Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

The US is to blame for its foreign policy paralysis over the past decade

End of the decade: Broken politics has left successive governments in Washington rudderless, increasingly distracted and lacking in purpose on the global stage

The US has gradually disengaged from the rest of the world under the presidencies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. EPA
The US has gradually disengaged from the rest of the world under the presidencies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. EPA

Conventional wisdom increasingly holds that the US is struggling through a long goodbye from a traditional role of Middle East leadership. But if so, why?

American officials invariably insist Washington remains the driving force. Almost 10 years ago, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared a “new American moment” of global leadership. A year earlier, then president Barack Obama told a Cairo audience that he sought "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world". For all its "America first" rhetoric, the Donald Trump administration has similarly trumpeted US engagement in the region and the world.

On paper and in all spheres, the US remains by far the biggest international player in the Middle East. Yet a combination of policy failures and misjudgements has weakened its credibility and soured the American public on deep engagement in the region.

After the end of the Cold War, underscored by the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991, many in Washington imagined a unipolar world with the US acting as unchallenged superpower into the foreseeable future. If that was ever real at all, it was certainly temporary.

The failure of the Clinton administration to secure a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement at Camp David in the summer of 2000 now seems the start of a long decline. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was undoubtedly a major turning point, particularly for the American public’s striking Middle East fatigue. The Obama administration, building on that legacy of failure, added an aura of unreliability

Nowhere was this more evident than in the Middle East.

The failure of the Bill Clinton administration to secure a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and prevent the Second Intifada – from which the peace process has never recovered – now seems the start of a long decline.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was undoubtedly a major turning point, particularly for the American public’s striking Middle East fatigue. The George W Bush administration charged into Iraq on the flimsiest of pretexts, with no clear sense of what it wanted or how any of those things could be accomplished. The result was a predictable debacle.

The Obama administration, building on that legacy of failure, added an aura of unreliability.

Traditional allies, including the Gulf countries, Israel and others, watched with dismay as Washington abandoned then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to his fate in 2011 when he was forced to step down, suggesting that in this case at least loyalty proved a one-way street. The signing of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran appeared to confirm many of these fears. Mr Obama also highlighted a "pivot to Asia", chided Gulf countries as "free riders" and emphasised "burden sharing". He allowed the Syrian regime to cross an announced "red line" on the use of chemical weapons without any negative consequences.

Mr Trump has continued all these trends and added wild unpredictability to the mix. Obviously, there is no guarantee he will not suddenly reverse his foreign policies if he feels that will play well to his domestic political base. But behind this sorry tale of largely avoidable strategic deterioration in what remains an evidently vital region lie a number of voluntary and involuntary reactions.

The US is generally overextended and a multipolar world was the inevitable successor to the Cold War bipolar reality, rather than an "end of history" unipolar fantasy. So, the US has been in relative decline but from heights that were artificially exalted, historically peculiar and obviously unsustainable.

The most salient feature of this decline, however, is volitional – or at least hardwired into American democracy. It is also characteristic of American fumbling in other crucial international arenas such as the Korean Peninsula.

In Middle East terms, the question can be easily framed thus: how is it that what is regarded as a relatively feeble Russian Federation is the emerging powerbroker and friend to all in the region while the relatively mighty US routinely sidelines itself? The answer is that Russia knows what it wants, defines its goals narrowly and acts resolutely to secure its specific interests. The US does none of those things.

It is not just that, as a democracy, the US is trapped in inevitable conflicts between Democratic and Republican parties, or liberals and conservatives, or even internationalists and isolationists. All of that is true and the rise of the neo-isolationists of the Trump-era is a major challenge to US global engagement. But the greater problem is far deeper. Even within a given administration or faction, there is rarely a clear, coherent and broadly shared understanding of the political goal of many given diplomatic or military interventions. In the absence of a broadly-accepted and bipartisan framing narrative such as the Cold War and a clearly dangerous defining foe like the Soviet Union, the American system has a hard time achieving unity of purpose.

This harkens back to the disastrous period of incoherence between the two world wars, which the “America first” slogan also invokes.

Even within specific administrations in Washington, this is a perennial problem. After a long internal struggle, the Bush administration determined to invade Iraq. At the time, I counted 13 distinctly different stated reasons for doing that yet almost none of its main proponents agreed on what the priorities should be. So, of course the US failed in Iraq. It never agreed on what it was doing. There was no broadly-accepted metric for measuring success or failure because there was no agreed-upon benchmark for such a judgment. Therefore, failure was guaranteed.

This problem has continued to the present day. Mr Trump seeks one set of policies in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Ukraine while many of his senior officials, and the military, view things very differently – as the impeachment inquiry has demonstrated. And, in Mr Trump’s case at least, it is not possible for him to stamp his mark on the administration because even he is not sure what he is going to want tomorrow and how he could defend it. And even when he thinks he does, what about everyone else?

Contrast this to Vladimir Putin's Russia or Xi Jinping’s China. The cliche is, you can't get what you want until you know what you want. For US foreign policy, this is becoming a crippling conundrum. The US cannot achieve or recognise foreign policy success because it does not have anything close to a shared definition of it.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: December 31, 2019 11:11 AM

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