The end of American empire, and beginning of what?

The end of American empire, and beginning of what?
Comment: As the US' imperial might in the Middle East declines, and Russia and China's stars rise, what does the Middle East's future hold? asks Robert Springborg.
8 min read
18 Aug, 2017
Trump has yet to appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs [AFP]
Predictions of the end of America's Middle East "empire" have a venerable history, going back virtually to its origins in the early 1950s, when growing American might was challenged by rising Arab nationalism.

Republican Party critics of the Obama administration repeatedly cried "wolf," arguing that weakening US resolve was eroding its once dominant position in the region. Paradoxically the wolf may have indeed arrived at America's door, but on Trump's, not Obama's watch.

Signs of decay are to be found in both the sticks and carrots employed by Washington to run its Middle Eastern empire. A full-scale military invasion similar to that of Iraq in 2003 has become unimaginable because of public opposition, resource constraints, and the calculation of potential costs and risks.

US coercive power is now limited to remote control, whether of the technical variety in the form of drone or air strikes, or of the human type, in the form of train, equip and assist missions intended to bolster capacities of friendly forces, such as those fighting in Iraq. Both suggest the switch from muscular, direct intervention to a more hesitant, standoffish, qualified interventionism.

Just as the stick is now smaller and brandished in less menacing fashion, so have the carrots of empire shrunk.

Foreign aid to the Middle East under Trump is sinking to levels unimaginable even in the Obama administration. Moreover, the nature of public assistance is shifting from politically interventionist programmes, such as those intended to support democratisation or economic liberalisation, to bolstering security forces and providing humanitarian assistance.

These changes reflect abandonment of the long-standing effort to rebuild the region in the image of the US, in favour of the more limited objectives of deterring violence, especially that directed at Americans, and sustaining suffering residents of the region while hoping to deter them from fleeing to the West.

American institutions with primary responsibility for manipulating the carrots, especially the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, are being stripped to the bone. A successor to Obama's appointee as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Anne Patterson, has yet to be appointed.

American cultural institutions are in retreat throughout the region, as indicated by the declining status and resources of the American University in Cairo, the American University of Beirut, and the culture and information centres operated by the US State Department.

The decline of both hard and soft U.S. power in the region is reflected by diminished diplomacy

The decline of both hard and soft US power in the region is reflected by diminished diplomacy. Trump's promised efforts to restart the long-stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, responsibility for which he delegated not to the State Department, but to his son in law Jared Kushner, have apparently ground almost to a complete halt.

The US did not participate in the Russian-led initiative to resolve Syria's civil war, but appears to have accepted its outcome, as indicated by Trump ordering cessation of the CIA's program of assistance to rebels and implied acceptance of continuation of Bashar al-Assad's rule.

Despite much bluster about Iran's nefarious activities in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, the Trump administration so far has done nothing to counter them nor to resolve the various issues that make the alleged Iranian meddling possible. In the meantime, Tehran is consolidating its strong positions in Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and apparently Sanaa.

Even the once vital oil artery from the Gulf, protection of which caused President Jimmy Carter to declare his Doctrine by which the US would intervene militarily to protect it, now seems vulnerable. The US has failed to resolve the dispute currently wracking the GCC countries. Iranian maritime provocations in the Gulf have gone unanswered.

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On the Arab side of the Gulf, the view is widespread that as the US has become ever more self-sufficient in oil and gas, its resolve to defend their turf has waned. 

At the strategic level Russia's return and China's entry into the Middle East have been accomplished without serious commentary, to say nothing of opposition, by Washington. China's newly opened base in Djibouti, immediately adjacent to a US military facility, was not opposed. Russia's murderous behaviour in Syria has been accepted, as has its growing military influence in Egypt.

Russia's murderous behaviour in Syria has been accepted, as has its growing military influence in Egypt

In sum, this time the cry of wolf seems accurate, but no help seems to be on the way, as in the fairy tale. What then are the causes of the US folding its flag and retreating from the region, and what will be its likely effects?

Various explanations of the end of empire are being offered.

One is that of exhaustion, more or less akin to that which caused the British gradually to withdraw from the region between the end of WWII and 1971. As the relative strength of the US economy has declined vis-a-vis the rest of the world and as domestic economic challenges have mounted, the costs of running the empire have been deemed not worth it.

Another view is that the US has been driven from the region by its enemies, chief of which is Iran. Starting with the bombing of the US marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, combined with kidnappings and assassinations of Americans, organised by the fledgling Hizballah under Tehran's tutelage - and including until now support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, various Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and possibly the Ansar al-Sharia jihadis who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi - Iranian backed violence has drained America's will to fight.

Rather more rarefied explanations focus on an hypothesised levelling of world power, whereby the disproportion of military, economic, diplomatic and even "civilizational" power that made imperialism and then neo-imperialism possible, is ending. In this view America's retreat from the Middle East is reflective of a larger global, inevitable process.

A variant of this view is an historical cyclical one, in which empires do not last forever, but are replaced by new challengers

Finally, a variant of this view is an historical cyclical one, in which empires do not last forever, but are replaced by new challengers. In this case the challengers are China and a reinvigorated Russia, working in tandem with selected anti-American regional powers.

Just as explanations of the end of empire vary, so do assessments of the consequences. A benign view is that the end of external domination of the region will free it finally to develop and resolve its conflicts.

An almost diametrically opposed view is that the triumph of radical, anti-Western forces will usher in a period of chaos and destruction in which those forces will fight for control of the region with various others.

The triumph of radical, anti-Western forces will usher in a period of chaos and destruction

A third forecast is that new external actors, key of which will be China and Russia, will pick up the pieces and run new empires.

What then is the best bet for the region's future in the wake of America's departure? Alas, the chances for peace and prosperity do not look good. No regional power will be strong enough to create something akin to the Ottoman Empire, whereby one central authority maintained order throughout the polycentric realm.

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Although Iran is probably the most capable aspirant to such a role, the opposition to it so doing would immediately arise from various quarters, Turkish, Israeli and Arab, thereby rendering the project's chances for success dubious at best.

An alternative future of a polycentric Middle East with states and possibly non-state actors agreeing to create trans-national institutions capable of resolving conflicts and coordinating development efforts, seems even more unlikely. The discouraging history of the Arab League attests to the challenges of building such supra-national regional institutions, as does that of the GCC. 

In the wake of a much-reduced American presence it is also hard to imagine a single or coalition of external actors providing the organisational muscle necessary to hold the region together either in a collective fashion conducive to its well-being, or under a neo-neo-imperial yoke.

The UN has failed abysmally in Syria and Libya, suggesting thereby that the far more challenging role of responsibility for resolving conflict in the region as a whole would meet a similar, if not worse fate. Russia's Putin and China's Xi Jinping are hardly candidates for benign intervention in support of pluralistic development, but neither has the power to impose his will unilaterally or even in concert.  

The prospects for a new and better Middle East, or one under yet another imperial power, in sum, do not look favourable. While the American cop has hardly been a benign force, in retrospect it may appear to many that malignant as he was, it was preferable to have had a bad cop than none at all.

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff