The Middle East adjusts to America’s diminishing power

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: January 26 2007

American envoys travel to the Middle East these days with a simple message. Whatever happens in Iraq – and Washington is not about to admit defeat – the US fully intends to remain the regional superpower. Their hosts listen politely and shrug their shoulders with knowing scepticism.

I saw something of this earlier in the week at the Herzliya conference in Israel. The nominated envoy was Nicholas Burns, a senior official at the US state department. His audience was the Israeli political, security and foreign policy establishment.

Mr Burns, a fluent, astute foreign service official who for the past six months has acted as deputy to Condoleezza Rice, had two messages: one about the resilience of US power, the other about Iran’s ambitions for regional primacy. He began with a review of America’s global influence.

The US was strong everywhere. A new strategic relationship with India had cemented its position in east Asia. For all the antics of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Washington was winning the arguments for liberal democracy in Latin America. Elsewhere, bridges had been rebuilt with Europe and the US had never been as engaged as now in Africa.

As for the Middle East, what better proof could there be of Washington’s determination to remain the guarantor of regional security than George W. Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq and another aircraft carrier to the Gulf? America’s most vital strategic interests lay in the Middle East. No one should doubt its resolve to defend them.

You could quarrel with each or several of his assessments, but that would be to miss the point. The significance lay in the fact that Mr Burns felt obliged to answer a question that had not been asked. Unprompted assertions of US power speak eloquently to its diminution.

The removal of Saddam Hussein was meant to overturn the prevailing order in the Middle East to US advantage. It achieved the first part of that objective. But the principal beneficiary of the chaos in Iraq has been Iran and its Shia allies. The effect has been to reduce rather than enhance American influence.

Save for the occasional contribution of a visiting American, the Herzliya conference heard nothing about Iraq. Israel has other preoccupations. Why bother discussing Iraq, one senior Israeli official told me, when there is nothing to be done?

Washington’s friends in the Middle East neither expect, nor want, a precipitate US withdrawal. Yet they believe that Mr Bush’s troop reinforcements can at best delay the inevitable. These allies – Israelis and Sunni Arabs alike – at once fear, and are adjusting to, the consequences of the anticipated defeat.

Richard Haass, the president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, has called this the end of the American era in the Middle East – a moment comparable to the collapse of British and French influence in the region after the second world war. I am not sure it is as complete or as final as that. The US still has a formidable military capacity with which to punish its enemies. What is indisputable is that just as power is visibly draining from Mr Bush, so Washington is losing its capacity to determine outcomes elsewhere.

Iran is the principal beneficiary of America’s failure. For Israel, still traumatised by a calamitous war against the Iranian-sponsored Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad is now the only enemy that matters. I gave up counting the times I heard the words “existential threat” to describe Iran’s nuclear programme capability.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s denials of the Holocaust and his threats to destroy Israel are often heard elsewhere as the ill-judged rantings of a demagogue – horrible but ultimately meaningless. In Israel, they are taken at face value.

Herzliya, it should be said, is an event for hawks, a last refuge for Washington’s neo-conservatives as well as a natural home for those in Israel who tend to believe that diplomacy is synonymous with weakness. Though Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, was invited to speak, the fêted guest was Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud.

The perception of Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an imminent and potentially catastrophic threat, though, runs beyond the Israeli right. So, I suspect, does the worry that a weakened US and an indifferent world will lack the resolve to confront Tehran. The thought left hanging in almost every conversation is that if Washington baulks at the task, Israel will send its own bombers to attack Iran’s nuclear installations.

Hence Mr Burns’s second purpose – to persuade his audience that coercive diplomacy might yet succeed. The US was tightening the economic screws on Tehran. It was pressurising others to do the same. The Europeans are being asked to cut off export credits, the Russians and Chinese to live up to their responsibilities at the United Nations. The impact, Mr Burns said, was already visible in rising popular discontent with Mr Ahmadi-Nejad within Iran. Israel should keep its warplanes on the runway.

I am not confident they will pay much heed. Mr Olmert’s beleaguered coalition has been paralysed by last year’s war in Lebanon. Hizbollah’s latest efforts to overturn the Beirut government serve as a reminder of the failure. The danger is that Israel’s weakness will act as a spur to precipitate action against Iran.

Yet if America’s war in Iraq has crystallised some enmities, it is also softening others. One of the phrases I heard often spoke of a new “community of interest” between Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbours. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan feel as threatened as does Israel by Iran.

Those looking for shards of light in the darkness that is now the Middle East may find them here. If Iran is the real enemy, the time may be approaching for Israel to think hard about making peace with the Palestinians and with Syria.

Javier Solana, the European foreign policy chief, was told by Mr Olmert this week that Israel will do all it can to bolster Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in the power struggle with Hamas. Ms Rice, the US secretary of state, intends to convene talks between Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas. Ms Rice opposes Israeli engagement with Syria, but wants to make headway with the Palestinians.

It is easier, though, to be pessimistic than optimistic. Just as the US has lost much of its leverage, so Mr Olmert lacks the political capital to take risks. Weakness, American and Israeli, is not a propitious foundation for peace.