President Obama is the leader of the liberal democratic nations of the world. These nations are nearly totally dependent on the kings and potentates of the Persian Gulf in order to meet their liquid energy needs. This is especially true of the US, which receives 40% of its imported goods in the form of finished products and parts from countries dependent on Middle East oil. The idea that the US is somehow on the verge of energy independence is as ludicrous as the idea that it is about to balance its current account or international trade deficit. The US is the largest debtor in the world, both in terms of its domestic debt and its balance of payments. These are the facts. They are not in dispute. For the last seventy years, the US has pursued a policy in the Middle East that has been highly favorable to both king and dictator alike. Oil has trumped American social and political values in the calculations of both the State Department and the White House. To say otherwise is to lie.
However, in 2003 the US invaded Iraq and attempted to establish the first Arab democracy in the Middle East. Initially, the American experiment in Iraq caused a serious civil war between sectarian and ethnic communities. But the war subsided with US assurances that its commitment was for the long term, and that the outcome of the experiment would be a balance concerning the serious ethnic and sectarian divide within the country. By 2010, the US position had shifted once again, and the bold American experiment began to wane. The US turned away from Ali Allawi (the most promising Arab democratic political leader ever) for reasons that make little sense and are murky and unclear. But within a short year (and probably because of the Iraqi experiment), the Obama administration found itself in the eye of a storm because of events in Tunis, Cairo and Damascus. These monumental events have been known ubiquitously as the Arab Spring.
Since the early days of Sadat, the US investment in Egypt has been enormous. With the remarkable popular uprising of January and February of 2011, the Obama administration was in a quandary. The Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak had always been Washington’s guy.
But the vast crowds in the streets of the Egyptian cities gave Obama pause. After all, the US president had always prided himself on his nation’s exceptionalism as the leader of liberal democracy throughout the world. Now, in this age of Keynesian limitation and sequestration, the Americans have come to rely more and more on the soft power of democracy. In the past (especially during the Cold War), any pro-American dictator would suffice. Ironically Obama, who had left the super-democrat, Allawi, twisting in the wind, decided to do the same to the dictator, Mubarak. Within weeks Mubarak had been overthrown as the Gulf monarchies watched in horror, as a process of democracy took hold.
Meanwhile, the liberal fever had caught on in Syria. But after months and months of peaceful demonstrations (not unlike the events in Cairo) the Syrian army was not about to stay on the sidelines. Assad and his henchmen struck with a ferocity most reminiscent of his father’s response to the events in Hama in 1982. The ruthlessness of the display was transparent and without shame. For those six long months, the peaceful demonstrators of Syria called in vain for Western help, but to no avail. The leader of the free world had abandoned them and once again the promise of liberal democracy within the Arab Levant had gone waning. But why? Why had an American supported dictator in Egypt been so easily disposed of, while an unfriendly Syrian dictator allowed to carry on with the butchering of his own people? And equally as important, why had Ali Allawi not been championed by an administration who has claimed since its inception that it spoke with a new and different voice?
Just follow the politics and the money. In Egypt once the army had decided to stand down, Washington was free to allow the will of the people to reign. The Egyptians had their own “boots on the ground” and certainly didn’t need American help. In Syria, the opposite situation held sway. The US commitment in men and/or materiel would have been great and irregardless of political ideals and values the price both financially and politically was just too high. Its in Iraq where the situation becomes more and more murky. Ali Allawi was a Shiite who had the backing of a multitude of Sunnis. He represented a democratic force that had appeal across sectarian divisions. He was unique to Arab politics. He could have represented an American victory in the war in Iraq and held out promise for the expansion of democracy and pluralism within the Levant. So, I repeat why was he abandoned?
