The US has big objectives in the Middle East these days. The Trump administration wants to reverse Iran’s expansionism of the past decade and to end the Israeli-Palestinian struggle of the past 70 years.
To achieve these objectives, the US is demanding a lot of its Arab counterparts, including, potentially, involving them in a serious confrontation with Iran, as well as the peace “Deal of the Century” between Israel and the Palestinians.
Some Arab countries, for example Saudi Arabia, have been very close to the forging of these objectives. Others, for example Iran’s allies, see them as disasters that must be stopped. For most of the Arabs, however, the calculus is not straightforward. Three questions dominate their thinking.
The first is whether the US is likely to succeed in achieving these objectives. Its recent record in the Middle East makes many doubtful.
The US has mobilised hundreds of thousands of soldiers, put to work some of its best minds, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq for almost two decades.
But Afghanistan remains chaotic, with large parts under the competing influences of militias, fanatics and drug gangs. In its efforts to find a way out of this quagmire, the US seems to be negotiating with the Taliban, the same extremist militia that it entered Afghanistan to eliminate.
Iraq is no longer a quagmire, though non-state armed groups continue to wield strong influence. But it remains mired in acute sectarianism and tribalism.
And despite the colossal resources the US has committed to its Iraq endeavour, the country today is much closer to Tehran than it has ever been in modern history.
The US’s record in Syria is not much better. Seven years into multi-faceted wars that have been shaping the largest, and arguably most strategically important, Arab country in the Levant, the US is a distant player with minimal influence. Russia and Iran have established themselves as the key powers in Syria, and they have acquired a commanding location in the region.
In Lebanon, despite major US investments in relationships with different factions, it has so far been unable to steer Lebanon towards its camp in the Middle East. One of the US’s ardent opponents in the region, Iran’s close ally Hizbullah, is the most powerful political actor in the country.
Lebanon is significant in that it is the Middle East’s most open social, cultural and political theatre. It is an important place in the region for forging visions of the future.
For decades, Lebanon’s dominant narrative was to look to the West and be a bridge between the West and the Arab and Islamic worlds. In so doing, it was strengthening the cultural arsenal of Arab liberalism.
For the past two decades, however, that narrative has lurked in the background, leaving the ground to a fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The biggest loser is genuine liberalism in the Arab and Islamic worlds, which is the US’s true ally in the region.
Apart from its recent record in the Middle East, many Arabs have another reason to be reluctant to embrace current US objectives. Their time frame is different from America’s.
Political lethargy in the Arab world has given rise to many ills. But from the perspective of most of the Arab regimes, America’s internal politics have become increasingly personalised and centred on the White House as opposed to state institutions.
This is a trend that has long been in the making and was evident before the presidency of Donald Trump and is likely to continue in the future.
As a result, US objectives in the Middle East might well be valid only up to the next presidential elections. Many also fear that when the going gets tough, America’s objectives might change, or its focus might turn to another area of the world.
The third problem is that all the Arab regimes know that these American objectives have limited currency in their countries. Iran’s expansionism has been a concern in the Levant for years.
But the route most Levantines strongly support is engaging Iran and incentivising it to unclench its fist, not to push it towards a confrontation that would impose acute damage on the Levant itself.
The same problem exists with the “Deal of the Century”. The vast majority of key Palestinian forces in politics, business and culture have rejected the thinking behind this. For the majority of Arab decision-makers, supporting the deal would entail paying a heavy price for an objective they see dim prospects of succeeding.
These factors drive most Arab regimes to equivocation: cautious rhetoric in commenting on these objectives and half-measures that, in their view, would neither antagonise the US nor commit them to anything substantial or irreversible. In turn, these positions render the US’s objectives more unlikely to succeed.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The logic of equivocation in the Middle East