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America must throw its weight behind Middle East partners

Arnab Neil Sengupta (Taking Stock)
Filed on October 1, 2018 | Last updated on October 1, 2018 at 09.33 pm

Washington now appears less wary of flaunting its real power in the region where it imposed regime change.

The war of ideas between US foreign-policy realists and influential neo-conservatives that erupted over President George Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq may have run its course, but Washington still has plenty of unfinished business in the land on which it imposed regime change, and in the Middle East more generally.

In the coming days, US lawmakers from across the political spectrum and security mavens may very well argue once again in favour of a Middle East policy "reset" so that the Pentagon and the State Department can - as one analyst put it - "focus strictly on the defence of vital US interests, narrowly defined".

To tell the truth, nothing would be more damaging to long-term American interest than signs of its political resolve wavering in the face of adversity.

Starting with Iraq, it is understandably shocking and frustrating, after all the Iraqi and American sacrifices in blood and treasure to build a democratic nation, for Americans to read about fashion bloggers, beauty experts and rights activists being gunned down in broad daylight in major cities.

There is no denying that the killing of 22-year-old Tara Fares, a fashion model and social-media figure, on September 27, just two days after the murder of activist Suad Al Ali, has tested the patience of even the country's most steadfast well-wisher. Then there was the rocket attack on an American diplomatic building at the airport in Basra, a city reeling from poor services, power cuts and angry protests.

Put bluntly, it seems past time to write off Iraq as a broken nation overrun by sectarian paramilitiaries and armed groups that is now essentially Iran's problem. The country's quarrelsome politicians inspire little confidence either. As Bonnie Cristian writes in The National Interest, "There is nothing available to America in Iraq that might fairly be called a military victory".

Even so, the correct approach would be to stay engaged and contribute to the creation of what the US State Department calls "a thriving and inclusive Iraq". After all, Iraq is more than just a country with large oil reserves or a problem to be solved. It is a multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation of nearly 40 million people with dreams and aspirations for a better life.

With Iran, the situation is vastly more complicated because the regime in Tehran is amenable neither to constructive criticism nor democratic accountability. But once again, to treat the Islamic republic as a problem to be managed chiefly through negotiations and concessions, not as a regional power culpable for its "malign influence", would be both wrong-headed and naive.

In this context, the Trump administration's plan to establish a Middle East Strategic Alliance - "anchored by a united GCC, to advance prosperity, security, and stability" - could not have crystallised a moment too soon.

It has been reported that MESA will include the US, the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt and Jordan. Those playing the devil's advocate could argue that the composition of the proposed alliance is a clear sign that hostility to Iran would be its raison d'etre.

The flipside of the argument would be that, in theory at least, nothing stops Iran from settling its differences with its neighbours and becoming a member of MESA - save for its rulers' relentless, divisive drive to dominate the Middle East and shift the region's balance of power in its favour.

Then there is Yemen, where Shia Houthi rebels have drawn out a conflict with the apparent aim of retaining influence far beyond their northern stronghold and keeping Iran's strategic rivals distracted. After a string of defeats, the rebels seem to have found more success in their effort to shift the blame for civilian casualties onto the very forces seeking to stabilise the country.

According to the Wall Street Journal, American support for the war in Yemen "has become a polarising issue in Washington" for a "growing bipartisan group of lawmakers". The fact that some US politicians believe that putting pressure on allies could somehow mitigate the problem is a measure perhaps of the emotional distance that separates the "Beltway bubble" from the treacherous terrain of sectarian proxy wars and violent extremism.

Talking about proxy wars, there is of course no country in the world that can match Syria's dubious claim to fame in that category. This is partly due to both the Obama and Trump administrations' failure to find reliable local partners and support them to the hilt.

There is undeniably an element of risk aversion behind the hollow ring of threats by US presidents of military retaliation against use of chemical weapons. But this need not be the standard default policy going forward. Since "bringing peace and stability to Syria" is now a stated US foreign-policy objective, nothing should be off the table.

Considering the intensity of political polarisation in Washington, a decision to abandon allies and rush to safety could still be just one terrorist attack away.

Nevertheless, as far as the Arab world is concerned, the Trump administration has turned out so far to be much less insular and much more combative than it was cracked up to be.

Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East


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