What are America’s real interests in the Middle East?

A woman holds a photo of Sadr movement leader Moqtada al-Sadr as her supporters celebrate the announcement of the preliminary results of the Iraqi parliamentary elections in Baghdad, Iraq on October 11, 2021. REUTERS / Thaier Al-Sudani

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

Two decades of 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 US interests have also sparked discussions about whether the United States can better achieve its objectives by continuing to focus on security and military options, or whether an increased emphasis on political, diplomatic, tools, etc. economic and civil society can be a more productive approach. .

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 misleading and false information from US military and political authorities, and allowed a corrupt environment for both Afghans and Americans.

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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 pick up the pieces.

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 the economic and social collapse of Lebanon and sink into new chaos and civil war without throwing a lifeline to a discredited and 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 flawed and flawed political structures. It would also allow the people to take ownership of efforts to build more open, pluralistic 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.

The recent sectarian fighting along the Green Line that separated the Christian East from the Muslim West in Beirut during the civil war in Lebanon, has 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 got 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, Iraqi counterterrorism and security specialist in the Iraqi Middle East, who has only voted once in his life in Iraq – the first election held in 2005 after the 2003 US invasion. not voted in another Iraqi election since. “

Abdulrazaq’s disappointment is integral to the larger 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 that will probably 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.”

Indyk felt that 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 support 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 expressed in Kissinger’s time, at least not with force.

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,” Indyk said, referring to the Israeli conflict. -Palestinian.

Indyk noted that in 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 satisfaction of all grievances… ‘just an absence of grievances that would motivate an effort to reverse the order.’ “

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

In his essay, Indyk acknowledges the fact that “people all over the region are calling for responsible governments,” but asserts that “the United States cannot hope to meet those demands” even if it “cannot either. ignore them ”.

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.

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

“Unless [governments] shoot down… satellites providing the Internet, they will never again be able to silence our hopes for democracy and responsibility. This is our dream, ”said Abdulrazzaq, quoting Srinivas Baride, chief technology officer of a decentralized virtual network favored by Iraqi protesters.

Dr James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and senior researcher at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.

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