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The future of American engagement in the Middle East is at stake.

Two decades of eternal war in Afghanistan and continued military engagement in Iraq and elsewhere in the region have sparked debate over what constitutes an American interest in the Middle East. China, and to a lesser extent Russia, feature prominently in the debate as America’s main strategic and geopolitical challenges.

Questions about American interests have also sparked discussions about whether the United States can better achieve its objectives by continuously focusing on security and military options or whether a greater emphasis on political, diplomatic, economic tools. and civil society can be a more productive approach.

The debate is colored by a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other. President Joe Biden has disavowed the notion of nation-building which increasingly framed the United States’ intervention after September 11 in Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that the top-down nation-building approach in Afghanistan was not the right way to go. It relied on policy making based on deceptive and deceptive reports from US military and political authorities and allowed a corrupt environment for both Afghans and Americans.

Perhaps the lesson from Afghanistan is that nation-building (to use a term that has become marred for lack of a better word) must be a process that belongs to the beneficiaries themselves while being supported by remote external actors.

The potential adoption of this posture could help the Biden administration narrow the gap between its human rights rhetoric and its uncompromising, less value-driven definition of U.S. interests and foreign policy.

A quick glance at recent headlines tells a tale of failed governance and policies, of hollowed out democracies that were initially fragile, of the legitimization of brutality, of torn tissues of society, and of a struggling international community. with how to put the pieces back together.

Reduced to its essence, the story is the same, whether it is providing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan without recognizing or empowering the Taliban, or trying to stop Lebanon’s economic and social collapse and sink. into new chaos and civil war without throwing a lifeline to a discredited country. and the corrupt elite.

Attempts to tackle the immediate problems in Lebanon and Afghanistan by working through NGOs could be a viable bottom-up approach to the discredited top-down method.

If successful, this could provide a way to strengthen the voice of the recent mass protests in Lebanon and Iraq that transcend the sectarianism that underlies their failing and flawed political structures. It would also allow them to take ownership of efforts to build more open, pluralist and cohesive societies, a requirement that has framed the protests. Finally, it could also allow democracy to regain lost ground by failing to achieve tangible progress.

This week’s sectarian fighting along the Green Line that separated the Christian East from the Muslim West in Beirut during the civil war in Lebanon highlighted the risk that these voices will be stifled.

Yet they echoed loud and clear in the results of the recent Iraqi parliamentary elections, even though a majority of eligible voters refrained from going to the polls.

“We never had the democracy we were promised, and we ended up with a grossly incompetent, highly corrupt and hyper-violent monster posing as a democracy and traumatizing a generation,” commented Tallha Abdulrazaq, specialist in counterterrorism and security in the Iraqi Middle East, who has voted only once. in his life in Iraq. It was in the first election held in 2005 after the 2003 US invasion. “I haven’t voted in another Iraqi election since.”

Mr. Abdulrazaq’s disappointment is integral to the broader issues of nation-building, democracy promotion and the delivery of humanitarian assistance that will inevitably shape the future role of the United States in the Middle East. in a world likely to be bi or multipolar. .

Former National Security Council and US State Department official Martin Indyk argued in a recent essay adapted from an upcoming book on Henry Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy that US policy should aim “to shape a regional order supported by the United States in which the United States is no longer the dominant actor, even if it remains the most influential.”

Mr. Indyk said support for Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies would be at the heart of this policy. While in a world of realpolitik the United States may have few alternatives, the question is how alignment with autocracies and illiberal democracies would enable the United States to sustain a bottom-up process of social and political transition. which goes beyond pure expression.

This question is particularly relevant given that the Middle East is entering its second decade of defiance and dissent that demands responses to grievances that were not voiced in Mr Kissinger’s time, at least not with force.

Mr. Kissinger focused on regional power struggles and legitimizing an order dominated by the United States. “It was order, not peace, that Kissinger sought because he believed that peace was neither an achievable goal nor even a desirable goal in the Middle East,” said Mr. Indyk, referring to the israelo-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Indyk noted that in Mr. Kissinger’s mind, the rules of an order dominated by the United States “would only be observed if they provided a sufficient sense of justice to a sufficient number of states. It did not require the satisfaction of all grievances… “just an absence of grievances which would motivate an effort to reverse the order”.

The popular Arab uprisings of 2011 which overthrew the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, even though their achievements were subsequently quashed, and the mass protests of 2019 and 2020 which forced the leaders of Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon to step down, but failed to fundamentally change political and economic structures, are proof that there is today a will to overthrow the ‘order.

In his essay, Mr. Indyk acknowledges that “people across the region are calling for responsible governments,” but argues that “the United States cannot hope to meet those demands” even though it “cannot. neither ignore them ”.

Mr. Indyk may be right. Yet the United States, with Middle East politics at an inflection point, cannot ignore the fact that the failure to address popular grievances has significantly contributed to the rise of violent Islamic militancy and More and more repressive and illiberal states in a region with a significant explosion of young people. who is no longer willing to remain passive and / or silent.

Referring to the 600 Iraqi protesters who were killed by security forces and pro-Iranian militias, Abdulrazaq noted in a previous Al Jazeera editorial that protesters “were adopting new ways to keep their identities safe. prying eyes from the security forces. and powerful Shiite militias ”such as blockchain technology and decentralized virtual private networks.

“Unless they shoot down… satellites providing the Internet, they will never again be able to silence our hopes for democracy and accountability. This is our dream, ”said Abdulrazzaq, citing Srinivas Baride, CTO of a decentralized virtual network favored by Iraqi protesters.

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