If you listen to the Arab kings, they would have certainly remained comfortable with Saddam. They saw the Iraq War through the prism of a strict regional politics which had nothing whatsoever to do with liberal democracy. For Saudi Arabia and the others, the deposed Iraqi dictator had become (in hindsight) a Sunni brother and a bulwark against Iran. And while there is more than a small amount of truth in this; after seven long years of blood and treasure, one would think that the Obama administration would have looked on an Ali Allawi-led Iraq as a formidable friend of democracy. Allawi could have maintained Iraq’s place within the Arab world, not as a front line state against Iran, but as a neutral, buffer-state within a region without a hegemonic power. In other words, a democracy at the very center of the Levant whose geopolitical role could have been to uphold the balance of power between Shiite Iran and the Arab States (in all their potential democratic ethnic and sectarian hues). This victory in Iraq could have led to a different outcome in Syria. But it was not to be. For some reason or another, it was vetoed by the Americans, presumably with the support of those very same kings and potentates who have always allied with Washington. The very same absolute rulers who hold a lion’s share of the world’s crucial liquid energy so vital to economic growth but so detrimental to the earth’s biosphere and ecology.
So how can one grasp the tenure and scope of US foreign policy in the Middle East? First and foremost, its role is to secure the flow of oil from the region to its economic partners (including China) throughout the world. The US is the policeman for the oil of the Persian Gulf. It has no greater role. But after the course of negative events in Iraq, this year’s 2014 election holds no promise in Baghdad. More and more, Iraq has become aligned with Iran to the imbalance of the entire region. The regional balance of power is still an American responsibility but do the American people still possess the desire to maintain such a commitment? According to the polls, this commitment is certainly not with “boots on the ground”. But only with air and naval power does the US Defense Department uphold its Gulf security relationships. This has the Gulf states worried and rightly so. Can air power alone secure a Middle East on the verge of a nuclear proliferation breakout? And if it comes to a war with Iran over its nuclear program, might not it spread in directions that might require “boots on the ground”? Let’s say toward Riyadh, for instance.
But recent events have also proven that the Arab Sunni Gulf states have a deep and abiding secondary worry. For the kings and potentates of the Middle East this worry is the spread of liberal pluralistic democracy, pure and simple. The Arab Spring has had its twists and turns. And most certainly the rocky course of its evolution has not played itself out, not by a long shot. While the road to democracy has not been a straight path, the pluralistic nature of Arab democracy in the Levant can be the only answer to the sectarian and ethnic implosion which we have witnessed throughout the region. US policy has failed because democracy has failed (so far). But why has democracy failed if the US claims to be its champion? This is the all important question our current president must ask himself as he prepares to meet the Saudi king this weekend.
Democracy’s failure in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan can only mean that the regional balance of power will remain in doubt as the failed states of the region fall further and further into the mire of chaos. Egypt’s special case with Islam can only be solved in a Tunisian-like manner. Islam and democracy are not incompatible. Jordan’s divide between East Bankers and Palestinians is neither ethnic nor sectarian. It is tribal and can only be solved through democratic ideals. The Americans, like their English cousins, have always had a blind spot when it comes to Jordan. The Hashemite royal family must be forced to decide: If they expect to have US support, their reform process must be far reaching. A democratic Jordan has always been the missing piece, in the peace process between Arabs and Israelis. So far neither Israel, Jordan, or the US have accepted this crucial premise. Certainly the Gulf states would be opposed. But the old West Bank Palestinian state idea has run its course and failed. Democracy and shared rule have become the new paradigm for a peace, which to be successful, must stretch from Amman to the sea.
Finally President Obama can accomplish nothing without Russian and Chinese support. This is especially true in Syria and with Iran. Recent events in Europe must also be addressed. Time is running short as the nuclear negotiations with Iran cannot be allowed to be extended beyond their July deadline. The US Congress and the new presidential hopefuls simply won’t allow it. The American people will back-up Israel in an air war against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The polls are clear. Congress does have the power to declare war. For this American president, however, the old neocon game plan has always been an anathema. But a new structure for an alternative “new world order” just hasn’t been formulated. Soon Obama could become an early lame duck. Now more than ever, the Middle East, Europe and Asia have become linked. New policies involving the concept of a G-3 world must begin to be set in motion. A summertime three-way summit has become essential. Just like Martin Luther King, President Obama must have a dream. In his new foreign policy dream, a world without hegemony can be constructed. A world where women and children don’t have to fear anarchy and the soil of peace can allow democracy to take root. The ball remains in Washington’s court. What is Obama’s dream and what will be his legacy? One way or another, we will know soon.