Michael H. Hunt: The American Project in the Middle East: The End Is Nigh!

Michael H. Hunt[This article is cross-posted from the author’s website.]

If you think the past week or so has not gone well for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, then what to say about the U.S. position in the Middle East? Washington’s attempt to remake or at least manage the region has suffered a string of blows that suggests the end is nigh.

Dreams of transforming the region look wildly implausible today. Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who has consolidated his control as president of Egypt, launched one straw into the wind. He was unabashed in telling a New York Times reporter that Americans had to get used to a multicultural world. “If you want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgment.” Islamic values in one way or another now seem bound to define his country’s politics as much as they do everyday life. On another front, Afghan women made their own point about cultural persistence. A survey released by the Population Reference Bureau reveals they have no problem with gender relations that American policymakers have denounced as oppressive and have sought to alter through aid programs.

Pro-U.S. regimes, variously clients or partners, have become increasingly troublesome. Egypt is kicking off the old traces with President Morsi suggesting that good relations with Israel depend on Washington delivering on the other part of the 1978 Camp David accord, the creation of a Palestinian state. A couple of billion dollars in annual aid no longer seems to purchase a blind eye in Cairo to what has proven a one-sided peace deal.

Iraq is paying no dividends on the costly U.S. investment there. Washington has failed to shape the government in Baghdad to its preferences, to maintain a residual U.S. military force, or to sustain any significant U.S. training mission. All these critical means of exercising post-occupation influence have closed off. Meanwhile the Nouri al-Maliki government is uncooperative on the two issues of current American concern, the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the containment of Iran.

In Afghanistan the military mission seems to have reached its own dead end. Hostility to NATO trainers has undercut the one remaining contribution that the U.S. policymakers could have made to the survival of its feeble Kabul client. Where to go from here but to the exit.

Israel is now a loose cannon, well beyond U.S. influence. The declining U.S. position in the region means Washington has little to offer to secure the cooperation of the Netanyahu government. Why should that government defer to an Obama administration that can’t deliver Turkey, Egypt, or Iraq and is reconciled to Iran becoming a latent nuclear power? Indeed, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned the tables by overtly seeking to influence the U.S. presidential election. While the tail attempts to wag the dog, the Israeli lobby controls the bounds of legitimate discussion of this troubled relationship so that the dog develops no heretical ideas.

More broadly, a bevy of powers has made it their business to obstruct and disrupt U.S. influence. The regional powers dubious about the American role now include Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. China and Russia have joined the scrum, eager to constrain the United States where they can. And now the leading states of the European Union, long ambivalent about U.S. activity on their Mediterranean doorstep, are once again considering measures to achieve a unified foreign policy. The EU could, over the long haul, give U.S. policymakers the biggest international headache of all.

The American public has steadily lost its appetite for further meddling—an unsurprising trend given all that has transpired over the last decade. Most Americans say they want nothing to do with an Israeli-Iranian war that some friends of Israel so blithely contemplate. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were quite enough, thank you. The election year message on those two interventions seems loud and clear: “just go away.”

For those who like to take the long view, the pattern we’re seeing here looks for all the world like an imperial project grinding toward its inglorious end. This is a point made in comments here previously and in the recently published Arc of Empire (co-authored with Steven I. Levine). But seldom does the moment of critical transition come so clearly into focus as it has lately. Day after day the news points to a great power on the defensive. Its Middle East dreams have gone sour, its good will in the region has dwindled, its international support has narrowed, its clients have strayed, its domestic backing has evaporated, and its tools of control have proven largely irrelevant and even counterproductive. The end feels pretty nigh!


Michael H. Hunt is Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or editor of eleven books, including Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (with Steven I. Levine), The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance, and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. Read his other guest posts on this blog or visit his website.