“Critically assess the impact of US foreign policy on the Middle East since 1991: how does the post-Cold War global order affect Middle East politics, and how does conflict in the Middle East affect the ‘New World Order’?”
Table of contents:
Part I: Summary;
Part II: Background to and nature of American policy in the Middle East since 1991;
Part III: Impact of American policy in the Middle East;
Part IV: Conclusion.
The Middle East has always been critical to American interests: it is a region in which all but one country, Israel, are autocratic. This country, the only non-Islamic country in the region, is the target of constant war with most other countries in the region. This makes it the most volatile region in the world. While American policy was aimed primarily at using some countries led by Israel as a bulwark against communism in the Cold War years, the end of a bipolar world saw a radical shift in American policy towards the Middle East. This was brought about by the threat it saw to its most vital interest –oil in the region as a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; at the same time, with the sudden demise of the hitherto counterbalancing factor, the Soviet Union, the stage was now set for a decisive policy. One country in the region had attacked another and had set sights on America’s most precious interest in the region at a time when the latter was being anointed the sole superpower in the world. This presented the occasion for America to spell out its new policy, primarily aimed at the protection of its oil interests. Though spelt out in a jiffy, the guiding principle of the new policy was simple –with oil and the prevention of its usurpation by another state as the leitmotif of its Middle East policy, America spelt out its doctrine for the region, the ‘New World Order’, an imperious dictum according to which no state has the right to lay claim to what it considers its right to a scarce, exhaustible resource. Since all these happened at the confluence of the end of the Cold War and the potential threat to its interests, the Middle East turned out to be the stage on which America enacted its ‘New Global Order’. Since this is the arena in which America spelt out its policy after becoming the sole superpower, it is only natural that the post-Cold War world gets profoundly affected by whatever America does in this region. Anything that America considers its interests in the region has a huge, marked bearing on the world. Its supplementary policies, such as the advancement of democracy and the destruction of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), impact the region greatly, as the ongoing example of a post- Saddam Hussein Iraq shows. However, in the process of safeguarding that interest, America has embarked on a dangerous endeavour. It is a policy fraught with dangers; for all the might it may use in pursuing its policy, it has to reckon with the local sentiment that would be a crucial element in guiding its policy. A sound example of the bottlenecks associated with this design is the daily dose of conflict it is facing in Iraq. In trying to aggrandise the country’s oil resources beneath the garb of promoting democracy, America may well be treading a potentially hazardous path. This paper argues that the American policy of planting democracy in societies that do not have the necessary preconditions and institutional frameworks to accepting and absorbing the system could mean risking a backlash. This could seriously undermine its ‘New World Order’ if other countries start emulating Iraq’s example.
Background to and nature of American policy in the Middle East since 1991:
The importance of the Middle East to American foreign policy can never be overstated– it is this region that has the greatest say in America’s fuel-driven economy, being the biggest source of American energy supply. It is also the venue of major conflicts, both active and dormant. Situations in countries in the region such as the imminently explosive Lebanon, the ever-active struggle for existence in Israel, the resurgence of fundamentalist Islam, and the American perception that it is the epicentre of Islamic militancy make it a highly volatile region. (Amirahmadi, 1993, p. 3)
American foreign policy in the Middle East has undergone a dramatic transformation necessitated by the political, social and economic changes in the region in the years since 1991. The first major test of American foreign policy in the Middle East unfolded as the end of the Cold War was accompanied by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. As a result, the focus of American involvement in the Middle East shifted from a fear of interstate aggression, the last of which caused the Gulf War, to concerns brought about by issues such as terrorism, the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and social tensions exacerbated by a fall in oil prices. In the backdrop of these developments, American foreign policy is focussed on advancement of its interests in six areas: countering terrorism, countering WMD proliferation, the maintenance of stable oil prices, the support of regimes that are friendly and efforts at ensuring their stability, ensuring Israel’s security, and protection and promotion of America ‘s core values –human rights and democracy. (Bensahel & Byman, 2003, pp. 1 & 2) American post Cold War security objectives in the region can be summarised in the following: “[t]he interests of the United States in the Persian Gulf region have been very simple and consistent: first, to ensure access by the industrialized world to the vast oil resources of