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    Middle East
 
     Jun 20, 2008

Middle East serves US some humble pie
By Sreeram Chaulia

Since World War II, the Middle East has been one of the most penetrated regions in the world in terms of American presence, influence and domination. Apart from South America, no other area on the planet has experienced as gigantic a footprint of the United States, stretching during its zenith from Cairo in the west to Tehran in the east. If great powers are prone to throwing their weight around where they perceive vital interests, the US has done it with all means in the Middle East for over six decades.

By imposing itself on Middle Eastern countries in a rainbow of avatars - exploiter, peacemaker, ally, enemy, eminence grise and occupier - the US became an arbiter of the region's destiny. One measure of the colossal impact that Washington had as a result is that no major diplomatic initiative could afford to ignore "what the Americans want".

On the occasion of any significant political event in the Middle East, it used to be commonplace to ask whether it had an American hand or if it reflected American will. The very axes of change were shaped by American preferences and opposition to them. Until recently, that is.

A series of new developments raises doubts about whether the US can still be the ultimate intersection in the Middle East through which all roads must cross. The just-hammered ceasefire between Hamas and Israel to halt violence across the Gaza Strip lacked American inputs and bypassed Washington's stated goal of marginalizing the democratically elected Islamic militant movement.

The reason why Egypt could mediate the ceasefire without apparent American backing is because both parties to the conflict had confidence in the contextual neutrality of Cairo. If Egypt had taken the advice of its American friends and brought in American wishes through backdoor channels, Hamas and possibly even Israel would have walked out of the dialogue process. The hostile and punitive policies of the George W Bush administration towards Hamas ruled out any chance of Washington itself being a mediator or facilitator of the negotiations.

A similar logic underlies the "indirect peace talks" being held in Turkey between two long-time antagonists, Israel and Syria, the first in eight years. Turkish mediation is palatable to Syria and Israel due to Ankara's general non-involvement and neutrality in Arab-Israeli disputes. As the only non-Arab Muslim country in the region besides Iran, Turkey is viewed favorably in Tel Aviv. Ankara is also acceptable as a third party for Syria as a means of breaking free from the American stranglehold that denies Damascus the chance to normalize relations with so-called "moderate states" of the region.

Turkey's mediation of the ongoing Israel-Syria entente went against Washington's desire of isolating Damascus owing to its closeness to Tehran. Absence of the writ of American blessings thus did not deter either Egypt nor Turkey from enacting constructive roles. These actions bring to the fore the question of how unbalanced the US's patron-client relationships in the region have grown. If Egypt and Turkey, two staunch "friendly regimes" cultivated by the US, are setting out on their own in ways that displease their patron, it conveys distinct loss of American leverage.

The most startling departure of a client regime from the American patrimonial grip is the announcement that Saudi Arabia has signed a massive $4 billion arms deal with Russia, breaking the American monopoly over military hardware supplies to the kingdom. The Saudis had earmarked $12 billion for defense upgrading this year and the revelation that one-third of it was awarded to Russian companies dismayed Washington to no end. The deal places Russia in an enviable position in the Middle East as a seller of weapons to both Saudi Arabia and Iran, a luxury for potential future Russian mediation to manage the intense rivalry between the region's predominant Sunni and Shi'ite powers.

So weak is the US in its current state of dependency on Saudi Arabia to overcome the staggering price of oil that it could not convince Riyadh to spurn the Russian arms manufacturers. In fact, in a bid to placate Riyadh, the Bush administration is mooting a new civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the Saudis against stiff opposition from Congress. The irony of the world's largest oil producer being offered nuclear technology for alleged energy generation purposes is not lost on observers.

Apart from the Russian angle, the proposed US-Saudi nuclear cooperation is aimed at countering Iran's own obstinate march towards nuclear power status. In the American imagination, Washington is the stabilizer of last resort in the Middle East. Since Iran is thumbing its nose at the US and EU by playing hardball on its nuclear ambitions, Washington thinks that it must stoke Saudi Arabia's nuclear program in order to keep the "balance of terror" in the region.

Iran's shadow also looms heavily on the US's difficulties in getting Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki government to acquiesce in the new "Status of Forces" agreement, which legalizes permanent American military bases and immunizes American soldiers and contractors from prosecution. Prime Minister Maliki's latest assurances to Iranian leaders that he "would not allow the use of Iraqi territory for staging attacks against Iran" are clear signals that Baghdad shares Tehran's concerns about prolonging the American occupation of Iraq.

Maliki's threat of asking US troops to go home at the end of the year when their United Nations mandate expires might be political posturing for domestic consumption, but it certainly adds to the erosion of American traction in the region. If one of the original intentions of occupying Iraq was to use it as a bridgehead to topple the Iranian government, Washington is being forced to eat humble pie.

Last, but not least, in the saga of depleting American hegemony in the Middle East is Washington's loss of face in last month's stand-off between Hezbollah and pro-Western forces in Lebanon. Hezbollah emerged as the victor of the tense showdown with the Lebanese government and bagged a favorable negotiated settlement in a manner that rubbed the American nose to the ground. Washington could only watch as a bystander as Iran and Syria demonstrated that their proxy, Hezbollah, was strong enough as a state within the state to dictate to American-backed elements.

As was the case with Egypt and Turkey, another American ally - Qatar - mediated an end to the worst internal Lebanese conflict since the end of the civil war in 1990. Thanks to its image as an honest broker, Doha was instrumental in bringing about a crisis closure that benefited Hezbollah.

So widely appreciated was Qatar's intervention in the Lebanese case that speculation now rages that it might be able to pull off a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine. Here too, the Americans have been working overtime to keep the two main Palestinian guerrilla groups divided and weakened. If Qatar or Saudi Arabia can wheedle Fatah and Hamas into an elusive truce, it would further sideline the US as the grandmaster that wins most outcomes of the Middle East chessboard.

It is still early to conclude that the Middle East is the graveyard of Pax Americana. The flow of localized negotiated settlements could clog and return to old stalemates, necessitating grand "roadmap for peace"-style solutions that Washington espouses. The array of American troops and battleships in the Middle East is quite formidable and far from being quickly routed. Most autocratic Arab regimes are beholden to the US for survival, another card that Washington can bank on.

However, the paradox that the world's largest possessor of diplomatic resources and skills has to rely on its military machine and the loyalty of despots to remain relevant in the Middle East speaks of how poorly Washington harnessed its cachet under George W Bush. It is now left to a possible Barack Obama administration to ensure that the American voice gets heard again in the region, not due to fear of attack but respect for its wisdom.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, New York.

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