American Hegemony: Myth and Reality

March 22, 2007

Part I. For many outside the US, news that America’s era of supremacy was over might produce more relief than regret.

As any recent poll will show you, the US reign of power has not been a popular one. America is more mistrusted and more reviled, in more places around the world, than it has ever been in its history.

But while it is clear that the international environment—especially in the Middle East—has shifted in ways that constrain US power today, I do not believe it is proper to call 2006 the year that America lost its supremacy in international affairs. In fact US supremacy was never as total, or as meaningful, as either its admirers or its enemies claimed. What has diminished over the past few years has not been US power itself, but rather our perceptions of that power and what it can do.

Nowhere have the limits of American hegemony been more clearly on display, and with more serious results, than in the Middle East over the past four years. Iraq is the area where the real limits of American hegemony are most evident. Since the US and its allies invaded Iraq and overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein, America’s position in the region has shifted from advantageous to disadvantaged, from nearly unstoppable to deeply restrained.

The decline in America’s ability to influence events in the Middle East has not come about because America’s military capabilities or economic capacity have declined. Rather, American influence in the region has been sapped by the failure of efforts at political reconstruction in Iraq, by war-weariness at home, by relative neglect of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and by the effect of US regional policies on the influence of Iran. The result of these developments is the emergence of a new fault line in the region.

In the Middle East today, we can see an emerging struggle for power between an Iranian-led bloc of mainly Shia actors, and a bloc of Sunni forces led by the Arab states of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The sectarian killing in Iraq has fed, and been fed by, this broader regional contest. But the conflict is not as simple as the one described by US President George W. Bush in announcing his surge strategy for Iraq, which he called a conflict between radicals and moderates. Each bloc encompasses both moderates and extremists, severely complicating the effort to pursue a coherent US strategy to bolster moderates at the expense of extremists.

It took a war to expose this new sectarian fault line. For some time Arab leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan had been warning that a “Shiite crescent” was spreading its influence across the region. Iraq’s descent into civil war and Iran’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons fed these Arab concerns. But it was only in 2006 that these leaders rang alarm bells: when Hezbollah provoked a confrontation with Israel in Lebanon, and when the Assad regime in Damascus blocked Egypt from organizing a prisoner exchange to calm tensions in the Gaza Strip.

For America’s Arab allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, it was simply unacceptable that a Shia-dominated, Persian Iran should blatantly interfere in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine and become the arbiter of Arab interests in those places. They decried the Shia crescent that appears to stretch from its base in Tehran, to the Shia-led government in Baghdad, to the minority Alawi regime in Damascus and on to Hezbollah in Beirut. When, just before year’s end, cameras caught Shia guards jeering at Saddam Hussein on the gallows, the broader Sunni Arab public began to share their leaders’ concerns.

From Washington’s perspective, however, this new fault line was perceived differently: as a division between the region’s moderates and extremists. Indeed, the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 looked like a proxy war between two sets of forces, each presenting competing visions of the Middle East’s future. Hezbollah’s dynamic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and Iran’s populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, put forward a vision of the region defined by unending “resistance” (meaning violence, terrorism, and perpetual confrontation) against Israel, the US, and status-quo leaders across the Arab world. Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad argue for the redemptive value of violence and offer the false promise of justice and dignity for Arabs humiliated by the long history of defeat at the hands of the West and Israel. It was violence, they assert, that forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon in May 2000 and from Gaza in August 2005. It is defiance, they say, that has enabled Iran to proceed with its nuclear program in the face of US-led international opposition. And, in their view, violence and defiance enabled Hezbollah to stand proudly in 2006 against the Israeli army and US-inspired UN Security Council resolutions.

To moderate Sunni Arab leaders—including Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, all friendly to the US—the Iranian-led challenge is deeply threatening, on multiple levels.

Even on the streets of these leaders’ own cities, they are less popular than Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad. The radicals’ message of resistance is always combined with denunciations of Sunni Arab leaders for sheltering fecklessly under a US security umbrella and making humiliating deals with Israel.

In Lebanon, the Iranian-Syria-Hezbollah axis openly attempts to topple the Western-backed, Sunni-led government.

In the Palestinian territories, the Shia axis provides critical support for Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, who reject an Israeli-Palestinian peace to which the Sunni Arab leaders are committed.

In Iraq, Iran is aiding and encouraging the Shia militias in ethnic cleansing of Baghdad and southern Iraq and threatening to establish a virtual Shia state on the borders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which these states find a menacing prospect.

