Another crack in American hegemony

Business Times - 01 Feb 2011

THE BOTTOM LINE Another crack in American hegemony

EVEN if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak succeeds in clinging to power, that is not going to change the writing on the wall - and on Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia. Thanks to these networking services, the whole world now knows the days of Middle East autocrats - allied with the US and open to some sort of co-existence with Israel - may be numbered. In fact, the entire American hegemonic project in the Middle East may be coming unstuck.

Since 1945 - and, in particular, after the end of the Cold War - successive US administrations have been trying to establish American hegemony in the region, including through two major military interventions, strategic alliances with Israel, Turkey and Arab states with ties with Israel, led by Egypt.

But whether it comes to promoting its values or to securing strategic interests, US clout in the Middle East is shrinking now to its lowest point: the Israeli-Palestine 'peace process' is all but dead. The radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement has joined an Iran-oriented Iraqi government. The new Lebanese Prime Minister was selected by Hizbollah. Turkey is pursuing a foreign policy independent of Washington, and Iran is continuing to flex its muscle in the Levant and the Persian Gulf.

So it was not surprising that the only mention of the Middle East in President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address last week was a brief reference to the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq - to American retreat from the region. The political crisis in Egypt - and the no-win policy choices available now to Washington - demonstrates the dramatic erosion in US influence there. The Mubaraks of the Middle East may still be able to count on the support of their militaries and secret police. But having lost their legitimacy as national leaders, they are threatened by the eruption of a political volcano: masses of angry young men and women.

The lowest common political denominator bringing them together is hostility towards the US - which had helped keep their reviled rulers in power for so many years - and to Israel, which is perceived to be America's partner in crime and the oppressor of their brothers and sisters in Palestine.

Many outside observers insist there is no reason why the departure of the old guard in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and the rest of the Arab World could not be followed by the relatively peaceful process of democratisation and liberalisation that came after the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc. But while major political institutions in these countries had helped preserve Western traditions in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Islamists are currently the only effective political force in the Middle East - and one could expect them to project their power in free elections, as they have already done under American supervision in Palestine, in westernised Lebanon and even in US-occupied Iraq.

The leaders of Israel and the other pro-American regimes in the region are worried that President Obama would end up repeating the mistake of former president Jimmy Carter - who pressed the Iranian generals not to use force against the Iranian anti-Shah demonstrators and helped deliver Iran to Ayatollah Khomeini.

But if Mr Obama decides to save the US client in Cairo by giving Mr Mubarak a yellow light to rescue his regime, he will only guarantee that the US will become the main target of the demonstrators in Egypt and other Arab countries, igniting more anti-US violence and raising the costs of US intervention in the region to the stratosphere.

If President Obama allows President Mubarak to fall - even if that takes the form of a peaceful transition of power - the US would not be able to control the outcome of the revolutionary change in Cairo that even under the best-case scenario is bound to strengthen the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

Preventing the downfall of Mr Mubarak and the collapse of the rest of the pro-American dominos in the Middle East could give the US some breathing space for a diplomatic salvage operation - perhaps through the revival of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, the co-opting of Syria into the US sphere of influence, and the fixing of its relationship with Turkey - which could help prevent a total loss of US power and credibility in the region.

 But even under such a best-case scenario, we need to recognise that the Middle East is now not where Europe was in 1989 - at the beginning of a US-led age of liberal-democratic change - but where Europe was in 1848, when the power of the old elites was being challenged.

So, expect the events in Egypt to be the start of a long period in which regimes will fall, nation-states will split, regional coalitions will come and go, and new global players will compete with the US for influence - a Middle East in which the US is going to find it more and more difficult to re-establish its preferred order.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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