The folding of the American flag in Iraq amid a collapse of public security and a severe crisis in the country’s fragile political order seals a tragic chapter in the history of the United States. It marked the denouement of one of the clearest cases ever of the imperial overreach that former US Senator William Fulbright called the “arrogance of power.”
Violently torn by religious and ethnic rivalries, Iraq is in no condition to play its part in America’s vision of an Arab wall of containment of Iran. Unless the Iranian regime is terminally humbled in the course of its showdown with the West over its nuclear program, the more plausible scenario is that Shia-dominated Iraq moves closer to Iran’s strategic orbit rather than become part of America's regional designs.
After ten years of war, more than a hundred thousand casualties, mostly Iraqis, and an astronomical cost of almost $1 trillion, the US leaves behind an Iraq that is neither more secure nor especially democratic. It is, however, one of the most corrupt countries (175th out of 178, according to Transparency International). The war that was supposed to be a central pillar in a drive to restructure the Middle East under America’s guidance ended up marking the decline of its influence there.
The Middle East sucked America’s resources and energies, but the results are desperately meager. Turkey, with its “dangerous foreign minister” (as Ahmet Davutoğlu was portrayed in a US cable released by WikiLeaks), is defining its regional policies in a way that frequently clashes with US designs. Israel rebuffed US President Barack Obama’s peace initiatives, and even refused to extend a freeze on settlement construction for a mere three months, despite a lavish offer of strategic compensation. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas defiantly disregards the US threat to stop aid if Palestine persists in its bid for United Nations membership. And Arab leaders ridicule Obama’s naïve trust in negotiations as a way to cut short Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The “Arab awakening” is about homegrown democratic change; it is therefore a repudiation of both US complicity with local autocrats and the American paradigm, so evident in Iraq, of “democracy” imported on the wings of F-16s.
The future remains uncertain, but the assumption that Arabs’ demands for fair governments and civil dignity can still be repressed, like a genie squeezed back into the bottle, is a self-serving fantasy of irremediable autocrats – and of some in the West. Arab governments’ policies will become more reflective of their peoples’ wishes, even when these are represented, as we now see, by Islamist majorities.
America was taught the hard way that it can live with Islamists; after all, it leaves behind a Shia-led government in Baghdad that has close ties to Iran, and is engaging the Taliban in Afghanistan as a last-resort strategy to exit an unwinnable war. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt, al-Nahda in Tunisia, and the Party of Justice and Development in Morocco are now the West’s interlocutors.
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Israel’s diplomacy, however, is a particularly startling example of cognitive dissonance. It persists in ruling out Hamas as an interlocutor while engaging Egypt’s Islamist democratic majority.
Neither dominating the politics of the region nor truly leading it, the US is a spectator in the unfolding Arab drama. The integrity of Iraqi statehood remains uncertain, as is the outcome of the Egyptian revolution. Saudi power and US acquiescence managed to stifle democratic agitation in the Gulf, but the region’s dynasties cannot expect to slip history’s noose once and for all.
Meanwhile, US weakness has opened the door to Russia’s resumption of Cold War practices in the region. Russia’s diplomatic protection of Syria’s brutal regime from the ire of the international community, and of Iran from the West’s drive to cripple its economy, stems from its conviction that ten years of costly and inconclusive wars have seriously diminished America’s global standing.
The Kremlin’s defiance of the US extends to southwest Asia as well. Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, threatened recently that his country might shut down the US supply line to Afghanistan.
America, in short, faces a time of reckoning that should usher in a period of comprehensive strategic rebalancing. The legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, like that of the Vietnam War before them, is bound to teach the US caution in the use of military might. It should also counsel a greater emphasis on international legitimacy and multilateral alliances in dealing with hostile regimes.
Most fundamentally, America’s excessive focus on the Middle East will now need to be tempered by a shift to other regions of vital national interest. This should lead to healthy economic competition with a rising China, alongside protection of US interests in the Pacific Rim now threatened by China’s expanding influence. It might also mean engaging Russia in the hope that its emerging civil society will give rise to a more truly democratic regime, one that might be ready to supersede the traumas of the Cold War and be drawn to closer cooperation with the West.
At the same time, the dismissive attitude towards Europe that one senses in America is unjustified and self-defeating. Intimate ties with a revitalized European Union remain vital to the global projection of Western values and interests.
Sterile isolationism runs counter to America’s self-conception as a nation with a global mission. But the dire legacy of its two recent wars calls for a focus on internal improvement. Enhancing America’s soft power, safeguarding its supremacy as a hub of unparalleled innovation, upgrading its decaying infrastructure and faltering educational system, and ridding itself of its addiction to foreign credit might do more to secure America’s global leadership than the most successful of wars.