Obama visit exposes the full extent of US decline
In June it will be 100 years since the start of the Arab Revolt in the First World War, when Arabs threw off centuries of Turkish domination under the Ottoman Empire. At that time there was a powerful current of opposition to Turkish rule in cities such as Damascus. But such was the brutality of the Ottoman police state that its leadership was drowned in blood. The peasantry were starving and not fit to rise up. So it fell to the tribes of Arabia, mobilised by British gold, to spearhead the attack on the imperial oppressor.
Thus it happened that Britain and France ended up in charge of the new Arab states of the Middle East, a last hurrah for the old colonial powers that persisted until 1945. Since then the region has been under Washington’s influence, an arrangement sealed by Franklin D Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia under which Washington ensured security in return for reliable supplies of oil.
With Barack Obama paying a farewell visit to Saudi Arabia this week, all sides seem to be contemplating the waning of the third imperial era in the Middle East. To be sure, America is not going to disappear as the world’s paramount military power – that will continue for decades. But America’s stomach for holding the ring in a region of weakening states and growing non-state militias is in visible decline.
For the moment, the focus of Arab anger is Mr Obama himself. His hosts are in the rare position of knowing exactly what he thinks about them, after he set out his diplomatic testimony in a series of interviews with The Atlantic magazine. Transparency is to be welcomed but Mr Obama’s heartfelt disparagement of his allies breaks the rules of diplomacy laid down by the 19th-century statesman, Lord Salisbury: “Sleepless tact, immovable calmness and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunder can shake.”
Mr Obama characterised his partners and allies in Europe and the Middle East as “free-riders” who expected Washington to do all their fighting for them. The Saudis are blamed for spreading an “unforgiving” interpretation of Islam around the world, including Indonesia, where he spent part of his childhood.
Most offensive to the Saudis is his demand that they “share the neighbourhood” with the Iranians and “institute some sort of cold peace”.
Everyone is in favour of peace, but this exhortation ignores a salient fact: it was America, under George W Bush, which upset the balance of power and delivered Iraq to the Iranians, in an act of muddle-headed imperial folly which outdid even the old colonial powers.
Mr Obama has said that his view has never been that “we should throw our traditional allies overboard in favour of Iran”, but it certainly looks like that to some.
So it is no surprise that Mr Obama was given a notably low-key welcome on arrival in Riyadh, while King Salman went to the airport to greet leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council on the tarmac. Much of the Arab press has taken the view that Mr Obama is already a lame duck, and the focus should be on what comes after him. Al Hayat said that Mr Obama “will no longer be either useful or relevant to the Gulf states”.
There are two ways of looking at this. Mr Obama is a rarity in that he has been in open conflict with the military and the foreign policy establishment, setting out the need to break America’s reflexive use of military force.
In the natural order of things, the next president would seek to do the opposite of Mr Obama in this respect, just as the current president set out to be the anti-Bush. This may happen. The US military-industrial complex, whose “unwarranted influence” Dwight Eisenhower first highlighted in 1960, may indeed restore the status quo.
But that does not mean that normality will return to the US-Saudi relationship or that US focus on the Middle East will be restored by a policy establishment which sees more benefit in Asia. More likely is that strategic retreat from the Middle East will continue, perhaps disguised by occasional bouts of interventionism.
Hillary Clinton, the probable Democratic candidate for president to succeed Mr Obama, has signalled a change of tone in Washington. In a speech to the Brookings Institution she blamed “the policies and funding undertaken by the Saudi government and individuals for much of the extremism in the world”. And this from someone at the heart of the Washington establishment.
A second reason for scepticism is the stark reality that the US is faced with impossible choices in the region. In Syria, the policy of opposing both ISIL and the Syrian regime, while seeking “moderate” rebels to support, is not convincing.
In Iraq, the US is supporting the Iraqi armed forces to destroy ISIL, with the goal of liberating the city of Mosul by the end of the year. But in propaganda terms this is a no-win situation given that Washington is working in tandem with Iran, its Revolutionary Guard and the Iraqi Shia militias that Tehran has nurtured. Every American bomb dropped or missile fired serves to reinforce the ISIL message that Uncle Sam is siding with Iran and that ISIL alone is fighting for Sunni orthodoxy.
All this could be undone if Iran plays its cards wrong, by breaking the terms of the nuclear deal or provoking the US with missile development. In that case, Mr Obama’s outreach to Iran would rapidly collapse. But that is no certainty.
Mr Obama likes to think of America as the “indispensable” power in the world. In the Middle East, however, it has shown itself to be an insufficient superpower, just as Britain was in the past. All the pomp and promises of Mr Obama’s farewell visit will not change the course of the Gulf states, which is to broaden their international engagement and nurture more trust in their own capabilities.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter: @aphilps
Updated: April 21, 2016 04:00 AM