Most alarmingly, Iran is attempting to achieve military dominance through a nuclear program that could put it in possession of nuclear weapons.

Given these Arab concerns, the Shiite rise presents the US with a measure of opportunity, but also with danger. To overcome these regional challenges, the US and the status-quo states of the Middle East need to help one another. The only way Sunni Arab leaders can counter Iran’s bid for regional hegemony is by securing U.S. action to strengthen the Lebanese government and the Palestinian presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, promoting an effective Israeli-Palestinian peace process, preventing an Iranian takeover in Iraq, heading off Iran’s nuclear program, and enhancing their own security capabilities. And America needs Arab help with the Iraqi Sunnis and with the Palestinians.

However, these Arab leaders do not share Washington’s antipathy for Sunni-Salafi jihadists, preferring to co-opt them rather than see them fall into the waiting arms of Iran and Hezbollah. Hamas, for example, became steadily more dependent on Iran for funding and training when Arab leaders acceded to the Bush administration’s insistence after Sept. 11 that they cut off their support for the militant Islamist organization. But with the emergence of this new Sunni-Shia fault line the Sunni leaders want to woo Hamas away from Iran and bring it back to the Sunni side.

Similarly, they will not support a renewed American effort to suppress the Sunni insurgency in Iraq if it leads only to unfettered Shia supremacy there. They may now be looking to support an effort by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawi regime in Syria—a tactic that might appeal to those who still argue for forceful regime change, but could unleash havoc in the Middle East heartland.

The challenge for the US today in the Middle East is to cement and sustain a coalition of moderate forces to combat the newly emerging radical forces and the harsh vision of the region’s future that they represent. And it must do so while recognizing that it does not share all of its Arab allies’ assumptions and preferences about who is on which side.

Three aspects of US policy in the Middle East over the past few years have harmed America’s position in the region:

First, Iraq’s disintegration has clearly tipped the balance in the Persian Gulf in favor of Iran, while dealing a blow to America’s image of invincibility and tarnishing its perceived values as a defender of democracy.

Second, the emphasis in US policy on early elections, even where security and political institutions, such as courts and parties, were weak, advantaged Islamist militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. With superior organization, an anti-American, anti-regime message and only a feeble central government to counter them, they were able to exploit elections and enter government with their militias and terrorist cadres intact. From there they have succeeded in further eroding the state institutions of Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority, advancing radical agendas and pushing those states to, or even beyond, the brink of civil war.

Third, the Bush administration’s determination to keep at arm’s length from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process contributed to Hamas’ rise to power in the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s decision to pursue a policy of unilateral withdrawal reinforced Hamas and Hezbollah’s claim that violence was the only way to make gains against Israel. All this further undermined President Abbas, who was committed to negotiating a two-state solution with Israel.

Recognizing the limits of military power-as demonstrated in Iraq, and in Israel’s experience in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the US is forced to turn to diplomacy and look for assistance from its allies. But it does so when its adversaries in the Middle East are less fearful of American power and see less need for America’s favor, and when its allies are no longer sure that America is a reliable partner. That’s why Iran could spurn US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s offer of negotiations over its nuclear program in exchange for suspension of uranium enrichment, and scoff at the weak UN sanctions that resulted last winter. And that’s why, while President Bush rattles sabers at Iran and tries to block international aid to a Hamas government, the Saudis are trying to work with Iran to defuse the crisis in Lebanon and with Hamas to defuse the crisis in Gaza.

The US is now returning to a balance-of-power approach to the Middle East, building a counter-alliance to the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah alliance, and correcting the tilt in Iran’s favor that was the unintended consequence of the Iraq war. But this balance-of-power approach will inevitably put the US in league with some unfamiliar or unreliable allies and will create moral dilemmas and policy inconsistencies.

What are some key elements of this new approach?

Renewed efforts at Arab-Israeli diplomacy as cement for this coalition of moderate states, and to head off Iranian influence in Palestinian territories.

Diplomacy with Iran: in a multilateral context, dealing first with the nuclear file and with Iraq, but over time perhaps other issues as well

Restructuring US deployments in Iraq. If this last-ditch effort to contain the civil violence fails, then US forces will have to move to contain the effects of civil chaos there and prevent conflict in Iraq from drawing in the neighbors and expanding into a regional conflagration

While there is no evident work in this direction yet, it will be important for the US to develop a new security regime in the Persian Gulf to address the fears of Arab Gulf states about Iran and reduce the likelihood of broader nuclear proliferation in the region. America’s strategic approach to the Persian Gulf for the past fifteen years was focused on dealing with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. A post-Saddam security regime must now be constructed.

