It looks like the world has not yet had its fill of surprises from the US, which has recently outdone itself on this score. I am not about to rehash Afghanistan or Iraq, how Americans commemorated 11 September 2001, or how the current administration is trying to reverse what the previous administration did.
My concern is the behaviour of the foremost world power towards the Arab region, today, in the light of Biden’s electoral campaign pledge to steer the US back to international leadership and to do so while withdrawing from the Middle East and repositioning itself among its allies in Europe and across the Pacific. Accordingly, while trying to reorder the domestic front, the Biden administration would strengthen trans-Atlantic bonds with the EU and NATO and to the West it would strengthen its alliances with India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.
All this is understandable. If the understanding turns out to be wrong or misguided, the US has the institutions to change course – several times if need be, as it has from one electoral round to the next during the past two decades. Indeed, one of the main lessons to draw from contemporary world history is that the US has not acted with the greatest clarity of mind or sagacity since 2001. Its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were disastrous blunders. Equally mistaken was its plan to build nation states using American-made tools and ground plans. Democracy, conceptually and institutionally, is not necessarily the best system of government for other countries. In fact, it has its own painful problems even within the American framework.
Just this month Washington provided two major examples of lack of wisdom, both involving this region. The first was its decision to remove its Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia, even though they have been paid for up to the last dime and are used to protect civil targets from Iranian missile strikes. The second was the decision to freeze $130 million in military aid to Egypt in the interest of unidentified human rights purposes. Ironically, this action occurred while Egypt was hosting the Bright Star military exercises which serve joint US and Arab interests.
The US has had a long and deep defence relationship with Saudi Arabia. It dates back to President Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with king Abdel-Aziz Al Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt. Washington’s relationship with Egypt has grown increasingly close during the past five decades, in light of their common focus on various matters related to peace and stability in this region. Yet Washington went ahead with the aforementioned steps without consulting either Cairo or Riyadh and, moreover, without achieving anything positive for US national interests.
Most likely, the actions were undertaken to appease certain camps within the Democratic Party who, heedless of the lessons learned from the above mentioned US failures abroad, remain determined to impose their ideological hegemony on US foreign policy. In all events, such measures will have no significant impact on Saudi’s defence or Egypt’s economic capacities, both of which have evolved greatly thanks to the sweeping reform in both countries.
To me, these measures are indicative of American energy dissipated over domestic divides and the failure to appreciate the abilities of Arab states. On a broader scale, the US appears to be operating under an illusion. It sees the current world order as a popularity contest between Washington and Beijing in which the former is destined to win because of the dazzling allure of the American model. The attrition the US has sustained in the past two decades is in fact of such magnitude it will cast a heavy shadow for many decades to come. In dollars and cents the losses exceed $4 trillion, or $9 trillion if we factor in lost opportunities. Such figures do not take into account the adverse impact on American decision-making power. American “software” and soft power in general was an important part of Washington’s appeal. Unfortunately, shortcomings in handling system-related issues, from policy implementation to electoral processes and inter-agency cooperation, plus the rise of various forms of fascism and racism, have severely undermined it.
The US’s main rival, China, by contrast, approaches relations with others with a considerable degree of reserve and respect for the traditions of different countries. It does not use the Communist Party to disseminate centralised political and economic planning, and it does not presume to give lessons in economic and political management. Yet its development model has much to offer developing economies. China currently has a foreign exchange reserve of $3.2 trillion, of which $1.4 trillion is in hard cash. The US, whose dollar is the global currency, is indebted to the tune of $28 trillion, yet is pumping $3.5 trillion into a national infrastructural development drive and other federal projects.
Seth G Jones, an American defence expert, recently published a book called Three Dangerous Men, referring to three key figures in powers opposed to the US: China, Russia and Iran. He shows how, while the US was focused on building fighter jets, missiles and conventional warfare capabilities, those rivals have increasingly resorted to irregular warfare: cyber attacks, the use of proxy forces, propaganda, espionage and disinformation to undermine American power and to intervene in US elections. Put another way, those countries have been more in tune with the instruments of the 21st century than the US, the bastion of the third and fourth industrial revolutions.
At the same time, Washington has gone to great lengths to alienate its main allies in the West. As though Trump had not stirred sufficient alarm in Europe with his tenuous commitment to Western values and even to NATO, Biden’s Afghanistan debacle raised concerns over a senescent US leadership that appears unable to overcome divisions at home and a growing distance from its allies abroad.
To assert the rationale of liberal ideology without taking a clear stance on terrorist Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood makes Washington and its pundits here in the Middle East look foolish and inconsistent, to say the least. And what a boost this gives forces antagonistic to Arab relations with Washington, further undermining US influence in the Middle East and elsewhere.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly