May 25th 2010

Washington Just Lost the Middle East in a Big Way

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

It's official. There is no longer any serious "cost" for defying the United States in the global arena. Unable to win wars or deliver diplomatic coups - and struggling to maintain our economic equilibrium - Washington has lost the fundamental tools for global leadership. And no place does this impotence manifest more vividly than the modern Middle East.

Our pointless and protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be the last time we will launch a major battle in the region. That massive show of flexing brawn over brain burst a global perception bubble about our intentions, capabilities and reason.

This credibility was compromised further with our irrational support of Israel's attacks on Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and 2008/9 respectively. And by the double standards employed over Israel's violations of international law and its illegal nuclear weapons stash - particularly when viewed against the backdrop of our startling rhetoric over Iran's nuclear program.

But nothing highlights our irrelevance more than two recent developments:

1) The US's inability today to convene even perfunctory peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, let alone push through a negotiated solution - and this after 19 years of a "US-sponsored" peace process.

2) The US's inability to achieve a resolution with Iran over its nuclear program. The only breakthrough in this long-winded effort to tame Iran's nuclear aspirations was struck by Turkey and Brazil last week.

In short, the US seems incapable of resolving even a traffic dispute in the Middle East. It is Qatar that stepped in to broker a deal between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government in 2008, and is knee deep in negotiating a solution to the conflict in Darfur. Syria helped gain the release of prisoners in Iran and Gaza. And now Turkey and Brazil have cajoled Iran into accepting an agreement that the US, France, England, Germany, Russia and China could not.

We have been rendered irrelevant, despite our insistence on involving ourselves with every peep heard in the Mideast.

The Iran Nuclear Fiasco
After pushing for the nuclear swap deal with Iran since last October, we did an about turn and scorned the very same "confidence building" measure we had touted while simultaneously accusing Iran of bad intentions and negotiations trickery.

And we openly sneered at the valiant effort of two important UN Security Council member states - one a NATO-member and the other the largest economy in our Latin American backyard - to troubleshoot on behalf of the global community. The very next day, we childishly chose to undermine this important breakthrough by announcing an agreement on UN Security Council draft sanctions against Iran.

The fact is that no-one other than England, France, Germany and Israel seems to want us to win this fight anymore. This is increasingly being viewed as a David vs Goliath standoff, with Iran as the David, and its nuclear energy program a sacrificial lamb that is meant to appease our substantial ego as the world's remaining superpower.

Pundits and analysts are even starting to argue for making room for a nuclear Iran - all thanks to our unwavering scrutiny of this issue: here and here.

Indian External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna said in Tehran two days after the nuclear swap deal was struck: "India praises Iran for fighting for its interests... We are both developing nations and we should make use of each other's capabilities and experiences in order to make progress."

These so-called "Middle States" like Brazil, India and Turkey are regional economic and political hegemons with collective clout - certainly more so than the waning authority of our European partners who are dealing with weak economies and uninspired geopolitical thinking, much like our own.

Who needs us when all we seem to bring to the table is bluster, threats and our dubious "hard power?" The "regional hegemons" have demonstrated that the cleverly-wielded soft power of diplomacy goes a lot further in easing tensions globally and creating vibrant trade and economic conditions across borders.


No Consequence to Defying the US
In a very significant perception shift, many of these countries are beginning to realize that there is no longer a "cost" to ignoring US threats.

This reality is swiftly becoming apparent in the Middle East. What have several rounds of Security Council sanctions done to harm Iran thus far? Iran has just learned to be more self-sufficient and our constant bullying has earned it a permanent global podium from which it has rallied impressive developing nation alliances from countries that admire its struggle and resolve.

And the Arab world, once hostile to Iran and its brand of Islamic government, has also warmed to the idea of a new regional worldview that rejects an aggressive American role and embraces a homegrown narrative that more honestly addresses their problems. Hence the growing influence of the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas mindset - bolstered by their good relations with rising regional stars like Turkey and Qatar, and the widespread support of the Arab and Muslim Street.

