The Diminishing Role of the U.S. in the Middle East
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The Fiscal Times
December 3, 2012

You knew something important was afoot when Israel and Hamas, the group that governs the Gaza Strip, agreed to a ceasefire in their missile-trading conflict ten days ago. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not broker this deal, as an American leader typically would. She (along with Hamas and the Israelis) stood aside to applaud Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamic president, for structuring the agreement.

The Middle East is changing before our eyes and yet, true to form, it’s like a volcano ready to blow.

• Syria looks as if it is near collapse
• The U.N. just voted overwhelmingly to accept Palestine as an “observer state.”
• Israel (in response to the vote) has just announced plans to build 3,000 new dwellings in East Jerusalem and the West Bank
• Morsi faces a restive, highly politicized population angry over his power grab handling of constitutional talks.

There is little question that America’s long-standing influence in Mideast affairs is changing. Whether or not this change is to America’s advantage depends on whether Washington is able to see clearly and develop new policies and positions and relationships. Being half way an optimist, I think we could come out with less influence but in a more constructive, more balanced network of ties.

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Mitt Romney, during his presidential campaign, once faulted President Obama for failing to “manage” events and, indeed, history, in the Middle East. This is precisely the kind of retro thinking Americans are going to have to reject.

The Egyptian situation is a good example of a renovated American policy. Morsi, fresh from his considerable diplomatic triumph, promptly made a mess of constitutional talks back in Cairo when he insensitively declared that presidential decrees would stand above the judicial system until a new constitution was negotiated and made law. Instantly, the now-famous Tahrir Square filled once again with protesters.

Over the weekend, the president set December 15 for a national referendum on the constitution, which pits Islamists against secularists because it accommodates elements of Shariah, or Islamic law.

The take-homes from this fractious situation are two. First, this should be understood as the healthy, vibrant hammering out of the Middle East’s future, specifically Egypt’s. It is properly messy, as democratic experiments (including our own) always are. Second, note what Washington has had to say or do: more or less nothing. Letting Egyptians build a new Egypt is a distant cry from the old client-state days. The administration has this one right.

Now we come to Syria. Sensing that the regime of President Bashar al–Assad may be nearing its end, the U.S. is considering new steps forward, including missile deployments on Syria’s borders and arming the anti–Assad rebels. This kind of engagement has a worrisome history, so one cannot applaud without reservations.

The true test will come post–Assad: Will Washington claim an outsized, influential role in the remaking of the nation? If the rebels turn out to be radical Islamists—and we do not know quite who they are at this point—would this be acceptable?

For Washington, there is now an 800–pound gorilla in the living room of the Middle East, and it is almost certainly going to require the most complex and fraught modulation in American policy. Here’s why: The U.N. vote on Palestine’s status came in at 138 nations in favor and 9 opposed. (There were 41 abstentions.) Joining the U.S. among the nine were such diplomatic heavyweights as Palau and Micronesia. (I know, you need a map to find them.)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government announces its new settlement plans the day after the vote. Over the weekend, it further announced that it would resume its practice of withholding Gaza’s customs receipts, which Israel by law collects. These are a vital source of revenue for Palestinians in Gaza. The U.S. has said little beyond a more or less harmless condemnation.

Where is Washington-as-honest-broker in all this? One of the most fundamental changes to come in the Middle East lies in where the U.S. stands between Arabs and Israelis. It is already becoming less tenable for Washington to tolerate what amount to Israeli provocations while displaying little sympathy for the Arab point of view. Are specks on the map such as Palau what we now call our coalition of the willing?

There is no turning back now from the Arab Spring, or the vote last week at the U.N. And it is time to begin reckoning the changes these events will require far and wide.

A correspondent, editor and critic for more than 30 years, mostly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, Patrick Smith has also lectured in journalism and media studies. He is the author of five books.