For the last fifty years, United States policy in the Middle East has been built around its very close links with three countries: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In 2011, it is at odds with all three, and in very fundamental ways. It is also in public discord with Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Brazil over its current policies in the region. It seems almost no one agrees with or follows the lead of the United States. One can hear the agonizing frustration of the president, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA, all of whom see a situation careening out of control.
Why the United States has created such an incredibly close alliance with Israel is a matter of much debate. But it is clear that for many years the relationship has been getting ever tighter, and more and more on Israeli terms. Israel has been able to count on financial and military aid and the never-failing veto of the United States in the U.N. Security Council.
What has happened now is that both Israeli politicians and its U.S. base of support have moved steadily rightwards. Israel is holding on tight to two things: eternal delays on serious negotiations with Palestine and the hope that someone will bomb the Iranians. Obama has been moving in the other direction, at least as much as U.S. internal politics will let him. The tensions are high and Netanyahu is praying, if he does pray, for a Republican presidential victory in 2012. The crisis point may however come before that when the U.N. General Assembly votes to recognize Palestine as a member state. The United States will find itself in the losing position of fighting against this.
Saudi Arabia has had a cozy relationship with Washington ever since Pres. Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz in 1943. Between them, they were able to control the politics of oil worldwide. They collaborated in military matters and the United States counted on the Saudis to hold other Arab regimes in check. But today the Saudi regime feels highly threatened by the second Arab revolt and is very upset by the willingness of the United States to sanction the dethroning of Mubarak by his military as well as by U.S. critiques, however mild, of Saudi intervention in Bahrain. The priorities of the two countries are now quite different.
In the era of the Cold War, when the United States regarded India as far too close to the Soviet Union, Pakistan obtained the full backing of the United States (and China), whatever its regime. They worked together to aid the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and force the withdrawal of Soviet troops. They presumably were working together to stem the growth of al-Qaeda. Two things have changed. In a post-Cold War era, the United States has been developing much warmer relations with India, to the frustration of Pakistan. And Pakistan and the United States are in strong disagreement about how to handle the ever-growing strength of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
One of the principal objectives of U.S. foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been to keep western European countries from developing autonomous policies. But today, the three major countries – Great Britain, France, and Germany – are all doing that. Neither the tough line of George W. Bush nor the softer diplomacy of Barack Obama seems to have slowed that down. The fact that France and Great Britain are now asking the United States to take a more active lead on fighting Gaddafi and Germany is saying just about the opposite is less important than the fact that all three are saying these things very loudly and strongly.
Russia, China, and Brazil are all playing their cards carefully in terms of their relations with the United States. All three oppose U.S. positions on just about everything these days. They may not go all the way (such as using vetoes in the Security Council) because the United States still has claws it can use. But they are certainly not cooperating. The fiasco of Obama’s recent trip to Brazil, where he thought he could get a new approach from President Dilma Rousseff – but he couldn’t – shows how little clout the United States has at present.
Finally, U.S. internal politics have changed. The bipartisan foreign policy has slipped into historical memory. Now, when the United States goes to war as in Libya, public opinion polls show only about 50% support in the general population. And politicians of both parties attack Obama for being either too hawkish or too dovish. They are all waiting to pounce on him for any reversal. What this may do is to force him to escalate U.S. involvement all over the place and thereby exacerbate the negative reaction of all the one-time allies.
Madeleine Albright famously called the United States the “indispensable nation.” It is still the giant on the world scene. But it is a lumbering giant, uncertain of where it is going or how to get there. The measure of U.S. decline is the degree to which its erstwhile closest allies are ready both to defy its wishes and to say so publicly. The measure of U.S. decline is the degree to which it does not feel able to state publicly what it is doing, and to insist that all is really under control. The United States actually had to cough up a very large sum of money to arrange the release from prison of a CIA agent in Pakistan.
The consequences of all this? Much more global anarchy. Who will profit from all of this? That, at the moment, is a very open question.