x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The latest WikiLeaks reveal a Pax Americana on the wane

Mr Obama is right to acknowledge that the US no longer has the funds to match the past. But having limited resources also requires making careful choices.

The Wikileaks saga seems a fine metaphor for a United States on the wane internationally. Suddenly, the empire comes across as a bumbling giant, unable to contain the tremors from the release of a few diplomatic papers, through a medium, the internet, long sustained by American fidelity to the free exchange of information.
Maybe, but it is hard policy that has really affected Washington's standing in the world. Much has been written about the decline of the United States, especially in the Middle East. It is easy to overstate things, although it is also increasingly difficult to deny that in the region Pax Americana is no more. The sturdy, decades-long edifice of American power, based on strategic alliances with leading Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan - the so-called "moderates" for being willing to accept Israel, that other bulwark of American influence - is impossible to discern these days. And into that vacuum regional dynamics have tossed in more volatile relationships.
That reality seems painfully obvious in reading some of the leaked American cables. The report that some Arab leaders advocated using military action to stop Iran's nuclear programme suggests an appeal to the old ways of the region, where the balance of power was imposed by Washington and upstarts were rudely put in their place.
President George W Bush's invasion of Iraq changed that. Here, for a moment, was a revolutionary overturning of the familiar. Whatever the justifications used, the upshot was that the Shiite majority in Iraq was finally allowed to govern, the country was transformed into a parliamentary democracy (albeit a far from perfect one), with regular, freewheeling elections (no less imperfect). More important, the US eliminated the main Arab counterweight to Iran, but never seemed sure of how to fill the gap itself, this at the very heart of the Middle East. Such haziness was clarified by President Barack Obama.
When Mr Obama decided to draw down American forces in Iraq on a short timetable, he was fulfilling a campaign promise. However, the repercussions went far deeper, and came at a sensitive moment for his Arab allies. The president, it seemed, announced that the US would no longer be the regulator in the Middle East. Against a rising Iran, Washington did not deem the consolidation of a pro-American Iraq to be a strategic priority. Instead, Mr Obama transferred his ambiguities to Afghanistan, where the US is looking for the exits while fighting on, and to Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, where the president cannot enforce a settlement but also will not abandon the search for one.
This indecision has not been helped by the fact that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are in the midst of generational transformations in leadership, and have not seriously hindered the Iranian bid for regional dominance, or Turkey's vigorous return to the Middle East. The most dynamic players in the region are those on its periphery, and with the US politically listless, it is not surprising that even Arab leaders friendly toward Washington are hedging their bets.
Take the recent visit to Iran of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri. Obama administration officials doubtless cringed, particularly when the pro-Iranian Hizbollah may stand accused of involvement in the assassination in 2005 of Rafiq Hariri. But the Lebanese prime minister, whose patron is Saudi Arabia, would respond that because the US is fading in the region, he has no choice but to protect himself by dealing with Iran, Turkey, and any other regional actor that might help stabilise the situation in Lebanon. It is a risk for Mr Hariri to expect to inhibit Hizbollah by improving ties with the party's Iranian sponsors, but the harsh truth is that Washington is absent from the equation.
By downgrading Iraq, the US has also largely neutralised a valuable weapon it could have used in the region: democracy. Iraq's problems notwithstanding, the US fostered a competitive pluralistic order there that, if it can strengthen itself, would contrast starkly with other Arab societies. Iraqi democracy and representative government need not be perfect to have a substantial bearing on other Arab social contracts.
This will take time, but the US is evidently not keen to be a part of it. Mr Obama, like Mr Bush during his second term, seems unable to grasp that values have become of vital importance in the Middle East: that whichever state manages to get its values across most effectively can shape actions and perceptions in the region. Iran and Turkey, for instance, have gained much by talking about the legitimacy of resistance, but the US offers no rejoinder defending democratic practise, nor does it seem interested in the more open Iraq that it created.
A second US shortcoming has been the failure of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. While a case can be made that Mr Obama would be better off abandoning an effort leading nowhere, if the president is committed to a settlement, then he must go all the way. The so-called peace process has been the single most onerous drain on American credibility in recent decades, because nothing can be worse for a superpower than persistent ineffectualness. One of the main props of Pax Americana was Washington's ability to mediate between Arabs and Israelis. But that means little when the US is stubbornly stuck in a diplomatic course of action that has repeatedly disappointed.
American regression in the Middle East is self-inflicted. Mr Obama is right to acknowledge that the US no longer has the funds to match the ambitions of the past. But having limited resources also requires making careful choices, and the president's choices in the Middle East have been questionable ones. The US may yet stage a comeback in the region, but not many people expect that to happen soon.
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 (Simon & Schuster)