When Barack Obama took office, the sky was the limit in the Greater Middle East. After all, it seemed the U.S. had hit rock bottom. President Bush had set the region aflame with a raging debacle in Iraq, a sputtering conflict in Afghanistan, and a low-level drone war in Pakistan. The outgoing president was wildly unpopular in the region and it was hard to imagine just what the new administration could do to make the situation worse.
For all his foreign policy faults, Bush had even left his successor with an ace in the hole. Obama had campaigned on ending the Iraq War and Bush was kind enough to negotiate the terms for him before he left office. All the new president had to do was sit back and reap the rewards.
Almost five years later, the administration surely wishes it had a time machine to take America back to the Bush days when Iraq was convulsed by a civil war, the war in Afghanistan was largely forgotten, Egypt and Tunisia were under the thumbs of American-backed tyrants, and Syria and Libya were controlled by detested but stable dictators.
What seemed at the time to be a blood-soaked hell must look more like the halcyon days to the Obama administration, whose national security team now seems content to limp through the remainder of the president's second term with fingers crossed, hoping desperately that they won't stumble, bumble, stagger, slide, or inadvertently leap into yet another foreign policy fiasco in the region. Today, as Bob Dreyfuss indicates, the administration finds itself adrift in the Greater Middle East, chastened by a series of its own foreign policy flubs, stumbles, and mini-disasters, as well as by governments that seem increasingly beyond its power or ability to control, coerce, or cajole. The only country in the region that seems to bear much resemblance to its pre-Obama self is Iraq, where violence has reached its highest level in half a decade and suicide and car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and death threats are creeping ever closer to Bush-era levels.
Today, TomDispatch regular and Nation magazine stalwart Bob Dreyfuss wades knee deep in the Big Muddy in the Middle East to offer a vivid portrait of an Obama administration in remarkable disarray. Nick Turse
A Field Guide to Losing Friends, Influencing No One, and Alienating the Middle East
Obama's Washington Is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Region
By Bob Dreyfuss
Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America's awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.
Twelve years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq -- both designed to consolidate and expand America's regional clout by removing adversaries -- Washington's actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the United States, but no one really fears it, either -- and increasingly, no one pays it any mind at all.
There are plenty of reasons why America's previously unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East is in free fall. The disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq generated anti-American fervor in the streets and in the elites. America's economic crisis since 2008 has convinced many that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to sustain an imperial presence. The Arab Spring, for all its ups and downs, has challenged the status quo everywhere, leading to enormous uncertainty while empowering political forces unwilling to march in lockstep with Washington. In addition, oil-consuming nations like China and India have become more engaged with their suppliers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. The result: throughout the region, things are fast becoming unglued for the United States.
Its two closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are sullenly hostile, routinely ignore Obama's advice, and openly oppose American policies. Iraq and Afghanistan, one formerly occupied and one about to be evacuated, are led, respectively, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an inflexible sectarian Shiite closely tied to Iran, and President Hamid Karzai, a corrupt, mercurial leader who periodically threatens to join the Taliban. In Egypt, three successive regimes -- those of President Hosni Mubarak, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the chieftains of the July 2013 military coup -- have insouciantly flouted U.S. wishes.
Turkey, ostensibly a NATO ally but led by a quirky Islamist, is miffed over Obama's back-and-forth policy in Syria and has shocked the U.S. by deciding to buy a non-NATO-compatible missile defense system from China. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have little or no government at all. They have essentially devolved into a mosaic of armed gangs, many implacably opposed to the United States.
This downward spiral has hardly escaped attention. In a recent address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Chas Freeman, the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described it in some detail. "We have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many situations unfolding there," said Freeman, whose nomination by Obama in 2009 to serve as head of the National Intelligence Council was shot down by the Israel Lobby. "We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region."
In an editorial on October 29th, the New York Times ruefully concluded: "It is not every day that America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel." And in a front-page story on the administration's internal deliberations, the Times's Mark Landler reported that, over the summer, the White House had decided to scale back its role in the Middle East because many objectives "lie outside [its] reach," and henceforth would adopt a "more modest strategy" in the region.
Perhaps the most profound irony embedded in Washington's current predicament is this: Iran, for decades the supposed epicenter of anti-Americanism in the region, is the country where the United States has perhaps its last opportunity to salvage its position. If Washington and Tehran can negotiate a de'tente -- and it's a big if, given the domestic political power of hawks in both countries -- that accord might go a long way toward stabilizing Washington's regional credibility.
Debacle in Syria