The New Arab Logo

Breaking News
What America can't do in the Arab World Open in fullscreen

Bassel Salloukh

What America can't do in the Arab World

Obama’s diagnosis is rooted in a deep realism about the limits of American power [Getty]

Date of publication: 26 May, 2016

Share this page:
  • 0

  • twitter
Comment: Leaders in the Arab world should take their cue from Obama and recognise the limits of America's influence, or risk witnessing further war and destruction, writes Bassel F. Salloukh.

It seems that Arab regimes, pundits, and political actors are forever waiting for the next American president. At the heart of this attitude is the conviction that America is omnipotent; that it is the source of everything that transpires in the Arab world.

Its actions are carefully planned by a single, coherent and rational actor that thinks deeply about the long-term consequences of every policy choice. Of course the problem with this assumption is that it exaggerates America's military and diplomatic prowess, and grants the US decision-making process a coherence and foresight it often lacks; it also underestimates the roles local state and non-state actors can play in shaping their own future.

The history of American neo-imperialism in the Middle East is undoubtedly shameful. America has never and will never be a charity. Different American administrations have consistently placed the country's national interest ahead of the democratic aspirations of this region's peoples.

Not even the popular uprisings that exploded in December 2010 could change this time-honoured axiom. Nor can any Arab regime compete with Israel over America's heart and mind, due to a complicated mix of historical, normative, and domestic factors, at least not for the foreseeable future.

Contrary to common perceptions shaped primarily by the very visible lack of personal chemistry between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, the US administration has done everything in its diplomatic and military arsenal to shield Israel from international criticism and strategic military threats.

Nothing in all this is new for anyone who has followed US Middle East policy. So why is it that Obama’s presidency - now in its closing stages - has raised so many eyebrows in the Arab world?

Obama is on record saying that the Middle East is no longer at the top of America's list of priorities. The energy revolution and demands to limit carbon emissions, are bound to free not just the US but also the global economy of excessive dependence on Arab oil. He believes that the future is Asia's, and alongside Africa and Latin America, these three continents deserve much more of America's time and energy.

Obama's pivot away from the Middle East is instructive in at least one clear way: it exposes the failures of most Arab states to provide for their peoples

The Arab world is broken, and no amount of sustained US engagement can remake it. So why devote attention and resources to a lost cause, one that will cost American lives and money, and distract the world's self-appointed policeman – or bully, depending on your perspective – from other, more urgent but manageable problems?

Unlike previous administrations, Obama's diagnosis is rooted in a deep realism about the limits of American power, one anchored on a practical attitude that privileges problem solving through deliberate but unintimidating diplomacy over engaging in wars driven by grand ideological delusions.

Putting aside America's direct role in the mess that is now the Arab world, Obama's pivot away from Middle East affairs is instructive in at least one clear way: it exposes the failures of most Arab states to provide for their peoples what other states in other regions - no matter how poor and lacking in resources - are trying to do. Obama expresses his views on this in Jeffrey Goldberg's The Obama Doctrine in the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic:

"Right now, I don't think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East… You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You've got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You've got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.

… Contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems - enormous poverty, corruption - but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark."

The crony capitalism underpinning authoritarian regimes is the exact opposite of what Arab states and societies need to begin the very difficult process of rebooting their economies

Indeed, it is. But if anything, this is an indictment not of peoples trying to survive wars, police brutality, and economic hardships in the Arab world, but of regimes so preoccupied with power, survival, and the accumulation of personal wealth that they have lost any sense of responsibility for developing their states and preparing present generations for the challenges of the future: they have failed 'to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people'.

The result is socioeconomic dislocations, authoritarianism, gender inequality, massive disparities in income and ultimately the dream of escape to the West.

Of course, it would be wrong to claim that the Arab world is not 'filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people', but alas the organising structure of the developmental state is missing, one that sets national priorities, directs credit toward SMEs and other productive and job-creating sectors, and invests in education, healthcare, infrastructure, agriculture, and technology.

The crony capitalism underpinning authoritarian regimes is the exact opposite of what Arab states and societies need to begin the very difficult process of rebooting their economies away from rentierism, dependency and consumerism.

Similarly, the lack of civic traditions Obama refers to is not the consequence of some timeless Arab primordial practices, presumed cultural essences and ancient hatreds. Instead, it is the result of the predatory powers of the homogenising authoritarian state, versed in the art of the perpetual decapitation of political and civil society.

Despite its global reach and colossal capabilities, there is so much America can't change for the better in the Arab world

It may be the case that Arab history will remember Obama for his decision not to intervene militarily in Syria and the diplomacy that led to the Iran deal. The first, we are told by pundits, prolonged the destructive war in Syria and helped the regime stay in power, while the second allowed Iran to escape international isolation and gain entry to the global capitalist economy and hence consolidate its position as a major player in Arab geopolitical affairs. In both cases, authoritarianism stood to gain at the expense of regime change and democracy.

But there is another side to the Obama legacy that merits our attention: his recognition that despite its global reach and colossal capabilities, there is so much America can't change for the better in the Arab world.

It is high time the region's regimes, pundits and political actors alike realise the limits of American power and the incoherence of its foreign policy choices. Failure to do so means the Arab world will continue to lag behind other parts of the global South, and we will continue to witness wars and destruction all around us, while waiting for the next American president to save us.


Dr Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67


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.

The New ArabComments

Most Popular

Most Popular

    Read More