Who Lost the Middle East?

After the Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong won the civil war in China in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his pro-American Chinese Nationalists to flee to Taiwan, U.S. Congress and the press started to debate the question: "Who Lost China?"

Conservatives blamed the "China Hands" in the U.S. State Department, who were accused of exhibiting pro-Communist sympathies, while liberal critics argued that Washington’s longtime support for the corrupt Nationalists ended up producing anti-American blowback in China.

Considering the continuing decline in US influence in the Middle East – from the Persian Gulf through the Levant and to the Holy Land – is it possible that sometime during the first or second term of the next occupant of the White House, when Iran, perhaps armed with nuclear weapons and supported by its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, emerges as a dominant regional power, lawmakers and pundits in Washington will engage in a similar debate: "Who Lost the Middle East?"

In fact, this debate should and could become one of the main issues that need to be addressed during the presidential campaign this year. In many ways, this month’s visit by U.S. President George W. Bush to the Middle East – his advisers once referred to it with the sobriquet the "New Middle East" – can be seen as a defining moment in the history of America’s relationship with that region.

In Iraq, it was Iran that played the critical role in mediating an end to fighting in Baghdad’s Sadr City between the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is controlled by Shi’ite parties, and anti-U.S., pro-Iranian cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

In Lebanon, the accord to end the fighting between the Western-backed government in Beirut and the Shi’ite Hezbollah militias was seen as political victory for the pro-Iran group. In both countries, Iran demonstrated that it, not the United States, is the central power broker. Not less dramatic has been what seems to be an erosion of the ability of the U.S. to influence Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which are regarded as America’s staunchest allies in the region.

The Bush administration, which has failed to revive the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians while continuing to insist that it will not negotiate with the Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, had no choice but to back an independent Egyptian initiative for a cease-fire that would bring an end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas through indirect negotiations between these two foes.

At the same time, in clear opposition to the Bush administration’s policy of isolating Syria, led by Bashar al-Assad, an adjunct member of the so-called "Axis of Evil," Israel decided to open negotiations with the Syrians, which are now taking place in Turkey through Ankara’s mediation.

Both Israel and Turkey believe that the secular Syrian regime is not a "natural" ally of Tehran and that it can be co-opted into the pro-Western camp in the region. The negotiations between the two governments could lead eventually to a peace agreement and an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights. But the most significant aspect of this development is that it is taking place despite the strong resistance to it from Washington.

The Americans are also discovering that their leverage over Saudi Arabia is waning. The Saudis blame the decision by the Bush administration to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein for the rise in Iranian influence in the region, and they believe that the Israel/Palestine issue – and not Iran – is the central cause of the instability in the region. And they have been resisting American pressure to increase their oil output as a way of helping to reduce global energy prices and the pressure on American consumers.

Indeed, there is very little doubt that the implementation of President Bush’s neoconservative agenda in the Middle East – the bizarre fusion of crude imperialism and democracy promotion – has created the conditions for the current challenges to the U.S. position in the region.

While the era of Pax Americana in the Middle East is not over yet, the balance of power in the region is beginning to shift from the U.S. This reality is being recognized by both America’s rivals and partners in the region, which are now starting to readjust their policies by pursuing independent strategies. Americans can now begin their debate: Who lost the Middle East?

Copyright 2008 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.