Since its victory in the Cold War, America’s global hegemony has rested on three pillars: economic power, military might, and a vast capacity to export its popular culture. The recent emergence of additional powers–the European Union, China, India, and a Russia driven to recover its lost status–has eroded America’s capacity to shape events unilaterally.
Even so, America remains by far the world’s most powerful country; its decline has more to do with its incompetent use of power than with the emergence of competitors. It is American leaders’ “suicidal statecraft,” to use Arnold Toynbee’s pithy phrase for what he considered the ultimate cause of imperial collapse, that is to blame for America’s plight.
Consider the Middle East. Nothing reveals the decline of the United States in the region better than the contrast between America’s sober use of power in the first Gulf War in 1991 and the hubris and deceit of today’s Iraq war.
In 1991, America forged the most formidable international coalition since World War II, and led it in a fully legitimate war aimed at restoring regional balance after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In 2003, America went to war without its trans-Atlantic allies after manipulating false assertions. In doing so, the US embarked on a preposterous grand strategy that aimed no less at simultaneously dismantling Iraq’s tyrannical regime, restructuring the entire Middle East, destroying al-Qaeda, and helping democracy to take root throughout the Arab world.
The result has been utter failure: military defeat and a severe degradation of America’s moral standing. Rather than undermining radical Islam, the US has legitimized it, in Iraq and beyond. Indeed, what will now shape the future of the region is not democracy, but the violent divide between Shiites and Sunnis that the Iraq war precipitated. It is this Muslim civil war that is allowing al-Qaeda to gain a larger pool of recruits.
With Iraq probably becoming the first Arab country to be ruled by Shiites, and hence integrated into an expanding Shiite Iranian empire, America’s Sunni allies in the region now view the US as unreliable. Indeed, the US is seen as practically complicit in inciting a monumental reversal of Islam’s fortunes, the Shia revival. Nor is the gospel of democracy especially dear to America’s Arab allies, for the call to democratize has only emboldened the Islamists to challenge the incumbent elites for power.
Admittedly, violent Islamic fundamentalism has deeper roots in the fading promise of Arab nationalism. But America’s misbegotten democratic message has ended up alienating both its conservative regional allies, as it gave a new lease on life to political Islam, which can use the ballot box as a route to power, and the Islamists, whose electoral gains are then rejected by the US.
America’s biggest strategic blunder in the Middle East arguably concerns the emergence of Iranian power. By destroying Iraq as a counterbalancing regional force, the US dealt a major blow to its traditional Gulf allies, for whom Iraq served as a barrier against Iran’s ambitions. America offered Iran on a silver platter strategic assets that Khomeini’s revolution failed to acquire either in eight years of war against Saddam or in its abortive attempts to export the Islamic revolution throughout the region. Likewise, Iran’s nuclear program gained momentum thanks to its sense of impunity following the colossal failure in Iraq of America’s concept of “preventive war.”
The calamitous US military experience in Iraq has left it strategically diminished. Iraq has now become God’s playground, and America can hope to achieve a modicum of stability there only with the help of other regional powers. Nevertheless, the US will remain the most influential external actor in the Middle East, for its failure is one of leadership, not of actual power. Humbled by military defeat, America can recover its regional relevance only by avoiding the sin of hubris, and learning to lead without attempting to dominate.
This requires engaging revolutionary forces like Iran and Syria; respecting, rather than ostracizing, those Islamist movements that have opted out from jihadism in favor of political participation; and leading an international alliance for an Arab-Israeli peace based on the Arab League initiative.
Indeed, the paradox of America’s pernicious policies in Iraq is that they have created favorable conditions for an Arab-Israeli peace, as the emergence of Iran and the threat of a fundamentalist tsunami have focused Arab minds on the urgency of a settlement with Israel. The Palestinian issue is not the source of all the Middle East’s ills, but its resolution would dramatically improve America’s standing among Arabs. More importantly, it would deny Iran the ability to link popular Islamic and Arab causes with its own hegemonic ambitions.
Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
This article has been published through the kind permission of Project Syndicate.
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