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Barack Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech on November 6 in Chicago. Win McNamee / Getty Images / AFP
Barack Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech on November 6 in Chicago. Win McNamee / Getty Images / AFP

In Middle East politics, the US can't find the right exit strategy

After a succession of expensive military endeavours and with waning influence, the US wants to leave the Middle East but can't find the right exit strategy, writes Faisal Al Yafai.

The defining moment in America's political year came in November, when Barack Obama was reelected as president. The defining moment for America's Middle East politics came three weeks later, when the newly elected president of Egypt brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Looking across a turbulent year in the region, it is likely that the latter event will turn out to be the most important development in America's influence in the Middle East.

America is trying to leave the Middle East. In his first term in office, Barack Obama tried to reorient US foreign policy with a much-vaunted "pivot" to Asia. From the US' perspective, the problems of the Middle East are intractable.

Egypt's transition to democracy is bumpy, fraught with problems and protests, and is handing power to groups America is uncomfortable with. Iran continues its ambiguous nuclear programme. Israel shows no interest in slowing down illegal settlements.

Syria's civil war continues to blaze. For nearly two years, the Arab Spring has continued to unsettle the region, a region where, most of all, America values stability. The superpower just wants to leave.

But there is something else going on, which the ceasefire brokered by Egypt during the latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows. While America's influence in the region is still strong, it is also diminishing. The political, financial and military resources expended on perpetuating its influence in the Middle East are bringing fewer and fewer rewards. The pivot of the United States to Asia is not merely because it wants to influence over there. It is going because it can no longer influence over here.

Iraq was the turning point. When Brent Scowcroft, a security adviser to two US presidents, says that America has "close to zero influence" in Iraq, he is merely summing up the experience of nearly a decade of war and politics.

Historians will likely look back at the Iraq war of 2003 as America's moment of imperial over-reach. US military doctrine for the past three decades was based on the notion of fighting two wars simultaneously, a doctrine driven by the experience of fighting in Europe and Asia in the Second World War.

But winning wars goes beyond mere military capacity and the way the invasion was prepared and conducted, the long grind of trying to impose its will on an Iraqi population unwilling to accept foreign rule, with constant external interference, depleted US political capital, its will to fight and its deterrence value. On the battlefields of Iraq, the perceived ability of the US to influence events around the world took a hit from which it hasn't recovered.

That is hardly America's fault alone. Wars on the scale of Iraq have knock-on effects elsewhere, especially in a region as tightly bound together as the Arab world. Unreliable allies, clever opponents, even the "black swans" of unexpected politics, all have contributed to a situation where, today, America can persuade but not dictate.

What does that mean for the next four years of Obama's presidency?

First and foremost, it means an attack on Iran is extremely unlikely. "All options are on the table" is the usual political formulation, but, in reality, America cannot politically or financially afford another big war in the Middle East and does not want one. Neither do America's allies in the region.

Beyond that, it is too early to tell. The US president did not campaign on a clear line that could apply across the Middle East, and while his political instincts are well-known, his policies are often opaque in intent and execution. And four years is a long time in a region where the Arab Spring has unimaginably reordered the status quo in less than two.

On Iran, Obama is more likely to favour talks on Iran's nuclear programme, even as he faces an increasingly belligerent Tehran. Iran's president is in his final term of office and his successor will be elected by the middle of next year. What happens after that depends on how willing Iran's new president is to negotiate, how hawkish Israel's prime minister will be, and whether Obama can offer Iran a broad enough grand bargain.

The terms of that bargain might yet depend on what happens in Syria, where Iran is fighting to save its allies in the Assad regime. On Syria, Barack Obama is much less hawkish than some of his Arab allies would like. In 2011, Obama famously "led from behind" on Libya. With Syria, he has shown himself extremely unwilling to commit troops to a conflict in the Middle East, especially in a country as complex, as well-guarded and with such an uncertain post-revolution future. There have been recent signs that the US is shifting position somewhat, spiriting away Assad's spokesman, stationing Patriot missiles on the Turkish border, and increasing talk of Scud missiles and chemical weapons, language that appears to be preparing the ground for some sort of escalation. But the war has raged for nearly two years without outside involvement, despite credible reports of civilian massacres.

Even on Israel and Palestine, where the US should have its most direct influence, it is unclear how much progress America can midwife in the next four years. The punitive reaction of Israel's government to the recognition by the United Nations of Palestine as a non-observer state suggests that Obama will be hamstrung by a belligerent Netanyahu and a pliant US Congress. If Israel's current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is re-elected early next year, as appears likely, given the personal animosity between the two men, it is unlikely there will be much progress - and Obama might conclude his political capital is better spent on domestic issues, such as gun control and the economy, rather than settlements built on land far across the ocean.

Elsewhere, the US is trying to maintain influence with fewer and fewer resources. The drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen - the so-called secret wars - continue, far from public scrutiny, bringing higher and higher death tolls, but exposing few soldiers to combat. In Yemen, where the US sees security interests, the Obama administration is trying to influence events in the political post-revolution transition, without getting too involved. In May, the White House issued an executive order threatening financial sanctions against anyone "threatening the peace, security or stability of Yemen" - widely seen as a threat against the deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his allies. But the US stays at arms length, leaving the political wrangling to the GCC.

Even on the indispensable Arab country, Egypt, US policy is standoffish. Since the election of President Mohammed Morsi and the return of the Egyptian army to their barracks, the White House has remained ambiguous, praising Morsi occasionally and calling for "stability" and "dialogue" at moments of high drama.

The truth is that the Obama administration has no clear line on Egypt's transition: US politicians don't really know what they want to happen in Egypt and are reluctant to use the best leverage they have - withholding annual financial aid - in case it pushes Egypt's politicians out of the US camp or into re-negotiating the peace treaty with Israel. America knows that its money brings peace for Israel as much as it buys influence for Washington.

America is not leaving the Middle East any time soon. But it wants to.

The US feels its considerable hard and soft power can be better utilised elsewhere, but is reluctant to leave the region while it is in flux. Yet it is precisely that flux that is contributing to its diminishing influence.

In the next four years, Obama will try to simultaneously influence the region while moving away from it. Rhetorical skills have not aided America's image and Obama - or indeed any president - does not appear willing or able to make the real changes that the United States needs to make to secure a positive legacy in the region. The only way forward is out. Barack may be back in the White House, but America is gradually leaving the Middle East.

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for the National.

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