The US role in a changing Arab world

Azza Radwan Sedky
Sunday 20 Jun 2021

Only some aspects of a new Carnegie publication on the US and the Arab world merit agreement, writes Azza Radwan Sedky

The day has come, bewildering as it may seem, when I am able to see eye to eye with Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Middle East Programme, even if only in part and to a limited extent. This change of heart occurred after reading her collaborative publication, produced with Fredric Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, entitled “From Hardware to Holism: Rebalancing American Security Engagement with Arab States.” 

Dunne and I disagree on many basic issues, mainly her glaring dislike of everything Egyptian. Dunne was barred from entering Egypt in 2014, and since then the original backlash against Egypt that caused her entry to be refused in the first place has flared up repeatedly. 

In “An Open Letter to Michele Dunne,” written in 2018 and published in Al-Ahram Weekly, I denounced her writings and the vendetta she has been carrying out against Egypt, so for me to partly agree with the gist of her views has been a jaw-dropper. This could largely be the influence of her co-writer, Wehrey, or the fact that the core of her publication is not about Egypt at all but is about the Arab states in general.

It concludes that the US approach to the Arab states has been faulty, “anchored in conventional arms transfers, brick-and-mortar military basing, and bilateral ties with autocratic Arab states.” The US has pumped weapons and military support into the region when it should have been promoting and aiding economic development. Today, it should shift its support from military support to “diplomacy and development.” I am in total agreement with this, and I would say it is high time, too. 

According to Dunne, one of the strongest arguments for change in the status quo is due to its having “not delivered on the promise of stabilising the region or advancing US interests.” Again, I’m in total agreement. The region has not been stabilised, partly due to the intrusive role the US has played. The mass of the people if anything detest US manipulation and coercion, limiting the advancement of US interests further. 

Another compelling argument for why the status quo is no longer tenable in the Middle East comes “from the immense changes underway within Arab states themselves.” I tend to agree here, too. The Middle East has changed considerably since 2011, some countries for the worse, others for the better. Either way, all countries loathe the meddling and prying of powerful states in their own business. 

“Worse, it has often implicated the United States in those allies’ abuses at home and made US policymakers reluctant to criticise them for fear of losing access for US forces.” Here my agreement with Dunne begins to abate. First, “for fear of losing access for US forces” illustrates what the US has always done: have its forces access and utilise the Middle East for its own benefit.

Second, Dunne’s comment neglects to mention the role the US has played in instigating wars across the region and, hence, the need for further purchases of arms by countries in the region. Dunne does not bring up the US role in destroying the countries it has supplied with weapons or even the countries it has bombarded with such weapons. 

Fundamentally, the comment fails to detail the role the US has played in obliterating many Arab countries. Iraq is one example, where the US was the primary cause of its downfall and its inability to recover even 18 years after the US-led invasion. The US destroyed Iraq and then ludicrously stayed on to save the country from its own doing. 

Dunne’s comment also fails to mention the role the US played in destroying Libya. It supplied former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s opponents with arms and conducted airstrikes so as to destroy his regime and air defences, ultimately forcing him to step down. Today, Libya remains a hotbed for an ongoing proxy war, after US and coalition forces retreated leaving the Libyans to deal with the shambles. 

In Syria, the US failed when it armed and trained the rebel Free Syrian Army, allowing it to gain more steam. According to a US Department of State fact sheet, “in northwest Syria, from 2012 to 2018, the United States provided non-humanitarian assistance to bolster the Syrian opposition.” 

Let’s dig deeper. According to Dunne’s publication, one of the reasons the US needs to change its approach in the Middle East is “the decline in the global demand for oil.” This is key. It implies that while oil was lucrative, the US was supportive. Now as the value of and the need for oil subsides, the US should change its ways. Rather a remarkable revelation, isn’t it?

The contributors also avoid mentioning the Israeli role in the region. The US is committed to standing by Israel no matter what ills Israel persists on masterminding. The unconditional and undeniable approval of the US for Israel’s every move leaves neighbouring countries in a bind, having to purchase defencive weapons whether they want to or not. 

“Security assistance has also not succeeded in building up the militaries of regional Arab partners to levels where they can credibly defend themselves without US help or can participate, in a significant way, in US-led multilateral operations,” the publication says. 

I wonder why any Middle Eastern countries would want to join a US-led multilateral operation. Besides, Egypt has a powerful security apparatus and ranks 13th out of 140 countries having the most powerful armies in the world. It has also managed to diversify its weapons purchasing, and it has turned to Europe, especially France, and Russia and China for weapons supplies. Yes, Egypt can and will defend itself “without US help.”

“Echoing its predecessors, the Biden administration is arguing that the Middle East has long been consuming a disproportionate share of US attention and resources,” the publication says. I beg to differ: the disproportion is due to the US’s unequivocal interest in the area. 

It was in the interest of the US to remain involved and to take part in effecting change in the Middle East. Today, despite the publication’s call for a more distant role, it is highly unlikely that the US will let other players get too friendly or partake in cozier ties with the Arab states while it disappears out of the picture.

Though US security policy with the Arab states has long needed a major overhaul, the writers in this collection do not present solutions for how the United States can do just that, and they do not explicitly explain how it can be achieved. In all fairness, the collection is focused on how to advantage US interests; very little has been thought out as to how the change will advantage the Middle East. 

I thus can’t see myself agreeing with Michele Dunne for long.

*The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013. 


*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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