Thursday, March 21, 2013

Iraq spurred America’s Mideast apathy

One of the more appreciable aspects of articles written for the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war is that most American and European commentators have finally taken Iraqis into consideration. For a long time Westerners saw Iraq almost entirely through the prism of how the war affected the United States or the United Kingdom, with no room left for the Iraqis themselves.

The reason for this turnaround is the so-called Arab Spring. The narrative today necessitates recognition of Arab aspirations, because in the past two years these have driven developments in the Middle East. Even in Iraq, the U.S. was more often overwhelmed by Iraqi dynamics than the contrary, forcing American military units on the ground to immerse themselves in the details of Iraqi society.

It is that realization, perhaps, that has made President Barack Obama imitate the ostrich by sticking his head in the sand on most regional developments. The president, in one of his first speeches, addressed America’s ties with Islam, and virtually apologized for Washington’s actions. None of us realized at the time that this was an adieu of sorts, a way of telling Arabs that with George W. Bush gone and America having fulfilled an act of contrition, U.S. attentions would now turn elsewhere.

Yet the Arab uprisings have shown that Bush’s desire to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime was prescient. Whatever else one might say, American actions in Iraq spoke to what would, starting in 2011, become a broader Arab impulse to be rid of authoritarian regimes and replace them with more representative orders. Obama has embraced the Arab revolts with a lack of enthusiasm rooted in caution, so he will never acknowledge that his predecessor was on to something. Nor will he admit that his own disinterest in Iraq has only helped ensure that the country remains polarized along sectarian lines, thanks to the errors of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, backed by Iran.

The conflict in Syria has shown us that the Obama administration, like the Bourbons, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The Arab uprisings have not led to a change in the American outlook when it comes to understanding and acting upon the democratic aspirations of Arab societies. Such a change would mean, first, giving some credit to Bush’s decision to oust one of the worst mass murderers the region had ever seen, in favor of a more democratic Iraq.

And the administration has forgotten nothing in fitting events today, above all those in Syria, into a flawed template of conflicts past. Nothing was done to arm Syria’s armed opposition, for fear that Salafi jihadists would triumph as they did in Afghanistan. Yet America’s unwillingness to act only ensured that the Salafi jihadists would fill the void created by this obtuse reasoning.

The problem is that the U.S. has profoundly changed toward a region hitherto at the very core of its concerns. The Middle East is no longer a priority for Obama, and the pillars of U.S. involvement in the region have either been seriously eroded or allowed to deteriorate. American minimalism in the region is a direct consequence of Obama’s erroneous reading of the Iraq conflict, which the president chose to explain in the context of a clash of cultures.

As Obama put it in his speech in Cairo in June 2009, “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”

In that way the president showed he understood nothing of what had transpired before he came to office. Iraq was not a confrontation between America and Islam. Even in those interpretations most critical of the Bush administration, the war was fundamentally a political act, not engagement in a cultural war by other means.

What were the dual pillars of American involvement in the Middle East? Immediately after World War II, the principle motivation was the defense of oil supplies, which led to a close partnership with Saudi Arabia. Because of its vast oil reserves, the kingdom became the main stabilizer of oil markets.

By the late 1970s, a second strategic goal was the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace, built on the foundations of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. To consolidate the treaty, the U.S. began providing Egypt with large amounts of foreign aid, as it had done with Israel. The U.S. thus became the main sponsor and ultimate guarantor of Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Under Obama, the U.S. has shown little more than passing interest in these objectives. America has emerged as a leading oil producer in the world, importing just 20 percent of the oil it consumes. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2020, the U.S. will be the world’s largest oil producer, overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia. Given such trends, America’s unwillingness to prioritize its partnership with the Saudis is hardly surprising.

As for Arab-Israeli peace, Obama’s personal commitment to that objective has been nominal. Egypt is in dire economic straits, yet Washington seems strangely disinterested. On his first foreign visit, Secretary of State John Kerry did not travel to Cairo, once an obligatory early stop for secretaries wanting to get the pulse of the Arab world. Instead, Obama is now visiting Israel to mend fences, though this seems largely to be for domestic political reasons rather than to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

If Iraq was regrettable in one respect, it was in pushing Obama to embrace destabilizing minimalism in the Arab world. The U.S. has left a void that contending actors are seeking to fill, to the detriment of all. Obama no longer wants the U.S. to be the world’s policeman, and in that he has been revolutionary. But minimalism has come with a price tag as the world adjusts, and it will be measured in Arab lives. Perhaps the American narrative invariably dominates after all.

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