Now, where does democracy promotion fit into all of this?

Part II

Some argue that the emphasis on democracy by President George W. Bush’s administration is just another aspect of a foolish American unilateralism and should be jettisoned for a more “realistic” policy.

After all the Sunni leaders whose regimes America seeks to liberalize are the very ones whose support is most necessary to deflect Iran’s bid for hegemony. How then can we insist that they undertake political and economic reforms? And anyway aren’t these reforms that America is advocating inherently destabilizing? Isn’t democracy promotion dangerous in today’s volatile Middle East?

It is crucial to realize that the main drivers of political change in the Middle East come from within the region itself. These forces of change—not only globalization, but new media and information technology, a large youth cohort with higher aspirations, and a broader consensus in favor of democratic politics—have not dissipated and are not likely to do so.

In addition there have been real advances in political freedom and political participation in some Arab countries in recent years. The question is whether this progress is sustainable and whether it will advance any further.

But more troubling is the fact that the political openings in the Middle East over the past few years have also given Arab regimes, and Islamist radicals, greater opportunities to strengthen their power, just as they have aided those interested in democracy for its own sake. What should the US and the world do about this double-edged set of developments?

In fact the changed environment in the region makes democracy promotion in the Middle East as important to US, and regional, interests as ever. Bitter experience teaches that repressing the region’s radicals does not remove the threat they pose; instead repression in one country often pushes radicals to safer havens from where they can wreak more terrible damage. That is what happened in the 1990s when America supported the Egyptian government’s brutal suppression of Islamist militants in Egypt. Those who fled the country ended up in Afghanistan, where they merged with al-Qaeda, with terrible results. Domestic repression is NOT an effective answer to domestic radicalism—there has to be another way.

The very appeal of Islamist radicalism to young Arabs lies in its ideology of revolutionary resistance to the stagnation and suffering in many Arab societies today. Countering that ideology requires a positive alternative vision of the future, one in which moderation, tolerance and peace provide more benefits and opportunities than resistance and violence.

So marginalizing the radical rejectionists requires a positive vision. Of course this vision must encompass prospects for realizing Palestinian national aspirations. But this vision must also present the vast majority of Arabs outside Palestine with the opportunity to shape their own future. That is why the US must continue to persuade its Arab allies to undertake far-reaching political, economic, and social reforms that create a new social contract between Arab governments and their citizens.

Why should Arab leaders listen to the US on this issue? Arab leaders keenly feel the threats from radical Islam within their own societies. The corruption, inefficiency and nepotism pervasive in the moderate regimes have produced economic stagnation and an increasing inability to deliver basic government services to a burgeoning population. Islamists capitalize on this failing with charitable networks that provide efficient social welfare to the needy. Moreover, for decades, Islamist movements in Jordan, Egypt and other US-allied states have steadily built up their grassroots popularity by attacking the passivity of these regimes in the face of US and Israeli policies that are portrayed negatively. These local radical movements benefit from the apparent successes of Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Likewise the critique that local Islamists provide of their regime’s performance echoes the rhetoric trumpeted by Iran and Hezbollah. There is a close and mutually reinforcing relationship between the region’s radicals abroad and those that Arab governments face at home.

In this environment US efforts to persuade Arab leaders of the need to reform should resonate; the task is not as difficult as it may appear. The leaders are increasingly aware that the sheer size of the restless and underutilized youth cohort in today’s Arab world combines with the relentless demands of a globalized economy to produce mounting expectations. More than half of the Arab world’s population is under the age of majority. While current rulers can still manipulate political institutions, buy support with government resources and call in their security forces when all else fails, their capacity to play this game is increasingly challenged.

For now though Arab regimes believe that the best way to tamp down the threat from domestic Islamist oppositions is to work at resolving regional conflicts like Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, relieving them of the burden of addressing domestic grievances. While the US should work with them to resolve regional conflicts, America also needs to help them understand that the best insulation against the destabilizing effects of domestic Islamist movements is to repair the frayed social contract between citizens and state.