But more importantly, traditional US allies like Saudi Arabia and Lebanon are slowly shifting strategies. Both have sought rapprochement with Syria and appeasement of Iran in some form this past year. Lebanon has defended Hezbollah's right to maintain its weapons so long as a belligerent Israel exists down south. Saudi Arabia and Syria worked together to ensure a smooth, crisis-free election in Lebanon last June, and helped broker the formation of a government in its aftermath - with Iran giving its blessings along the way. And there is increased disunity amongst the six pro-US Arab nations of the Persian Gulf on whether Iran poses a serious threat in the region.

Perceptions Altered - Can We Adapt Fast Enough?
A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine by David Aaron Miller argues that the Mideast climate has changed and therefore the US should examine its participation in regional affairs, specifically the peace process. Miller also warns:

"The broader Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers that wrongly believed they could impose their will on small tribes. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran ... need I continue? Small tribes will always be meaner, tougher, and longer-winded than U.S. diplomats because it's their neighborhood and their survival; they will always have a greater stake in the outcome of their struggle than the great power thousands of miles away with many other things to do."

As we contract economically and our appetite for waging wars shrinks, those who resist our policies in the Middle East can flex their influence with fair certainty that we will not and can not retaliate effectively.

With no real cost to bear, the sympathy of the larger international community, and - now - a genuine compromise to wave in front of detractors, Iran is sitting pretty, leaving us to look like a churlish, patronizing bully that chooses to lead with club in hand.

In a rapidly changing Middle East, this fight with Iran is just churning up trouble for us and underlining our own shrinking relevance on the world stage. Iran's deal with Turkey and Brazil and our subsequent sanctions threat has demonstrated conclusively that the US is not necessary for brokering deals, and may in fact even be an impediment to conflict resolution.

And this perception makes our regional allies uncomfortable enough to investigate their options - specifically, dealing with those we call our foes. Regional state and non-state actors will be taking note of the against-all-odds success of the tripartite deal, and wondering if they should look more locally for Arab-Israeli peacebrokering too.

The US needs to take a page out of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's foreign policy playbookbefore taking another false step in the Mideast. This is geopolitical thought leadership the likes of which we haven't seen in more than half a century. Diplomacy 101 you could call it. I'd like to call it our "last chance to practice what we preach."

Follow Sharmine Narwani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/snarwani

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 1st 2024
EXTRACT: "The lesson is that laws and regulatory structures are critical to state activities that produce local-level benefits. If citizens are to push for reforms and interventions that increase efficiency, promote inclusion, and enable entrepreneurship, innovation, and long-term growth, they need to recognize this. The kind of effective civil society Nilekani envisions thus requires civic engagement, empowerment, and education, including an understanding of the rights and responsibilities implied by citizenship."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.” "
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles." ------"While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term."
Dec 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "For the most vulnerable countries, we must create conditions that enable them to finance their climate-change mitigation" ........ "The results are already there: in two years, following the initiative we took in Paris in the spring of 2021, we have released over $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDRs, the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) for vulnerable countries.By activating this “dormant asset,” we are extending 20-year loans at near-zero interest rates to finance climate action and pandemic preparedness in the poorest countries. We have begun to change debt rules to suspend payments for such countries, should a climate shock occur. And we have changed the mandate of multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, so that they take more risks and mobilize more private money."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "....if AI causes truly catastrophic increases in inequality – say, if the top 1% were to receive all pretax income – there might be limits to what tax reforms could accomplish. Consider a country where the top 1% earns 20% of pretax income – roughly the current world average. If, owing to AI, this group eventually received all pretax income, it would need to be taxed at a rate of 80%, with the revenue redistributed as tax credits to the 99%, just to achieve today’s pretax income distribution; funding the government and achieving today’s post-tax income distribution would require an even higher rate. Given that such high rates could discourage work, we would likely have to settle for partial inequality insurance, analogous to having a deductible on a conventional insurance policy to reduce moral hazard."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACT: "Shocks are here to stay, and our task is not to predict the next one – although someone always does – but to sharpen our focus on resilience. Staying the course of politically mandated policies while minimizing the inevitable dislocations is easier said than done. But that is no excuse to fall for the myth of being victimized by the unprecedented."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACTS: "A new world is indeed emerging. It will be characterized not only by more interdependencies, but also by more insecurity, danger, and war. Stability in international relations will become a foreign concept from a bygone age – one that we did not fully appreciate until it was gone."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "Yet one must never forget that Putin is first and foremost an intelligence officer whose dominant trait is suspicion."
Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."