Superpower(less) in the Middle East?

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Asia?s growth rate has signalled the shift in the balance of economic power from West to East. But, while the discourse on Asia?s economic power translating into political and military power is yet to gain credence, there is increasing evidence of the US?s economic decline adversely impacting its political and military influence in the Middle East.

Following are some examples to substantiate this view, which also denotes two other factors ? one, growing US fatigue in the region, and two, the region?s growing fatigue with the United States.

First, just days before his recent retirement, US defense secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged a dual truth ? first, Americans are tired of war, and second, Washington mismanaged its war strategies. ?I understand everybody is war weary, but the reality is we won the first Afghan war in 2001 and 2002. We were diverted by Iraq, and we basically neglected Afghanistan for several years,? he said.

Second, from being famous as an undisputed ?superpower? not too long ago, the United States has a new nickname ? ?The Frugal Superpower,? the title of a book by Prof. Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University. This reference emanates from the US leadership?s propensity to induce budget cuts, including in the foreign policy arena, which is bound to restrict its power and influence externally. Noted columnist Thomas Friedman spiced up this nickname by calling the United States the ?super frugal, super broke, superpower.?

Third, in ?Monsoon ? The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power,? Robert Kaplan argues that Asia will ?demographically and strategically be the hub of the 21st century world.? He particularly looks at the strategic situation in the greater Indian Ocean amid diminishing US influence in the region and the rise of China and India as economic and military powerhouses.

Mr. Kaplan also points out that the long-term future in ?Monsoon Asia? will be one of ?greater integration? in which the United States will have little or no role. He explains that there would be ?a non-Western mold of astonishing inter-dependence, and yet ferociously guarded sovereignty, with militaries growing alongside economies.?

Fourth, while most knew the determination of the Arab Gulf governments to rein in Iran, what was uncertain was how many were willing to ?openly? support any military action against Iran. It now appears from WikiLeaks revelations that the majority of the Gulf countries were rather aggressive in their push for US action against Iran.

Yet, Washington did not act, which is a reflection of its confidence or lack of it to use force. This, in turn, has strengthened Iran?s calculations that the United States would not risk any misadventure, thereby weakening the Arab Gulf countries? case against its Persian neighbor.

Fifth, the Arab Spring is also a case in point. While Iran and Iraq exposed the US?s credibility or lack of it, the political turmoil in the region exposed its influence or lack of it.

Despite Saudi Arabia?s request to back Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the United States took a contrary view. This has led to the view that leaders in the Middle East will stay in power longer if they are not Washington?s friend, like Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has proved, till now.

Six, during the last decades, several Arab Gulf leaders have indicated that they are open to looking beyond the United States to safeguard their political and security interests.

Frustrated by the Palestinian-Israeli impasse in 2001, then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah said: ?From now on, we will protect our national interests, regardless of where America?s interests lie in the region.?

In 2004, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal said that guarantees for Gulf security could be provided unilaterally ?even by the only superpower in the world.? The region requires guarantees ?provided by the collective will of the international community.?

In the same vein, Qatar Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani said in 2007 that ?the major conflicts in the world have become too big for one single power to handle them on its own.?

Last month, former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States Turki Al Faisal pointed out that ?there will be disastrous consequences for US-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes UN recognition of a Palestinian state. It would mark a nadir in the decades-long relationship as well as irrevocably damage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and America?s reputation among Arab nations. The ideological distance between the Muslim world and the West in general would widen ? and opportunities for friendship and cooperation between the two could vanish.?

Further, the Saudi frustration with US failure to rein in Iran was evident in yet another comment by Prince Turki when he warned that Riyadh was considering using its oil wealth as a tool against its neighbor ? oversupply the international oil markets and reduce price of crude unless Tehran halted its controversial nuclear program.

The sharpest nail in the debate was hammered by Saudi strategic analyst Nawaf Obaid. ?Saudi Arabia has the will and the means to meet its expanded global responsibilities?In some issues?the Saudis will continue to be a strong US partner. In areas in which Saudi national security or strategic interests are at stake, the kingdom will pursue its own agenda.?

With Iran working tirelessly to dominate the region, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt and unrest on nearly every border, there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability. The special relationship may never be the same, but from this transformation a more stable and secure Middle East can be born.

In this backdrop, it is only apt that the region not only debates political reforms to achieve stability, but also sees a case for a constructive debate on finding alternatives for a security guarantor, whose power is not that ?super? anymore.

(Dr. N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst and author of ?Boom Amid Gloom ? The Spirit of Possibility in the 21st Century Gulf? (Ithaca Press, 2011). He can be reached at: [email protected])


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