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The Daily Star - October 30, 2013

by Rami G. Khouri

An interview with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice in the New York Times a few days ago capped a fascinating debate that has been going on in circles that follow the United States’ Middle East policy – if we should speak of an actual “policy” or perhaps more accurately, in light of Rice’s thoughts, an “attitude” toward the region. Her basic point was that much of what happens in the Middle East is not of direct interest or threat to the U.S. and usually does not impact on core American strategic interests. The Middle East is messy and often violent, but mostly does not worry the U.S. in any direct manner. Washington also has to address pressing issues in Asia and other parts of the world, so its approach to events in the Middle East is largely defined by a rather relaxed, and usually a noninterventionist posture, as we witness so clearly in Syria.

The major thrust of the debates in the U.S. on this issue have tended to revolve around the question of whether the U.S. has lost much of its influence and role in the region, and whether it has abdicated a historical responsibility and abandoned its allies. This is perhaps slightly off the mark, because the real issue is not American impact, but rather American interest in the region.

And there the answer is very simple: Based on its actual behavior, rather than words, Washington seems to have redefined its core national interests in the Middle East a few years ago during the first term of the Barack Obama presidency. It significantly downsized those fundamental interests, to the point where they now seem to include only three major issues: preserving Israel’s security, preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability and protecting the security of energy flows from the region (even though America’s own energy consumption now relies very little on Middle Eastern sources, but ensuring global energy flows is critical for global economic health, which is critical for American exports, which may be the leading American global strategic interest). Relations with Iran will probably improve, but big questions remain about whether the American Congress will hinder Obama’s sensible overtures to Tehran.

Everything other than Israel, Iran and energy is only episodically interesting for the U.S., but not vitally important or in any way threatening to national security. So we witness steadily the American retreat from the region in terms of troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, an almost total ending of any attempts to promote democracy in the region (many doubt those attempts were ever really serious in the first place), a detached approach to the assorted uprisings, revolutions and transformations across the Arab world, and an apparent willingness to see American allies and friends come to grips with the consequences of the uprisings, such as the election of Muslim Brotherhood-led governments or the fracturing of once centralized states like Syria and Libya.

Even the American-run global war on terror has settled into something of a routine series of drone and commando attacks against select targets here and there, which do not reduce the terror threat but ironically only enhance it by generating new recruits to terror organizations from the friends, family and colleagues of those whom the Americans assassinate at will. America says it is not the world’s policeman, but it seems to act like the world’s hit man.

Only in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations does the United States expend real energy these days, for very sensible reasons: This long-running conflict and the American official policy of favoring Israel on major issues have been perhaps the most important reasons for the United States’ declining standing in the eyes of people across the region. Washington woke up and realized about three years ago that a perceptibly Zionist American Middle East policy generated strong, widespread and persistent anti-American sentiments, which often hindered American goals and in some cases even endangered American lives in the Middle East.

We have no idea what is happening in the American-mediated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but it is obvious that Washington is expending real political energy there, which is in sharp contrast with its approach to the rest of the region. Washington should and will be judged by the results of its diplomacy here, so we must wait to learn if the effort has been, for a change, serious and impartial.

The American downsizing of its core national security interests in the Middle East is probably a good thing, given the terrible and continuing damage that was done by repeated American military and other adventures in the region in the past quarter century. The debate within the United States about the role of the U.S. in the Middle East is low-key and peripheral to more pressing domestic and global concerns. This leaves the region largely to fend for itself, with new balances of power to be shaped by regional powers that interact with and check one another within the new regional strategic framework that will be defined in coming years much more significantly by actors like Turkey, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and Egypt.

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