Hooked on America

The year has come to an end amid great uncertainty for the future of the Middle East, and while the United States's influence on the region is waning, the Arab world can't move on alone.

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 01:  (L-R) Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and King Abdullah II of Jordan walk toward the East Room of the White House for statements on the first day of the Middle East peace talks September 1, 2010 in Washington, DC. The White House has kicked off a new round of direct peace talks for the Middle East, the first one in more than 18 months.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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The year has come to an end amid great uncertainty for the future of the Middle East, the past decade's upheavals still unresolved. Shaken up by the September 11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, the regional system promoted by the United States in the 1990s - one that favoured stability above all and sought to contain enemies - has yet to settle into a new form. If 2010 was a year of multiple disappointments and postponements, 2011 is pregnant with possibilities.

The spectre of war looms over Lebanon and Iran, where it might become regional. Iraq finally has a government, but it is a fragile one. A new state may be born in south Sudan within a month, probably taking half of the country outside of the Arab system and setting a precedent for secessionism many others see as dangerous. Yemen's (for now) low-intensity civil wars, like Sudan's, are nowhere near resolved. The neverending Western Sahara conflict, having reached a diplomatic dead end, erupted violently once again, highlighting the deadlock not only of peace talks but also a deeper integration in the Maghreb. On the southern edge of North Africa, bandits, smugglers and fundamentalists form new sources of terrorism as Al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb, which really operates out of the Sahel. The southern tip of Arabia, meanwhile, saw a revival of piracy that confirmed the weakness of neighbouring states.

Autocracies are well-entrenched and can easily brush aside pressure for democracy, but face, as a result, chronic dissatisfaction and poor governance. A wave of social protests is taking place from Morocco and Tunisia to Egypt and Iran: although these regimes try to place the blame on the global financial crisis, most often the protesters zero in on corruption and economic systems that favour the well-connected. Economic growth in the oil-poor countries is increasingly leaving the poorest behind, while the small oil-rich states of the Gulf, smarting from the 2008 financial crisis, are still devising strategies for sustainable economies beyond prestige projects.

Sectarianism rules in Lebanon, Iraq or Bahrain, where it holds politics itself hostage. It is becoming a mounting problem in Egypt, where an ageing regime faces a moral crisis. Leadership transitions are looming in Algeria, Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Ironically, among the republics, family ties are likely to determine the identity of the presidential successors. Saudi Arabia's own succession will test a new system, possibly renewing the longstanding social contract with conservatives that has kept the al Sauds in power. For now, uncertainty is having a paralysing effect on political systems in need of overhaul. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, appears to have forfeited a proactive regional role, while - try as they might - more dynamic actors like Qatar are simply too small to deliver major shifts in regional politics.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is on life support, kept alive by an American president who cannot stand up to an intransigent Israeli leadership. He is backed in this endeavour by countries such as Egypt and Jordan, who need the existence of a process more than the process needs them. Israel bested and humiliated its most crucial ally, too paranoid and cocksure to end policies that are slowly turning the world against it. The Palestinians, meanwhile, continue to suffer under siege and occupation while their leaders bicker and the international community discourages their reconciliation. For lack of an alternative to the peace process, no one knows where they are headed.

Everywhere from Rabat to Muscat, uncertainty is the rule: uncertainty about domestic trends, uncertainty about the ability to withstand shocks from the shifts in the global economy, uncertainty about whether war will be avoided with Iran or whether full-fledged civil wars will erupt in Yemen, Lebanon or Sudan. It is also, and perhaps most of all, an uncertainty over the role of the United States in a region where it has long called the shots.

It was perhaps suitable that the year's end came with an avalanche of documents, courtesy of WikiLeaks, that lifted the curtain on US diplomacy: amusing profiles of mercurial leaders such as Libya's Muammar Qadafi, indiscretions about corruption in Morocco and Tunisia's ruling circles, opinions about Iran from Gulf leaders, and sobering assessments of the possibilities for change in some of the most stagnant political systems on the planet.

After the Bush administration's decision to use "creative destruction" to create a new Middle East, the Obama administration has rolled back its approach to the 1990s. The same familiar faces are back, from Hillary Clinton to Dennis Ross (now rumoured to become, once again, a special envoy for the peace process), along with the same old policies. The most innovative policy of the new administration, an early focus on stopping settlement growth as a priority in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, has faltered against American political constraints. An America that cannot deliver Israel, even on its own very pro-Israeli terms, is creating doubts about American leadership.

Yet, even so, there is no easy alternative to America's Middle Eastern dominion. As frustrated as they are with American policies, the WikiLeaks cables also show that the region's leaders ultimately depend on US leadership. No regional actor has the capacity to single-handedly shape the region, and despite a decline in its credibility and influence, Washington remains the indispensable actor. The question is now about its ability to deliver. The "new Middle East" that Barack Obama inherited from his predecessor has yet to take shape - its centre is congealed but not yet set - but increasingly appears to be directionless.

Washington's friends and enemies, therefore, look attentively for signals from an Obama administration midway through its first term, with enthusiasm about a less belligerent America having given way to worries about its dwindling influence. Major regional diplomatic powers that rely on their inclusion in American initiatives - Egypt's monopoly on talks with Hamas is the most flagrant example of this - worry that their own credibility will suffer from US setbacks. Gulf states that have effectively subcontracted their security to the US worry both about the risks of a regional confrontation with Iran and the weakened value of this external security guarantee. Iran, mired in domestic troubles, seeks regional prestige as Washington's challenger but its unnecessarily belligerent rhetoric reduces its margin of manoeuvre to honourably avoid a confrontation that could devastate it. Syria, disappointed by a lukewarm overture from the Obama administration as it tries to "flip" it away from Iran, plays hard to get, stretched in all directions by its multiple overlapping alliances.

Not unlike longtime junkies, the region's actors have developed a habit - an expectation that someone else will do the dirty work of managing a fractured Middle East, so they won't have to. After the heroin hit of Bush's creative destruction, they must do with the methadone of Obama. But they are still addicted to America.

Issandr el Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo. He blogs at www.arabist.net.