As the Middle East prepares to mark the 50th anniversary
on Oct. 29 of the Suez Crisis that effectively ended European colonialism, a
half century of U.S. hegemony in the region also appears to be coming to an
end, according to a growing number of analysts.
The observation is based primarily on the serious damage done to Washington's
position in the Middle East by its 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of
Iraq, where more than 140,000 of its troops remain bogged down in what seems
likely an increasingly futile effort both to crush a Sunni insurgency that it
failed to anticipate and prevent a larger sectarian civil war.
In addition, however, the passivity – or obstinacy – of the administration
of President George W. Bush in failing to revive any kind of Arab-Israeli peace
process, particularly in the wake of last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah
or the ongoing deterioration of the Palestinian Authority, appears to have brought
both Washington's image and influence in the region to an all-time low.
"American foreign policy in the Middle East is approaching a very serious
crisis," noted Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under former
President Jimmy Carter, at a dinner this week in which he noted the imminence
of the 1956 crisis that he said marked "the beginning of [Washington's]
domination of the region."
"We are facing the possibility of literally being pushed out of the Middle
East," he warned, suggesting that only a major change in U.S. policy, particularly
regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, can reverse the current trend.
While other analysts insist that Washington's status as the world's military
hyperpower and its continued heavy reliance on Middle Eastern oil – let alone
its continued presence in Iraq – ensure its continued relevance to the region,
the consensus among regional specialists here is that its ability to affect
events there has indeed been substantially diminished.
"The age of U.S. dominance in the Middle East has ended and a new era
in the modern history of the region has begun," wrote Richard Haass, president
of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and a top Middle East
adviser to the George H.W. Bush administration, in a remarkably
downbeat article in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs journal.
"The U.S. will continue to enjoy more influence than any outside power,
but its influence will be reduced from what it once was," according to
Haass, who sees the new era as being one "in which outside actors have
a relatively modest impact and local forces enjoy the upper hand – and in which
the local actors gaining power are radicals committed to changing the status
That this "New Middle East," as Haass titled his article, should
be dawning 50 years after the Suez Crisis is particularly poignant, according
to longtime observers of the region who note that, more than any other event,
it was Washington's role in the crisis that boosted its image as a force for
liberation and positioned it as an honest broker between Arabs and Israel.
On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel invaded Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula and within a
few days occupied the Suez Canal zone that had been recently nationalized by
the government of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. Pursuant to a plan worked
out in advance with the two European governments, Israel then invited Britain
and France to send their forces to the area as a buffer. When Nasser rejected
their offer to do so, they invaded anyway.
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had not been informed of the three countries'
plans in advance, responded by threatening to "pull the plug" on the
British pound and even to remove the U.S. nuclear umbrella from all three countries
if they did not cease fire and commit themselves to a speedy withdrawal, one
that was completed by early 1957.
To most historians, the crisis – and the humiliation inflicted on the
invading powers – spelled the effective end of western European colonialism
in the region and the advent of U.S. preeminence, a preeminence that was successively
enhanced by the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the 1978 Camp David
accords, and the end of the Cold War a decade later.
"Certainly, in terms of the prestige and image of the U.S. in the region,
it goes without saying that Suez was the high point," according to Chris
Toensing, editor of the Washington-based Middle East Report (MER). "The
U.S. was seen not only as country that had itself not only thrown off the yoke
of colonialism, but was willing to stick its neck out to help other countries
do so as well."
If that helped establish Washington's "soft power" in the region,
it also demonstrated to Arabs that the U.S. not only had influence over Israel,
but was prepared to use it, even over the objections of both Tel Aviv and the
increasingly influential "Israel Lobby" in Washington.
"It is the fact that we made Israel withdraw from Sinai that established
us an honest broker [between Israel and the Arabs]," according to Richard
Parker, a retired foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Algeria,
Morocco, and Lebanon during the 1970s. "Since Sinai, that has always been
our trump card in the region."
Fifty years later, however, both U.S. soft power and its status as an honest
broker – the two greatest achievements of the Suez crisis – are at their lowest
ebb and, in Toensing's words, "sinking ever lower."
As of 2002, when the U.S. acquiesced in Israel's military campaign against
the Palestinian Intifada, disapproval of the United States skyrocketed across
the Arab world, according to public opinion polls which showed an even greater
deterioration after the 2003 Iraq invasion and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal
the following year.
"The U.S. has come to be seen as the quintessential colonial power, and,
if anything, worse than the old [European] ones, because they were viewed as
having an economic agenda – resource extraction – while the U.S. is
seen as having both a resource-extraction and an ideological agenda," according
In addition, the Bush administration's failure to exercise any demonstrable
pressure on Israel to seriously engage the Palestinians in a peace process,
its transparent support for Israel's military offensive and bombing campaign
in Lebanon last summer's war with Hezbollah, and its rejection to date of renewed
Arab efforts to promote the 2002 Saudi peace plan in the wake of the Lebanon
conflict have effectively destroyed the image of Washington as an honest broker.
"Our strong point was always that we were the only power that could do
anything with the Israelis," according to Parker. "We still have that
influence, but the key is whether we're prepared to use it. If not, it's going
to waste away."
(Inter Press Service)