x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Election-based timidity makes US an unreliable ally

The new American president must look beyond election-centric policies and base decisions on long-term strategic objectives.

Campaigning for re-election, President Barack Obama has spoken with great pride of three foreign-policy landmarks during his presidency: withdrawing from Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden and helping Libyans overthrow Muammar Qaddafi.

These "accomplishments" all affected the Middle East and North Africa. But a review of Obama-administration foreign policy performance from the perspective of America's Middle Eastern allies reveals few, if any, achievements he can brag about.

America's Muslim allies in the region today are Jordan, Morocco and the GCC states. For those countries, the main concerns now are Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism.

Working efficiently with allies requires seeing eye-to-eye with them on matters of mutual concern. But the US, as the stronger party, often initiates policies that can affect its allies in less-than-ideal ways.

Let us start with Iran. Very few Arab leaders believed that western economic sanctions and diplomacy would be enough to sway Tehran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, and indeed Iran's nuclear programme continues to make progress despite ever-tougher US and EU sanctions.

In fact, Tehran's influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan has increased, undermining Arab and western interests there.

The revolution in Syria is seen by most of America's regional allies as a golden opportunity to damage the Iranian axis. But the rebels have not received serious tangible western assistance. Angry, disappointed Arab officials watched the US stand helpless as the UN Security Council was unable to act against the Syrian regime or to provide the rebels with any weapons. Meanwhile, Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizbollah have fed men and weapons to the Syrian regime.

Most GCC states have rejected American reasons for denying military aid to the insurgents - the fear that these arms could fall into the hands of Islamist terrorists - and have started their own arms supply network. The GCC accuses Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of Bahrain and Yemen, and GCC states have pursued their own policies there, convinced that the US was chasing what one Gulf official has described as "counterproductive policies".

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, it has been greatly empowered recently by changes in the region. Remember that the countries most affected by the events known as the Arab Spring were, except for Libya, all regarded as strong US allies under their old regimes.

Now many of these governments are led or influenced by Islamist parties associated with the Brotherhood, which denounces monarchy and promotes a political system under Sharia. The sudden rise of the Brotherhood, after decades of suppression, sent shock waves through the Arab world. The GCC, Jordan and Morocco have gone on the defensive, and therefore have reacted with concern to the sight of the US opening channels of communication with the new governments in Tunis and Cairo. GCC states worry that Washington may be too calm about what the Arab monarchies perceive as an imminent serious threat to their rule.

Officials in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have recently voiced concern about the Brotherhood. Dubai's chief of police, Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, even said the movement is a bigger threat to the GCC than Iran is.

As for the danger of terrorism, despite bin Laden's death, Al Qaeda has become entrenched and expanded its operations in Yemen and in the Horn of Africa. Al Qaeda affiliates are active in Iraq, Egypt, Somalia and most recently in parts of the Sahara.

America's Middle East allies see the war on terrorism as unable to deal with the causes of terrorism. They perceive that the US will only make the problem worse by intensifying drone-strike warfare while ignoring the Palestinian-Israeli struggle and regional socio-economic problems.

In all, then, most US allies in the region believe that Mr Obama's foreign policy is failing on many fronts. Even the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, traditionally a high priority for Washington, has seen little activity.

The main criticism of US policy, especially recently, is that it has been too election-centric, all about playing it safe to win the election, despite possible long-term damage to the interests of the US and its allies.

This is frustrating for regional states locked in a fierce cold war against Iran, a formidable cunning adversary that pursues long-term strategic objectives with an aggressive expansionist approach.

The US is coming to be seen as an unreliable ally, but the GCC states, Jordan and Morocco have no alternative. The US has been lucky so far in managing to maintain many of its regional interests. But its passive policies focused on domestic politics have put US interests increasingly at risk in the fast-changing region.

Emerging realities in the Arab world's dynamic politics are making most of yesterday's policies redundant. To retain the status of a superpower, the US must have a more solid long-term foreign policy reflecting America's mutual interests with its regional allies.

The US did not become the superpower it is today through short-term election-centric policies on the part of former presidents. America's allies long for leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, who based their decisions on long-term strategic objectives.

Time does not pause to let leaders improve their electoral chances. History is made every day, and the short-sighted are left behind.


Riad Kahwaji is the chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis based in Dubai


Editor's note: The article has been corrected to amend a copy editing error indicating conclusive evidence that Al Qaeda is operating in Syria