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June 09, 2011 Edition 16

Out of Arabia
Issandr El Amrani

Seen from the Middle East, the American debate on US foreign policy in the region is frequently tiresome, even if it can often have radical consequences on the lives of millions. President Barack Obama's latest speech on the Middle East on May 19 generated a shrug from the region that is neither looking to Washington for leadership nor particularly convinced this American president has much to offer. Most of all, the public does not see the radical break in American foreign policy that could match the rupture of the recent Arab uprisings.

Articles in this edition
Obama's emerging philosophy of self-determination - Daniel Kurtzer
Much ado about very little - Chuck Freilich
The voice is Obama's; the hands are Bush's - Joel Beinin
Out of Arabia - Issandr El Amrani
The US foreign policy establishment not only failed (as did most analysts) to predict the "Arab spring" of 2011, but also continues to struggle to devise an appropriate response to it. This was evident not only in the halting (and at times contradictory) reaction of the Obama administration to developments in Egypt and elsewhere, but also in the admission of uneven standards across the region that the president acknowledged in his speech, tergiversating between a focus on ideals and a commitment to exiting allies. Hence the standard for Egypt does not hold in Bahrain, what made intervention necessary in Libya does not apply to Syria, and so on, realpolitik oblige.

Most of all, consider the treatment meted out to America's two closest allies in the region--both of whom are also its most destructive forces. Israel gets 29 mentions (the most of any country) and repeated pledges of undying loyalty. Saudi Arabia is not mentioned at all, the elephant in the room as its troops crush the uprising in Bahrain. That these two countries, which benefited most from the old Middle Eastern order, now more than ever have a convergence of interests is a common analysis in the region. The US, for now, appears to remain at their side.

"There will be times when our short-term interests don't align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region," Obama says understatedly, even as he sets out the moral principles that will guide US policy in the region. He speaks of the right of peoples to elect their own leaders, but speaks nothing of Palestinians punished in Gaza for having done just that (or their counterparts in the West Bank who continue to live under military occupation), or of the absolute monarchies led by Saudi Arabia that offer meaningless elections when they offer them at all.

It is easy to pick at these inconsistencies. But doing so distracts from a more important point: that Obama, like recent presidents, is unable to chart an end to America's imperial mission in the Middle East--to get "out of Arabia".

This is as important to the region's people as it is to Americans, who for the last decade in particular have been financing ruinous wars, subsidizing slow but steady ethnic cleansing in Palestine, and underwriting weapons sales to various regimes that line the pockets of arms manufacturers. The American taxpayer underwrites an archipelago of air and naval bases across the region, two naval fleets permanently deployed in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, some of the largest US embassies in the world (Baghdad having only recently beat Cairo to the top position), and countless other ways the US maintains its influence in the region.

It is difficult to place when the American imperium in the Middle East began: 1956 is the earliest date, signaling the defeat of the British empire over the Suez crisis, but 1967, 1973, 1980 or even the Gulf War of 1991 could be starting points. If we take the last of these dates, since it marks the beginning of uncontested American dominion over the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been 20 years of Middle Eastern Pax Americana. At some point between the quagmire of Iraq and the Arab spring, this empire began to unravel. What will emerge is a new Middle East, although certainly not that dreamed by neo-conservatives who cheered the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or Israel's war in Lebanon in 2006.

In his speech, Obama could have charted out a responsible end to this imperial posture--perhaps tinged with the multilateralism he has frequently embraced. Instead, he has offered more of the same. In doing so, he does a disservice to both the American people and Middle Easterners he claims to want to help.-Published 9/6/2011 bitterlemons-international.org


Issandr El Amrani is a writer on Middle East affairs and editor of the Arabist.

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