's clarion call for his resignation only made things worse by convincing Syrian rebels that the United States would come to their aid.

A year later, Obama drew a "red line" in the sand, suggesting that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would precipitate a US military response. Again Assad ignored him, and many hundreds of civilians were gassed to death in multiple uses of the dreaded weapons.

The crowning catastrophe of Obama's Syria policy came when he threatened a devastating strike on Assad's military facilities using Tomahawk cruise missiles and other weaponry. Instead of finding himself leading a George W. Bush-style "coalition of the willing" with domestic support, Obama watched as allies scattered, including the usually reliable British and the Arab League. At home, political support was nearly nil and evaporated from there. Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed to a war with or attack on Syria.

When, in desperation, the president appealed to Congress for a resolution to authorize the use of military force against that country, the White House found (to its surprise) that Congress, which normally rubber-stamps such proposals, would have none of it. Paralyzed, reluctant to choose between backing down and striking Syria by presidential fiat, Obama was rescued in humiliating fashion by a proposal from Syria 's chief ally, Russia, to dismantle and destroy that country's chemical weapons arsenal.

Adding insult to injury, as Secretary of State John Kerry scrambles to organize a long-postponed peace conference in Geneva aimed at reaching a political settlement of the civil war, he is faced with a sad paradox: while the Syrian government has agreed to attend the Geneva meeting, also sponsored by Russia, America 's allies, the anti-Assad rebels, have flatly refused to go.

Laughingstock in Egypt

Don't think for a second that Washington's ineffectiveness stops with the ongoing Syrian fiasco.

Next door, in a country whose government was installed by the United States after the 2003 invasion, the Obama administration notoriously failed to convince the Iraqis to allow even a small contingent of American troops to remain there past 2011. Since then, that country has moved ever more firmly into Iran 's orbit and has virtually broken with Washington over Syria.

Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Shiite-led Iraq has joined Shiite Iran in supporting Assad, whose ruling minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism. There have been widespread reports that pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite militias are traveling to Syria, presumably with the support or at least acquiescence of the government. Ignoring Washington's entreaties, it has also allowed Iran to conduct a virtual Berlin Airlift-style aerial resupply effort for Syria's armed forces through Iraqi air space. Last month, in an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York during the United Nations General Assembly session, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari undiplomatically warned Obama that his government stands against the US decision—taken in a secret presidential finding in April and only made public last summer—to provide arms to Syria's rebels. ("We oppose providing military assistance to any [Syrian] rebel groups.")

Meanwhile, Washington is also flailing in its policy toward Egypt, where the Obama administration has been singularly hapless. In a rare feat, it has managed to anger and alienate every conceivable faction in that politically divided country. In July, when Egypt's military ousted President Mohammad Morsi and violently clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration made itself look ridiculous to Egyptians (and to the rest of the Middle East) by refusing to call what happened a coup d'état, since under US law that would have meant suspending aid to the Egyptian military.

As it happened, however, American aid figured little in the calculations of Egypt's new military leaders. The reason was simple enough: Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, bitter opponents of the Morsi government, applauded the coup and poured at least $12 billion in cash into the country's near-empty coffers. In the end, making no one happy, the administration tried to split the difference: Obama declared that he would suspend the delivery of some big-ticket military items like Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts, and F-16 fighter planes, but let other aid to the military continue, including counterterrorism assistance and the sale of border security items. Such a split decision only served to underscore the administration's lack of leverage in Cairo. Meanwhile, there are reports that Egypt's new rulers may turn to Russia for arms in open defiance of a horrified Washington's wishes.

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