x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Reports of American decline are greatly exaggerated

Despite its "pivot to Asia", the United States is still very much engaged in the Middle East, and will be for a long time.

As the debate rumbles over a potential end to American aid in Egypt, some claim that this great Arab nation isn't that important any more. They argue that while it may once have been central to the Middle Eastern political and strategic landscape, Egypt is now largely irrelevant.

This is a gross error. In fact, Egypt remains enormously important to the broader region, but such discourse reflects the growing desperation of those who want its aid cancelled. Thankfully, cooler heads are beginning to prevail in Washington, as Americans remember the importance of the US-Egypt relationship.

But the debate also subtly invokes two larger issues facing the American establishment: the "pivot to Asia," and "American declinism".

Because Egypt clearly is a major regional player, to try to argue that it's not important to the US is, in effect, to hold that the Middle East no longer has the centrality it once did to American foreign policy.

The two ideas are inextricably linked, although usually only by implication, because the dismissal of the broader Middle East is impossible to rationally defend.

The "pivot to Asia", announced by the Obama administration in 2011, was widely interpreted as a "pivot away from the Middle East".

First, there was a growing sense of "Middle East fatigue" after the fiasco in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, and Israeli-Palestinian impasse. So it was understood as reflecting an impulse to move away from a region that seemed nothing but trouble. Second, it was interpreted as an acceptance of a shift of global power towards East Asia. Third, it was seen by many as setting up a new, more confrontational relationship with a more influential China.

But how much of a "pivot" has there actually been in the past two years? The US Air Force has certainly been reallocating its resources, much more so than other military branches. And there has indeed been an obvious increase in American diplomatic traffic to East Asia.

But the Middle East remains the central focus of American foreign policy. Whatever "pivot" may have been anticipated has yet to be implemented. For now, the US remains focused on Iran, is moving towards a deeper engagement in Syria, and has strongly recommitted to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

American Middle East policy sometimes looks confused, because the challenges are so severe while its options are limited. Indeed, this may have made the Asian "pivot" idea so attractive. But, for now, there is clearly no escaping the centrality of the Middle East.

The other debate lurking beneath the surface is that of "American declinism": the idea that American power is in some kind of free fall and therefore its foreign policy goals should be modest.

It's obviously true, and was inevitable, that American global power is not what it was. The economic and military power of the US peaked in the 1960s, but then it had a global rival: the Soviet Union. Yet there were still bouts of "declinist thought" during that period, first prompted by Sputnik and an imaginary "missile gap", and later on by the Vietnam war.

Despite both the real and illusory diminishment of American might in recent decades, it could be argued that its global dominance actually reached its apex between the end of the Cold War and the trifecta of disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis.

Since then, American decline has been real. But, particularly regarding the Middle East, it is being grossly overstated.

The US remains the world's sole superpower and the main power broker in the Middle East. Its options and leverage are now being woefully underestimated, just as they were vastly overestimated during the George W Bush era. An accurate evaluation would avoid both dangerous misjudgements.

The strongest evidence of continuing American indispensability is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. When the US is engaged, many complain it is unsuited because it's not an "honest broker". But when it disengages, the international community bemoans the "malign neglect" of a disproportionately destabilising conflict that keeps getting worse. Most tellingly, no other party is willing to take up the essential role of third-party broker.

Certainly Egypt isn't as important to the region as it was in the 1950s and 1960s and there has been a genuine decline in American economic, and even to some extent military, power. Change happens. China and India are growing powers. We can foresee a virtually inevitable development of a multipolar world order. But it hasn't happened yet and it won't for some time. For now, the US remains uniquely powerful and important.

The Iraq war demonstrated how hubris leads to disaster. But overestimating "American decline," or trying in vain to "pivot" away from the Middle East and towards Asia, is a prescription for passive and excessively risk-averse policies. That short changes what the US still can and, indeed, what its Arab allies and the international community needs it to do: lead.


Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington, DC

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