Americans can now debate: 'Who Lost the Middle East?'

Business Times - 27 May 2008


AFTER the Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong won the civil war in China in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his pro-American Chinese Nationalists to flee to Taiwan, US Congress and the press started to debate the question: 'Who Lost China?'

Conservatives blamed the 'China Hands' in the US State Department, who were accused of exhibiting pro-communist sympathies, while liberal critics argued that Washington's long-time support for the corrupt Nationalists ended up producing an anti-American blowback in China.

Considering the continuing decline in US influence in the Middle East - from the Persian Gulf, through the Levant and to the Holy Land - is it possible that sometime during the first or second term of the next occupant of the White House, when Iran, perhaps armed with nuclear weapons and supported by its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, emerges as a dominant regional power, lawmakers and pundits in Washington would engage in a similar debate: 'Who Lost the Middle East?'

In fact, this debate should and could become one of the main issues that need to be addressed during the presidential campaign this year. In many ways, this month's visit by US President George W Bush to the Middle East - his advisers had once referred to it as the sobriquet 'New Middle East' - could be seen as a defining moment in the history of American relationship with that region.

In Iraq, it was Iran that played the critical role in mediating an end to fighting in Baghdad's Sadr City between the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is controlled by Shiite parties and anti -- US and pro-Iranian cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

In Lebanon, the accord to end the fighting between the Western-backed government in Beirut and the Shiite Hezbollah militias was seen as political victory for the pro-Iran group. In both countries, Iran demonstrated that it, not the United States, is the central power broker. Not less dramatic has been what seems to be erosion in the ability of the US to influence Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that are regarded as America's staunchest allies in the region.

The Bush administration that has failed to revive the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, while continuing to insist that it would not negotiate with the Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip, had no choice but to back an independent Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire that would bring an end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas through indirect negotiations between these two foes.

At the same time, in clear opposition to the Bush administration's policy of isolating Syria led by Bashar al-Assad, an adjunct member of the so-called 'Axis of Evil', Israel decided to open negotiations with the Syrians that are now taking place in Turkey through Ankara's mediation.

Both Israel and Turkey believe that the secular Syrian regime is not a 'natural' ally of Teheran and that it can be co-opted into the pro-Western camp in the region. The negotiations between the two governments could lead eventually to a peace agreement and an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights. But the most significant aspect of this development is that it is taking place despite the strong resistance to it from Washington.

The Americans are also discovering that their leverage over Saudi Arabia is waning. The Saudis blame the decision by the Bush administration to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein for the rise in Iranian influence in the region and they believe that the Israel/Palestine issue - and not Iran - is the central cause for the instability in the region. And they have been resisting American pressure to increase their oil output as a way of helping to reduce global energy prices and the pressure on American consumers.

Indeed, there is very little doubt that the implementation of President Bush's neo-conservative agenda in the Middle East - the bizarre fusion of crude imperialism and democracy promotion - has created the conditions for the current challenges to US position in the region.

While the era of Pax Americana in the Middle East is not over yet, the balance of power in the region is beginning to shift from the US. This reality is being recognised by both America's rivals and partners in the region that are now starting to readjust their policies by pursuing independent strategies. Americans can now begin their debate: 'Who Lost the Middle East?'

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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