x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The death of America's 'with us or against us' policies

As the Arab world changes and Islamists come to the fore, 2012 will bring some unprecedented challenges for US foreign policy.

How long did it take the White House to agree on the phrase "this moment of success" to describe the US retreat from Iraq? For President Barack Obama to have declared the Iraq adventure a full-blown success would have stretched credulity, coming for a man who once called it a "dumb war".

By settling on a "moment of success" Mr Obama aligned himself with America's split personality about Iraq: its near veneration of its armed forces coupled with distaste for the war itself. The army has succeeded in withdrawing in good order - not Saigon-style - without the country erupting in flames of renewed civil war.

Yet if we look beyond the moment, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems as ill-conceived and ideologically driven as Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, a similar case of overstretch. The goal was to turn the Arab world into a region of US-allied liberal democracies and monarchies that ultimately would all make peace with Israel.

The worst fears - of Iraq turning into a client state of Iran - have not been realised, at least not yet. To borrow a phrase from the Cold War, Iraq has been "Finlandised", its foreign policy circumscribed by Iran just as Finland's was by its then neighbour, the Soviet Union. Finland remained independent and enjoyed prosperity, but it bowed to Moscow in foreign affairs. Such is Iraq today, with added sectarianism.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, countries seem to be falling like dominoes - to borrow another Cold War term - into the arms of Islamist parties, which for the past decade Washington has viewed as hostile. In the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections, 68 per cent of allocated seats have gone to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al Nour party of the Salafis, the puritanical fundamentalists.

In Libya, after the removal of the Qaddafi family dictatorship, Islamist tendencies will be prominent, if only because of the lack of any other political culture. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party won 37 per cent of the seats in the assembly.

A year ago the US would have connived at the ruling dictatorships rigging the ballot to keep the Islamists away from power, on the grounds that they move in the same ideological sphere as Osama bin Laden and were therefore terrorists by association. With bin Laden dead and his successor, Ayman Al Zawahiri, dismissing the ballot box as a way to power, that logic is overturned.

The year 2012 will be an extraordinary test for US foreign policy: it will be the year of engaging with old enemies, not only in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but also in Afghanistan. We can see this most clearly in ambitions to establish a quasi-diplomatic mission in Qatar for the Taliban (though some doubt was cast yesterday on whether this plan will ever proceed).

There is only one purpose for this mission: so that the Americans can start a dialogue, ahead of their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, with the people who sheltered bin Laden before September 11, 2001.

The Taliban are not going to sign a peace treaty - their interest is to wait out the Americans until they march away over the horizon. But it would at least ease the transition if the Americans were able to extract a promise from the Taliban that they would not harbour global jihadists on their territory.

Despite all the talk of liberating Afghan women, the American interest in this mountainous desert is limited: preventing the emergence of another bin Laden. Such blatant realpolitik recalls the declining years of the British empire. It was almost a prerequisite for post-colonial leaders to whom Britain handed power in Africa to have served time in a British jail.

America is different. It thinks of itself as the indispensable nation, with a foreign policy based on a clear distinction between the forces of good and evil, and an unwillingness to break bread with old enemies. This has led to some disastrous decisions. In 1992, the western powers backed the Algerian army when it intervened to stop an election that the Islamic Salvation Front was likely to win. This unleashed a decade of civil war.

In 2006 the US refused to recognise Hamas as the winner of the Palestinian legislative elections, even though the vote was fair. This led to the current division in the Palestinian movement between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank, which makes any talk of peace-making meaningless.

The time for this Manichean division between the good guys and the bad guys is over. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will have to move very quickly from issues of religion and identity to the real business of government. They will have to make coalitions with other parties if they are to gain traction against the military who for the time being hold power.

These parties need American help, not a cold shoulder, if they are to grow from symbols of opposition into organs of government.

At the moment, the Obama administration's stance is one of "leading from behind" in the Libyan revolution, and "wait and see" in the Arab elections. This is denounced by his opponents as passivity. Without doubt this is a sign that Washington cannot call all the shots in the Middle East. Standing on the sidelines inevitably restricts policy options.

Yet this is a far better policy than the knee-jerk reactions of the past. Mr Obama is to be congratulated for daring, in an election year, to be on what he sees as the right side of history. He began his presidency by promising, in his June 2009 Cairo speech, a "new beginning" with the Muslim world. This seems to be happening, almost by accident in the wake of the Arab revolutions.

The real test will come when the US has to negotiate its departure from Afghanistan. This must include talking to the Taliban, who were left out of the victor's peace negotiations in 2001. In the cauldron of US politics, this will not go down well, reeking as it does of the decline of empire.

But it is the only way out of the mess left over from the Bush administration.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

Follow him on Twitter: @aphilps