Current events in the Middle East—most notably in Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon—presage not only declining U.S. political influence in the region, but a growing realization that our government has squandered its influence and chosen the wrong side in most of the region’s tensions. Worse yet, our waste of lives, treasure, influence, and their sum (power) comes with far greater strategic liabilities than gains. Stagnation in Washington guarantees that we will have few significant course corrections to our misguided policies. One only hopes that the appeal of the idea of the United States prevents too precipitous a decline in our regional stature.
The Levant is a case study in U.S. foreign policy being captured by special interests (particularly those representing foreign entities) and of our government’s inability to adjust to changing circumstances. Our policies concerning Israel are the most egregious examples. What has been the United States’ strategic gain resulting from our seemingly unquestioning support of Israel since 1973? How, in our present era of crushing national debt and budget deficits, can we justify the billions and billions of dollars we provide Israel annually? After all, the country is no more geostrategically significant than its immediate neighbors, either in terms of access to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, in terms of natural resources, and/or in terms of access to the larger region. However, the strategic liabilities of our blind patronage of Israel are legion. Not only have we damaged—perhaps fatally—our relations with the region’s Arab and Persian populations, but we have undermined our military advantages measured against rising competitors.
U.S. policy relative to Lebanon reflects our inability to adjust to changing circumstances. While Lebanon’s political system, domestic actors, and political calculus change, our country’s approach is stuck in the 1980s. The U.S. has legitimate concerns regarding Iran’s Lebanese influence vis-à-vis Hizballah, but we seem unable to recognize that that organization is significantly more developed and powerful than it was as the 1980s’ amalgamation of groups opposing our presence in Lebanon. The State Department reacts negatively to Hizballah’s use of constitutional methods to alter the country’s political dynamic and leadership, but remains silent concerning Saad Hariri’s supporters’ calls for a “day of anger”. Instead of recognizing the possibilities (or at least realities) regarding Lebanon’s multi-confessional and semi-democratic system, we instead bind ourselves to the region’s entrenched autocracies (e.g. Saudi Arabia) that combine repressive tactics and the unrealized expectations and simmering anger of discontented populations.
The follies of our support of regional autocracies will soon come to light regarding North Africa. The Tunisian regime, which traditionally received more U.S. aid than most of the sub-Saharan African states combined, has already fallen. Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, which is slated to receive its regular dose of approximately $1.5 billion in U.S. foreign assistance, is tottering. One wonders whether populations that have lived under these autocrats will forgive the United States its long-standing support to dictators, or whether they’ll turn to other regional or global actors for improved relationships and increased support.
International politics may justify the need to align oneself with imperfect and unsavory regimes, but we no longer live in the Cold War era. In fact, our unwavering support of autocratic and anti-democratic regimes in the Middle East does more to strengthen our contemporary salafi jihadi foes than it does to combat them. Better to reduce our presence in the region and our dependence on its natural resources than to continue down our present path.