Could the Middle East prove to be the United States’ Dien Bien Phu? The latter, you may remember, was where the flower of France’s colonial troops was vanquished by the Viet Minh in 1954. That military defeat in Vietnam came to symbolise the end of France as an imperial power. I exaggerate, of course: apart from Iraq, American troops are not embroiled in the Middle East and there is no great battle vaguely on the horizon. Dien Bien Phu is no more than a metaphor for the problems that can befall an imperial power in decline. The region where a similar process of angst and exhaustion might most obviously face the US today is the Middle East. Washington has long regarded it to be the most important region as far as US interests are concerned.
The Bush administration was the exemplar par excellence. The invasion of Iraq mired the US in an expensive and debilitating war, making it deeply unpopular throughout the world and undermining its soft power. Furthermore, it became so preoccupied with the Middle East that it neglected American interests elsewhere, such as in east Asia, which is in fact far more important by most criteria, but where its position is declining rapidly. In contrast to the gung-ho mentality of its predecessor, the Obama administration has been anxious not to overreach itself, employing a rhetoric that emphasises limits to US power and the need to work with other nations. However, even this enlightened administration has greatly increased its military commitment to an unwinnable war in Afghanistan.
Declining imperial nations enter into military entanglements shaped by power and ambitions that they previously took for granted, but increasingly can no longer sustain. In other words, they overreach themselves in a manner that often ends in humiliating retreat; the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is a case in point. Iraq, in a less drastic way, serves as a similar warning to the US. Of course, this has been considerably less humiliating than the US defeat in Vietnam, but it occurred at a different point in the arc of the country’s global hegemony. In the mid-1970s, the US was very much the dominant power in the world and it was to remain so for another quarter-century or more. Today US power is palpably on the wane.
The Middle East, more than any other region, is likely to ensnare a declining America in a costly and energy-sapping commitment. As we all know, the region is highly unstable, riddled with conflict and fraught with dangerous uncertainties. America’s two closest allies in the region are Saudi Arabia, a deeply dysfunctional state, and Israel, whose future is utterly dependent on the United States. Both are living testimony to the extent to which the Middle East has been shaped by US power since 1945.
Obama has been cautiously seeking a way of resolving the seemingly intractable problems of the region. He has sought to find a modus vivendi with Iran and has been pressurising Israel to accept a two-state solution and an end to the expansion of its settlements. But recent events illustrate just how difficult this will be: Iran remains firmly in its bunker, even more so since its disputed presidential election, and Israel is loath to make the slightest concession. If any American president is going to cut the Gordian knot of Palestine – the central impasse of life in the region, linked to so many other political difficulties – he will have to be far bolder and braver than any other leader we have seen.
Obama is the obvious candidate; but he cannot ignore the hugely powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the US, nor, in consequence, can he ride roughshod over Israeli opposition. The Palestinian impasse threatens to go on and on, just as it has for so many decades already. It is a quagmire of America’s own making.
Israel survives – economically and militarily – only by virtue of a life-support system courtesy of the US. Its contemptuous attitude towards its neighbours would not be sustainable without the unquestioned assumption that it can always depend on US support. It considers itself to be not part of the region, but something quite apart from it, linked by an umbilical cord to Washington. It behaves like the western transplant that it largely was.
While US power is globally predominant, and overwhelming in the Middle East, this situation can be prolonged indefinitely. But as America’s power contracts, such a state of affairs will become difficult to sustain. Israel’s neighbours will grow increasingly aware of the country’s weakness. The US will no longer be willing to underwrite Israel in the same way, conscious that it no longer holds the key to securing Washington’s interests in the region and that it also threatens America’s standing elsewhere.
There might seem little urgency to the search for a solution to the Palestinian problem and the normalisation of Israel’s position as a Middle Eastern state rather than a western transplant. This is a conflict, after all, and it seems to be interminable and to defy any attempt at resolution.
But fast-forward two decades and the world will look very different. China will have overtaken the US to become the largest economy in the world. America’s power will have waned visibly; Washington’s writ will no longer run in large parts of the globe. Taiwan will have recognised Chinese sovereignty, Africa may well have acquiesced in a much closer relationship with China, and Latin America is likely to have grown even more independent of the United States than it is now.
Yet none of this implies that the US will see where its longer-term interests lie; politics does not work so simply. If it did, America would never have elected a figure so inimical to the country’s long-term interests as George W Bush. More likely is a bitter, long-term, domestic battle over whether, how and when to cut the umbilical cord between Washington and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, the cost to the United States in resources, diplomatic energy and the neglect of its interests in other parts of the world could be enormous.
Just as Dien Bien Phu accelerated France’s imperial decline, so the Middle East – and above all Israel – could well hasten America’s.