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The perils of American disengagement from the Middle East

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Peter Schwartzstein

Peter Schwartzstein

By Peter Schwartzstein

It must be remarkably gratifying -even amusing – for many Egyptians to watch the United States scrambling to get back in their interim government’s good graces. How tempting it must be to throw John Kerry’s increasingly flattering overtures back in his face and kick the US to the curb after its supposed support for the Muslim Brotherhood. But how Egypt and the wider Middle East would suffer from American disengagement from the region.

It’s a somewhat contentious premise to be sure. ‘What of the Iraq war?’ one is inclined to shout, or the decades of strong American backing for authoritarian regimes that robbed most Arab citizens of the very rights US governments claim to espouse? Must the Middle East be thankful for that? The US’s catalogue of recent misadventures has quite understandably left many suspicious of American power, but at a time when the interim nuclear deal with Iran offers the possibility of a radically altered regional dynamic, an uninterested America is a particularly frightful prospect.

No other country boasts the power or the wherewithal to act as the regional guarantor. China – frequently cast as the US’s chief competitor – has yet to show any real appetite for increased involvement in this neck of the woods, and while Russia’s renewed interest in Egypt is noteworthy, by no means is the Soviet-era ‘bear’ back. Put simply, Uncle Sam is the only game in town.

That the Middle East even needs a regional sponsor might smack of arrogant orientalism to some. But as the hysterical Israeli, Saudi and other Gulf Arab reactions to Sunday’s Iran accord suggest, the possibility that the US might retreat from the Arab World (having made nice with its longtime regional adversary) is giving many political players absolute conniptions.

Global hegemons have historically brought stability. And just as Britain’s dominance of the waves in the 19th century left it uniquely placed to preside over an age of relative peace, the Pax Americana has, with notable exceptions, fulfilled a similar function. Now, as then, many countries unsurprisingly resent the imperial heavy-handedness that often accompanies the exercise of such power, but it’s the lesser of two evils.

Britain’s waning supremacy prior to World War One triggered a desperate scramble as rival powers sought to benefit from the global re-balancing. And even if America isn’t quite the dominant superpower it once was (with its costly Iraq incursion playing a significant part in its slightly diminished status), its regional allies anticipate a similarly brutal struggle to fill the US’s shoes.

Some say that we’re already seeing the messy consequences of a disengaged United States.   “The lack of American leadership is making the situation worse,” a senior Iraqi diplomat told me as we talked of his civil war-ridden country. Turkish president Abdullah Gul recently spoke of US inaction in Syria, declaring that its lack of involvement had enabled Jihadists to seize the initiative.

This is certainly not to say that the US ought to bomb Syria or return troops to Iraq. The ‘Team America, World Police’ approach of George Bush’s presidency was clearly a colossal failure for invader and the invaded alike. But there’s a substantial middle ground between bombs and bullets and hopeless inertia. It’s a nuance that’s seemingly been lost on the Obama Administration in its management of America’s place the Middle East.

“We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is,” Susan Rice, the US National Security Advisor, told the New York Times in October. But in seeking to address the fallout from the Iraq war by tempering the US’s overbearing behavior, the US has gone too far in the other direction.

America is, if anything, a victim of its own lofty aspirations. Its self-ascribed role as the leader of the Free World has endowed it with additional duties and responsibilities. It’s particularly telling that for all the groups and states to have wronged the long-suffering troupe of Syrian refugees in Egypt, many that I have spoken with reserved a special ire for the United States. “America was the only country that could have stopped our catastrophe,” a young man from near Damascus told me back in September. There’s no knowing whether Bashar al-Assad might have balked had the US engaged in earnest diplomatic efforts from the outset, but certainly the Saudis and Qataris, acting they say in the face of American impotence, have done the region no favors in their funding of Jihadist rebel groups.

It’s disingenuous, of course, to suggest that America’s involvement in the region is even mostly motivated by concern for its allies’ welfare. The US might patrol the Persian Gulf at the Gulf States’ behest, but obviously that’s no act of altruism; the life-blood of the US economy still passes through the Straits of Hormuz.

But year-by-year, America’s calculus changes. As it boosts its domestic oil production, it grows less reliant on Arab oil. As it increasingly looks to East Asia for its key trading partners, it has become less beholden to the safety of the Suez Canal and the wider region, and less motivated to pay out the considerable sums necessary to play its assigned role.

Now, more than ever, this is a problem. The prospect of a reinvigorated Iran and potential subsequent wrangling with the Gulf States – not to mention the continued wars in Syria and Iraq and protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict -cries out for as much foreign engagement as possible. Not everything that flies under the banner of that engagement will be good or productive, but in these turbulent times, better the devil you know…

Peter Schwartzstein is a British-American freelance journalist based in Cairo. His articles have appeared in National Geographic, The Atlantic and Reuters among other publications.

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