the region; and second, to prevent any hostile power from acquiring political or military control over those resources…[o]ther objectives, such as preserving the stability and independence of the Gulf states or containing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, were derivative concerns and were implicit in the two grand themes of oil and containment. Preoccupation with the security of Israel (is) a driving factor in U.S. Middle East policy…” (Sick, 1999, p. 277) Israel has provided the pivot of the American strategy calculus. A militarily strong, democratic Israel situated in the heart of the Middle East, in the midst of hostile Arab neighbours served America’s geostrategic interests from the time of Israel’s existence. Added to this, the influence of a strong Israeli lobby in the US has created in the American foreign policy establishment a strong commitment to the existence and security of Israel. (Lesch, 1999, p. 354) The pursuit of these objectives came to be called the ‘New World Order’, and took shape when George Bush Sr. was president. He laid out his vision of a ‘New World Order’ in the backdrop of the Gulf War. Simply put, it is the articulation of “…a new world order defined not by the presence of peace and stability but by the fact that there is only one superpower; and that superpower must decide whether or not it is in its national interest to play an activist role in the effort to achieve peace and stability in many parts of the world.” (Zogby, 1993)
The New World Order was spelt out in response to a sudden event –the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Soviet Union had just disintegrated, and just when the American administration was groping to find focus on what policy it could lay out, the rather unexpected invasion presented a chance for the then administration to spell out a policy that few had anticipated had such clarity. George Bush Sr. found in this event the perfect occasion to spell out his vision of a world order. “…[T]he American response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was ultimately justified in terms of a vision of world order and of the leading role America would play in the achievement of that order. A grand design that prior to the crisis had remained unarticulated and partially obscured even to its architects was now laid bare.” (Tucker & Hendrickson, 1992, p. 31) Thus, the Gulf War provided the ideal setting for America to “…crystallize positive feelings about a new era into a more palpable vision and approach while advancing its national interests and asserting its global primacy. “(Miller & Yetiv, 2001, p. 56)
Impact of American policy in the Middle East:
On the whole, America’s policies towards the Middle East have been less than welcome in the major countries of the region. Since the primary focus of the ‘New World Order’ has been on the procurement of oil and the resolution of the Israel- Palestine problem, the impact of these two aspects is taken up:
A) In relation to oil: At the time of the conception of the ‘New World Order’, while America vowed to lay the countries of the Eastern Bloc on the road to democracy, in the Middle East, its policy was aimed at establishing its hegemony. (Kuroda, 1994, p. 53) In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, there is a growing realisation in the American establishment that the promotion of democracy in the countries in which it plans to enact a policy of ‘twin containment’, Iran and Iraq, is a strategic imperative. Since then, the US administration has moved in to work on these areas with added thrust. In pursuit of these policies, the brute force that America is exhibiting has not gone down well in these countries. (Tucker et al., 2002) If the progress American policy in Iraq, which constitutes the prime example of American engagement, and the case in which America has invested considerable resources is any indication, the picture is far from pleasing –in the area of WMD, American efforts have come to a huge naught, for the administration has simply failed to find any, or to implicate Saddam Hussein of any involvement in the 9/11 attacks and to the Al Qaeda. The lone silver lining of this policy is that it is certain not to return the country to a dictatorial or theocratic government. American policy has not been any more effective in Iraq’s neighbour, Iran. A central player in the American scheme of things in the region, Iran has started using the nuclear threat to avert an Iraq-like situation in its country. With its presidential elections round the corner, it is difficult to predict whether the hardliners or the reformists are going to be returned to power. (Clark, 2004) America’s policy of coercive appropriation of the region’s only major resource has had another parallel, though highly profound impact. In order to break free from what is perceived as the American stranglehold over their resources, many countries have started cooperating with each other to exploit the oil-rich Caspian region. Based on the idea of excluding America from the pipeline grid, this brings several countries from even outside the periphery of the Middle East in close ties with each other. This could spell a total alteration of the geo-strategic dynamics of the region. This idea involves not only countries of the regions such as Iran, it also brings into its embrace some former Soviet republics and China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This has stimulated America into fostering friendly regimes in the Caucasus. (The Hindu, 10th April 2005, p.10) These events have been rooted in America’s policy in the Middle East.
