x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Obama's America prefers to ignore the Middle East

The era of Pax Americana in the Middle East is well and truly over. There are lots of reasons for this, but Barack Obama's evident lack of interest in the region's problems is certainly one of them.

The debate over America's global decline rages on. However, in one context there is less disagreement. As we know it, the American-dominated order, or what we can call Pax Americana, in the Middle East seems to be on its last legs, even if the military power of the United States will remain unrivalled for some time to come.

Three events last week highlighted Washington's economic challenges, which are also psychological. President Barack Obama announced that he would withdraw 30,000 troops from Afghanistan in the coming year, a first step towards ending the American military presence in the country. On the same day, the Congressional Budget Office released a report warning that without deep cuts in federal health and retirement programmes or sharp tax increases, America's national debt would exceed annual GDP by 2021.

And days later, talks between Congressional Republicans and Democrats to increase the US debt ceiling broke down, amid discord over tax increases. Republicans reject raising taxes. Instead, they appear amenable to saving money by slicing into military spending, traditionally a sacred cow for the party.

Mr Obama has not hidden that his priority is to revive America's well-being, and that he views overseas conflicts and military deployments, above all in the Middle East, as obstacles to this. The president has accelerated drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a reluctant participant in the Libya campaign, and has remained aloof from developments elsewhere in the Arab world. Unlike President Lyndon Johnson, whose ambitious domestic agenda was undermined by the Vietnam War, Mr Obama seems unwilling to allow his domestic priorities to suffer from conflicts abroad.

After the Second World War, Pax Americana in the Middle East rested on a number of pillars: access to oil, especially cheap oil; preserving the security of oil-producing countries, above all Saudi Arabia, which was instrumental in keeping prices down in the petroleum markets; during the Cold War, opposing communism; and from the late 1960s on, the spirited defence of Israel. After the collapse of the Soviet Union these priorities frequently changed and were joined by others, their importance varying depending on the circumstances.

The paramount instrument of American influence was, and is, military might, particularly Washington's ability to project power through its navy. However, business and diplomacy were rarely far away. The Gulf countries became hungry customers for high-priced US weaponry, while the American-sponsored settlement between Israel and Egypt substantially neutralised prospects of new Arab-Israeli wars. From the 1990s on there was no real counterweight to Washington's supremacy, reinforcing an often understated feature of Pax Americana in the Middle East, namely a self-confidence and sense of entitlement to retain the regional top spot.

Under Mr Obama, that swagger has all but evaporated. This was evident in the president's speeches in Ankara and Cairo, but also in his general detachment from the region. Despite an early pledge to push for successful Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, the president has little immersed himself personally in regional affairs. Even Mr Obama's dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan last year came with an escape clause, as he set this summer as the deadline for commencing a pullout. The president has repeatedly hinted that the Middle East is a headache he prefers to leave to subordinates.

Today, the combination of economic necessity and Mr Obama's inclination to end, or at least substantially downgrade, America's commitment to the Middle East, is provoking a fundamental shift in official American attitudes. Yet the growing isolationism in America today is dissimilar to anything we've seen before - for instance the national self-doubt of the mid-1970s after Vietnam, which was exacerbated by years of economic stagnation and inflation.

Even during the days of President Jimmy Carter, often regarded, fairly or not, as a yardstick for failed leadership, the US never lost its sense of underlying purpose. There was a strategy guiding foreign affairs, and it was containment of the Soviet Union. Today, it is difficult to discern what Mr Obama's strategy is, perhaps because he doesn't have one. Everywhere, people are wondering what America stands for; nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East.

And so Mr Obama is hastening the end 60 years of American pre-eminence in the Middle East. The US will not disappear. Its warships will continue patrolling the region's sea lanes, even if Mr Obama and his successors are more likely than not to avoid confrontations so as not to unbalance the books. The president has promised American support for Arab democracy, but will do very little to make good on that vow. Washington will increasingly subcontract resolutions of the region's crises to others, then will slowly realise that it is becoming marginal to Arab states and societies.

America's retreat may, in the long run, be a good thing. However, when empires fade away, instability usually follows, at least for a period of time. The "Pax", or peace, in Pax Americana may be something whose loss Arabs regret more than they do the Americana.


Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle