Apparently, the world has not seen the end of the latest torrent of US surprises. I will not discuss Afghanistan, Iraq, or 9/11, neither will I tackle what the US did under Trump and what it is now doing under Biden.
My main point of concern is what the first global power is doing vis-à-vis Arab states in the light of the US President’s election campaign, which revolved around the idea that the US must seek to lead the world, and must do so while withdrawing from its positions in the Middle East, repositioning among its allies in Europe and the Pacific, and rearranging its ranks from the inside, by reinforcing the NATO and backing alliances with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. All of this is understandable; and should this understanding prove erroneous, the US has enough institutions that can put the state on track again, or change the path altogether as happened in the elections that took place over the last two decades.
In any case, the lessons to be learned from this contemporary experience are clear. The first is that the US did not act with the required wisdom and clarity of mind in the aftermath of what happened 20 years ago, and that its invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan was a fatal mistake. This is no less important than the falsehood of the idea that states should be built with US tools and visions, which forgets that “democracy” in its ideological and institutional sense is not a suitable system for other states. Even in the US context itself, it is becoming an ailing system.
Amid all this, Washington took two moves that are a far cry from wisdom. First, it pulled all its Patriot batteries from the region, a missile defense system that helped protect civilian areas from Iranian missile attacks. Second, it froze $130 million in military aid to Egypt to serve unknown human rights purposes, while simultaneously conducting the Bright Star maneuvers on Egyptian soil in the service of common US-Arab interests. In the first misstep, on the other end of the rope was a state that has enjoyed close relations with the US for nearly five decades, linked to Washington by many common interests to achieve peace and stability in the region.
Despite their importance, these two moves do not achieve any national interest for Washington. Instead, they are likely a mere acquiescence to some tendencies in the Democratic Party that still seek a dominance of ideology on US foreign policy, despite all the aforementioned lessons. Neither of these moves impacts the defense capabilities of the concerned state or the economic capabilities of Egypt, as both states have achieved tremendous security and economic development in the last few years following deep reforms.
The two steps taken by the US rather reflect a continued scrambling due to the wide internal divide, and an inability to understand the energies and capabilities that exist in Arab states.
Even more dangerous for US considerations is its description of today’s international order as a competition between Washington and Beijing, and its belief that in this race, it has an unprecedented chance of victory because of the bright colors of the American model. This is rather exaggerated and far from the truth. In fact, the repercussions of the bleeding in Washington’s state institutions over the last 20 years will extend to the few coming decades. Estimates of this bleeding range between $4 trillion and $9 trillion if alternative opportunities are counted. However, this is only the economic cost. This does not count the impact on America’s decision-making capacities. The US soft power has long been one of Washington’s most attractive features, but the shortcomings in dealing with US issues, including politics, elections, institutional cooperation, and the emergence of racism and fascism all put a damper on this attractiveness.
China, on the contrary, which is described as the number one US competitor, embarked on its foreign relations journey with a largely conservative approach that recognizes the traditions of the various countries of the world. It is not using the Communist Party to propagate ideas of political and economic centralization, nor is it giving lessons in economic and political administration. What’s more, Beijing has the equivalent of $3.2 trillion in financial reserves, including an actual $1.4 trillion. The Chinese development model has many benefits for emerging economies. On the other hand, the US has a national debt of nearly $28 trillion in its own internationally used currency; not to mention its intention to rebuild its infrastructure and its federal spending, which amount to $3.5 trillion.
In the context of this race, Seth G. Jones, an American expert on global strategic affairs, recently published a book entitled “Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare.” The book argues that “while America has focused on building fighter jets, missiles, and conventional warfighting capabilities, its three principal rivals―Russia, Iran, and China―have increasingly adopted irregular warfare: cyber attacks, the use of proxy forces, propaganda, espionage, and disinformation to undermine American power,” including intervention in elections. In short, these forces were more faithful to the tools of the modern 21st century world than the US, the birthplace of the third and fourth industrial revolutions. Instead, the atmosphere of estrangement that Washington created with its main allies in the West leveled up from its state under former President Donald Trump, whose loyalty to the so-called Western values, and even the NATO, were often questioned. Now, under Biden, the US behavior during the Afghanistan crisis reflected an ageing leadership that will seemingly fail to overcome internal divide and estrangement from foreign allies.
The insistence on liberal ideology without a real stance on terrorist “Islamist” organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood makes Washington’s positions vis-à-vis its partners in the Middle East seem to be marked with great contradiction, and a malign one at that, as it gives a push to hostile forces to further undermine its influence in the Middle East and the world.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.