In today’s Middle East, Arab leaders face a dilemma: they know that addressing the region’s crises requires close cooperation with the US. But America’s unpopularity with the Arab public makes it hard for Arab leaders to sustain this necessary cooperation, because in doing so they play into the arguments of their radical opposition. To extract Arab rulers from this dilemma, and to be sustainable and effective in countering the region’s radical axis, American-Arab cooperation must rest on a new foundation of partnership among the US, moderate Arab governments and their mostly moderate citizens—a partnership designed to produce a better future for the people of the Middle East.

Reform will come about only through the willingness of Arab regimes to undertake necessary changes. We have no alternative but to work with them. The American role should be to reduce the risks and costs of undertaking essential, long-delayed reforms through material incentives, disincentives and dialogue.

In the Middle East cultivating moderation is essential to building democracy, and cultivating democracy is essential to building moderation. If over time limited political openings are perceived as window dressing on autocracy, then moderates will be discredited, while the radicals will grow in popularity.

Building democracy and moderation together requires focusing democracy-promotion efforts on those societies—like our allies Egypt, Morocco and Jordan—with strong, capable governments and a relatively secure domestic environment. In such societies radical arguments have the weakest hold and Islamists have the greatest incentive to remain peaceful and moderate in exchange for the ability to play a public role in politics and society. There regimes are strong enough to tolerate greater freedom of expression and association, while citizens are open to moderate alternatives to Islamic radicalism.

In weaker states—like Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq—the priority should be on state-building more than democracy promotion. In these settings, only when communal security is assured will the local radicals with weapons in hand lose their claim on public loyalty.

The US will need to be consistent and candid with Arab allies, voicing expectations about reform priorities and policies and integrating reform into the framework of bilateral relations as a precondition for long-term, reliable and stable US-Arab cooperation. America will be required to offer Arab states a great many security guarantees to offset the harmful consequences of Iraq’s chaos and Iran’s ambitions; Arab states should be expected to match this US investment by making the changes necessary to build internal stability.

An American return to a balance of power approach in the Middle East should not be misunderstood as the end of American hegemony—we are still very much in an era where American power and American policies will shape the world in which we will live.

But the failures of the past few years, most notably in Iraq, have generated a new tendency within American society in favor of disengagement from global affairs. There has always been a strand within American public opinion that favored isolationism – unfortunately that strand is gaining strength today as some Americans conclude that, if American hegemony does not make our success inevitable, it is better for us not to try to have an influence, but merely to protect our homeland and let others go their own way. It is this tendency that has given strength to calls by some members of Congress for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

This is a dangerous tendency, but it is also one that, in the end, is unlikely to prevail—because isolation is not a viable way of protecting American interests and because inaction does not absolve one of responsibility; it is also a policy choice with real consequences. Because of America’s huge consumption of fossil fuels, a choice by the US to disengage from debates over global warming also has an impact. Because of the power of the US economy, American trading practices will affect the world whether or not the US is committed to the World Trade Organization (WTO). And because of the strategic cooperation between Arab governments and the US, a choice by the US not to press for political and economic liberalization in the Arab world also affects Arab lives and affects the ability of radicals who advocate violence to win new recruits who might one day attack Americans.

Precisely because America’s economic and military power remains unmatched by any other global actor, America cannot disengage from the world and certainly not from the Middle East. While America is not all-powerful it remains, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used to say, the “indispensable” nation. So ultimately the question for the US is not whether to engage the world, or the Middle East, but in what way and to what ends.

An American return to the balance of power in the Middle East also is not the same thing as a return to “realism,” if by realism we mean the theory of foreign policy that says states must seek to maximize their relative power in pursuit of narrowly defined national interests. Rather, America is returning to pragmatism: a recognition of the complexity of the Middle Eastern environment and a willingness to tolerate more ambiguity and flexibility in America’s relations with other states.

For the Bush administration the ambiguity and flexibility required in relations with the Middle East will be uncomfortable. But what can make it more tolerable for all concerned is clarity in American goals and honesty in methods. For the US declaring democracy promotion as its key goal in the Middle East did not eliminate the conflicts that sometimes arise between pursuing democracy and achieving other strategic goals, such as security cooperation. The success of America’s democracy promotion effort has always hinged on direct engagement with governments in the region, discussing democracy on the same plane with other issues, and making occasional tradeoffs when necessary. That challenge remains the same today, and the need for that kind of American engagement is as great as ever.

This article originally appeared as two seperate parts published on March 21 and March 22.