B) In relation to the Arab-Palestine issue: In the absence of the Soviet factor, American policy in the Middle East has become more intrusive; American policy could have a positive impact if its moves towards establishing its policy are perceived as being salutary. A prime test case of this policy is the way its role is seen in the Israeli-Palestine issue. (Cantori, 1994, p. 452) The immediate years after the Gulf War led to a hyperactive engagement in the region under president Bill Clinton, for whom resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict was a principal goal. In his presidency, America assumed the role of an ‘honest broker’ in bringing about a peaceful settlement of issues bedevilling the region. However, before substantial headway was made, a new regime took guard under Bush Jr., under whom the same vigour was not enforced. American interventionism, which became low-key under the new dispensation, has led to suspicion in Arab quarters that America, with its uncompromising tilt towards Israel, has not been the ‘honest broker’ that it promised to be. This has led to a feeling that the American administration has no clear-cut, comprehensive policy towards resolving the Arab-Palestine conflict. (Lukacs, 2001, p. 32) “The problems of devising and implementing a coherent regional strategy were reflected in and exacerbated by the inherent tension generated by Washington’s goals…American diplomatic, economic, informational, and military efforts rarely, if ever, were simultaneously applauded by both Israelis and Arabs. Instead, the norm was that whatever the United States did to support one side was frequently denounced by the other” (1996, p. 122) Its obsession with obtaining fuel has generated a feeling that America is losing its leverage in the region by failing to go the distance in promoting one of its ideals in the region, peace between Israel and Palestine. One of the major impacts of this policy has been that most of the peace accords set to be implemented to end this dispute and those between the various countries in the region have gathered dust, with the result that the situation on the ground has hardly changed. (Lukacs, 2001, p. 32)
Conclusion: In this section, an analysis is made of how the cherished American policy in the region can go awry if tardily implemented, or in the event of an outbreak of war or a backlash against American policy, because there exist real and plausible causes for either or all of these in the region.
American policy in the Middle East, spelt out in its ‘New World Order’ axiom, is in the process of evolution; hence, at this stage, the events that have been unfolding in the region offer, at best, an indication of things to come. In the overall sense, even if the policy in the Middle East is clear, its result is still in an inchoate stage, and constitutes a mixed bag. Yet, a few patterns can be discerned:
A new urgency has been brought about by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of this event of seminal importance, the Bush administration has been looking at its foreign policy through an altogether different prism. The US has now adopted the aggressive stance by which it categorises countries as either its friends or abettors of terror. On account of this thinking, the world has been polarised more than during the Cold War. The US is finding that it is a lot easier to take on one country at a time and mould it to its will, than taking on amorphous, seamless terrorist groups that can carry out terror attacks on just about any part of the world at will. (Rahman, 2002) This is the foremost example of how the Middle East gets affected by the nuances of the ‘New World Order’.
Some of America’s staunchest allies (apart from Israel) and most bitter rivals in the region have had Islamic forms of governance. Examples of these two extremes could be Saudi Arabia and Iran. The establishment in America is inclined to think, as some in the media are, that terrorism is rooted in and is inextricably linked to Islam. (Esposito, 1993, p. 188) Any American policy towards the region that is seen as being antithetical to Islam, (which is a very likely outcome on account of American predisposition towards Israel) is sure to antagonise public opinion in the region against America, if it does not take the sensitivities of the local populace. Gawkily implemented policy in the region in the backdrop of the strong religious flavour could seriously dent America’s efforts at gaining a foothold in the region; in addition, it could unite the region against American hegemony.
In this setting, it is all the easier for the countries in the region to line up in defence of one of their brethren. With the battle lines, so to speak, clearly drawn, mostly the result of America’s own policy, oil, nuclear blackmail and Islam could easily prove to be the uniting factors against America. Emulation of the Iraqi example by other countries could very well lay the region on the road to total chaos. American policy at preventing interstate conflict may have succeeded as of now, but there is no guarantee it will endure if it goes overboard in implementing its policy. Thus, the potential for an all-out conflagration in the region against America is very real. If this materialises, American objectives spelt out in its ‘New World Order’ could go haywire.
In order to pre-empt this scenario, America needs to become more amiable and resort to less arm-twisting in the implementation of its policy: “[i]n the years to come, the liberation of U.S. foreign policy from the protracted political impasse of the post-cold war era will likely require the restoration of consensus regarding the country’s appropriate role in foreign affairs. In the absence of such a consensus, the likelihood remains that U.S. policy will continue to be driven by crises overseas, (as in) the Middle East.” (Hook, 1998, p. 326)
Written By Ravindra G Rao
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