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Waning US Influence in the Middle East

Rayan El-Amine
Date Published: 
October 01, 2008

The countries of the Middle East will be going through a transition of enormous proportions in the next few months. The context of the coming changes is the United States' waning influence in the region - evidenced by their utter failure to bring forth their version of a "New Middle East." Washington's crusade in the region has not only led to catastrophic failures for the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also has led to the weakening of US allies in the region. This period of change carries many risks but there are also real opportunities for the people of the region to reclaim some control over their own affairs. There are many outstanding issues today - the Iran nuclear program, the US occupation of Iraq, an escalating war in Afghanistan, the Syrian-Israeli negotiations, the Palestinian-Israeli "peace process" and the Hezbollah-Israel standoff are all at critical stages.

The weakening of US influence in the region has sent many of the regional and international players jockeying for position, while others try to fill the vacuum created by flailing US power. Turkey has taken a major role in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations; France has been extremely active diplomatically in the region; and the small gulf country of Qatar helped seal an agreement among Lebanese factions after near civil war in May. Meanwhile, local US-allied groups like Fatah in Palestine and the neoliberal Future Movement in Lebanon have suffered tremendously and are going through existential crises and major reorganization.

The country most worried about fading US influence is Israel, as it has been a keen supporter of US military ventures in the region and faltered in its own war in Lebanon. Ibrahim Al-Amine, an editor of the Lebanese daily, Al-Akhbar, wrote recently:  "The Israelis who visited Washington in the past two months - among them politicians, security officials, and military commanders - pushed the Americans [sic] to do something to force Iran to stop its nuclear programs. This, in their opinion, would allow for many things:  getting rid of Iran as a strong enemy, exhausting it, and getting it to focus on the inside to rebuild what was destroyed, thus leaving others alone and opening a chance for settling scores with Syria and Lebanon, raising the morale of the ‘moderates' in the region, destroying the remaining resistance forces in Palestine - and forcing the Arabs into more programs (with Israel) for normalization for another 60 years." But for the first time in decades, the US seems to have rebuffed, at least for the time being, Israeli demands for military action against Iran.

Lebanon, on the other hand, has drifted further and further away from the US camp, mostly as a result of the mass-based resistance movement with a broad political alliance led by Hezbollah. The most recent victory of the "resistance" (as many refer to the group), was a prisoner exchange deal that forced Israel to return all remaining Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails plus the bodies of 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed in battles with Israel over the years.

The success of recovering prisoners and making Israel concede once again to its demands further improved Hezbollah's standing in Lebanon and regionally. Rarely has an Arab country or party been able to get concrete concessions from Israel and build such an effective resistance force against it, and that is exactly what worries the US and Israel the most.

Lebanon, despite being the size of Rhode Island and having a population of less than four million, has been an essential part of the US's failed project of a "New Middle East." So many US political and military resources have been put into steering Lebanon into the US camp over the past three years that one would think this small country either has oil or a nuclear bomb - but it has neither. Earlier this year, the US even positioned the USS Cole aircraft carrier off the coast of Lebanon to influence the political debate in favor of allies in the country. The Bush Administration said that the ship was there to "keep the peace."

In Lebanon two years after the July War, in which Israel was given a bloody nose, Hezbollah is stronger and more popular. Internally, Hezbollah and its allies have racked up victory after victory, with the US unable to do much. After a two-year political standoff, the US-backed ruling coalition in Lebanon had to concede to the pro-Hezbollah opposition's demands in Doha early this summer. The Lebanese government agreed to share power with the opposition in a unity government and give Hezbollah and its allies veto power in government decisions - a concession the US government had consistently fought against. Furthermore, the "Ministerial Statement," which outlines the goals of the new unity government, includes a critical clause giving the Lebanese the "right to resist," officially sanctioning military resistance against Israel which still occupies Lebanese land and violates Lebanese airspace with fighter jets daily.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Hezbollah expert based in Beirut, says that the party "is at the peak of its power" and that "now more than ever, Hezbollah feels vindicated regarding its arms, the use of force, and the logic of force and resistance. It will be very hard for the other side to persuade the Lebanese - or at least the opposition - that there is an alternative more effective than resistance in defending Lebanon."

All this does not mean that there might not be another costly war in Lebanon with Israel or that the US will pack its bags and leave the region anytime soon. There are attempts now by the US to bring Syria out of the equation in Lebanon in order to isolate Hezbollah, and internal maneuvers by pro-US Lebanese parties to take away the justification for armed resistance by having the UN take over Israeli-occupied Lebanese land. There are also direct and indirect US contacts with Iran around the nuclear issue and an effort to continue an Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" with a weak pro-US Fatah now in power. Undoubtedly though, the tide is turning against Washington, and those forces like Hezbollah are building a sense of confidence in the region that the era of surrender and resignation to US and Israeli power is over.