The news may look grim, but the United States is poised to remain the dominant power in the Middle East.
- By Steven A. CookSteven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.
The attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, this Sept. 11 echoed the worst moments of American impotence in the Middle East. They not only evoked memories of Iranian revolutionaries storming the U.S. Embassy in Tehran almost 33 years ago, but their occurrence on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington further reminded Americans of the deep roots of anti-American rage in the Arab world.
As a result of that terrible Tuesday morning 11 years ago, Americans have spent a decade deeply intertwined in the affairs of the Arab and Muslim worlds. After watching Egyptians tear the Star and Stripes to shreds and Libyans carry Ambassador Christopher Stevens’s dead body, they can be forgiven for believing it is now time to come home. How much has the United States invested in Egypt over the last three decades? Was not Benghazi saved in large part because of the bravery and skills of U.S. Air Force pilots? These are the questions Americans are now asking themselves. The U.S. public can be naive about the world, but they are not fools. They understand when they may no longer be welcome.
Still, it was Vice President Joe Biden who thundered, "Don’t bet against the American people" on the third night of the Democratic National Convention, a sentiment with which virtually all Republicans would reflexively agree. The concept of American exceptionalism is in danger of becoming a political cliché, but who would deny that the United States saved the world from fascism and communism and has been a beacon of freedom and prosperity for people the world over? The two major parties have it right: Despite the background chatter of the America’s diminished global stature, the country is uniquely positioned to lead the world and remain the preeminent power in the Middle East.
In their early 21st-century malaise, citizens of the United States have been told that the American Dream is dead, but it is clear that the rest of the world does not believe it. There is something to this idea of American exceptionalism: People do not swim to Brazil for a better future; authoritarian Russia is a model for no one. India and China are still very poor countries, and millions of their citizens want to build their futures in the United States. But it’s not American ideals alone that ensure its global role. The continuation of U.S. leadership has more to do with the structure of international politics and Washington’s capacities than the values Americans hold dear.
Nowhere is this leadership role clearer than in the Middle East. For all the sentiment among Libyans, Tunisians, Syrians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, and especially Egyptians about national empowerment, the United States will continue to be the region’s indispensable power. This may sound odd given everything that has happened in the region over the last 18 months, including the assaults on U.S. embassies this week. And yes, the Arab uprisings, the United States’ difficult fiscal situation, and new contenders for regional leadership all pose a challenge to Washington’s influence. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and a potentially rejuvenated Egypt all want to be influential players in the Middle East, but in the crosscutting conflicts of the region, only Washington can lead.
All the contenders for regional leadership in the Middle East have critical weaknesses that will prevent them from supplanting the United States. Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the Saudis have been playing a more prominent regional role, but it has been almost entirely based on Riyadh’s efforts to ensure that unrest does not spread to the kingdom, which generally means spreading around financial resources. Money is important, of course, but outside of Bahrain, the Saudis have not been successful in convincing other countries to support their view of what the region should look like. Moreover, Riyadh is tethered to Washington: It seeks American protection from Iran and looks to the United States to drive events in the region. The Saudis consistently ask the Americans to intercede with Beijing on Iran, for instance, not recognizing their own leverage with the Chinese in the form of 1 million barrels of Saudi crude that China imports daily.
The Qataris have clearly distinguished themselves as a regional leader through, like the Saudis, their ability to spend liberally around the region, whether it is funding the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army or pledging to invest $18 billion in the Egyptian economy in the next five years. There is also the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera, which endows Doha with influence well beyond its size. Yet even with all the leverage Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has amassed, he has made Washington need him because he needs Washington. The emir did not build al-Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. facility in the Persian Gulf, out of altruism — but rather for external and internal protection. U.S. forces are Qatar’s strategic depth, and they bind the emir to the United States in ways that make it hard for him to break free.
A great deal of ink has been spilled about Turkey’s emergence as a new regional powerhouse. Yet despite praise for its financial wherewithal, cultural affinity, and political assets, Ankara’s ambitions appear greater than its capacity. Nowhere is this clearer than in Syria, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unable to translate considerable political and personal investment in President Bashar al-Assad’s regime into influence. Now, 18 months into Syria’s uprising, the Turks are confronted with 80,000 Syrian refugees and a full-blown crisis that threatens Turkish security in multiple ways, from the intensification of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkish territory to the emergence of Syrian Kurdish nationalism. Yet no one should mistake Erdogan’s recent barb that the United States is "lacking of initiative" in Syria as a sign that Turkey will go it alone. Rather, Erdogan’s angry words were an effort to shame Washington into action, because he knows Turkey lacks the capacity to manage the crisis on its own.
Egypt’s newly elected leaders appear eager to present a new approach to the Arab world, but Cairo remains hobbled by a fragile political order and long decades of stagnation under Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Egypt now has competitors for influence in the Arab world, including the Qataris, Saudis, and Turks. It’s also important to note that despite the strain in U.S.-Egypt relations over the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, President Mohamed Morsy bowed to U.S. demands that he work to bring the situation under control.
The United States has made a military and financial investment in the Middle East that no one else will match. There’s good reason for that: Other powers are only too happy to benefit from the security Washington provides without bearing the cost. With all the gauzy talk of the "New Silk Road" and China’s global rise, Beijing’s diplomatic, political, and military roles in the Middle East have remained relatively modest even as its geostrategic and economic interests have grown. The Russians, meanwhile, have proved themselves to be demonstrably on the wrong side of history as Arabs struggle to build more just societies. Moscow’s support for the Assad regime has proved that it is more interested in maintaining a toehold in the region at the Syrian port of Tartus than saving thousands of Syrian lives. And despite Morsy’s planned visit to Brazil in late September, Brasilia is not a player in the Middle East. India, which has strong intelligence and military ties with Israel, also has a very low profile in the Arab world.
It may be a new Middle East, but some of the old realities still hold true. Osama el-Baz, Mubarak’s longtime foreign-policy troubleshooter, once remarked, "There is no alternative to the United States … yet." To date, the shift in the global distribution of power to which Baz was referring has not occurred. The United States may still struggle with the pathologies of decline — burdensome military commitments, foreign assistance packages, and alliances — but for better or worse, the Middle East remains well within Washington’s sphere of influence.
After a decade of two wars, regime change in Libya, the prospect of conflict with Iran, and general upheaval, Americans may be tired of this volatile region. But don’t expect the United States to depart anytime soon. That is the price of indispensability — and exceptionalism too.