Is the United States withdrawing from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, or it is just missing the magical focal policy that it occasionally had in years gone by? No matter which conclusion is reached, it implies that America’s MENA policy in recent years is nothing but a series of blunders harming the US itself more than any other nation.
In North Africa, Libya stands out as an example of US failure. Years of grooming the former regime of Muammar Gaddafi were abandoned to help topple him in October 2011. That military intervention by NATO and its partners was helped decisively by American power and literally handed Libya over to chaos and terrorism. America’s then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, pushed for war without any idea of what would happen to Libya. An important oil producer, it was until 2011 a very active partner in the war on terror, and was the first country to issue an international arrest warrant for Osama Bin Laden when he was moving between Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s. Following Gaddafi’s overthrow, the US failed to offer leadership; instead, it took sides in Libya’s internal conflicts. Since 2011, America’s handling of the situation has been regressive and shambolic. To solve the Libyan conflict, suggested Sebastian Gorka, a former senior foreign policy advisor to President Donald Trump, the country should be partitioned. To explain his idea to a European diplomat, he drew the map of Libya divided into three on a piece of napkin in a restaurant. Is this how professional advisers operate?
Libya’s eastern neighbour is Egypt, the second hotspot of the so called “Arab Spring” and another example of US MENA policy breakdown. After supporting the removal of its former ally Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Washington appeared to support the democratic process in the country. However, that policy was reversed when, in 2013, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi used the military to back an uprising resulting in a coup, the ousting of the democratically elected president and the re-writing of the country’s constitution. Trump once described Al-Sisi as a “great president“ despite the human rights abuses going on in Egypt under the pretext of fighting terrorism.
Further east is Syria, where the American role has been totally unsuccessful. Apart from leading the coalition against Daesh and finally defeating the terror group, Washington does not mind what Turkey is doing in north-east Syria. Supporting the Kurds to establish their enclave in the area is a long-term strategic error which is bound to destabilise Syria. Succumbing to Turkey’s blackmail, the Trump administration thinks that a Turkish military buffer zone inside Syria is in the best interest of all sides, but it is not. Turkey will always view the Syrian Kurds as its main enemy, and the presence of Turkish soldiers on Syrian soil is always going to be a cause of conflict. Despite who is in power in Damascus, any forced military presence is both illegal and unlikely to create stability. In fact, the situation right now, particularly given Iraq’s numerous problems, could easily re-create the environment that helped the rise of Daesh.
In Iraq; a decade of America’s MENA policy failure is continuing. After the 2003 illegal invasion, the US policy there has been benefitting almost everyone except the US and Iraq itself. Before the invasion, Iraq was not only a counterweight to Iran, America’s sworn enemy, but also at one time its friend and possible ally, at least in the fight against terrorism. After conquering Baghdad, the US literally handed over Iraq to Iran. The invasion unleashed tribal and sectarian conflicts making it easy for Tehran to re-establish itself as the power broker in neighbouring Iraq.
Today, without Iran, even a simple government coalition in Baghdad is hard to come by. Iranian support for different paramilitary groups, mainly Shia-based, make them an integral part of any government policy. The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a paramilitary coalition of fighting groups, fought relentlessly in every major battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. When the fighting ended, former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi was forced to recognise the PMF as part of the country’s security forces, and even renamed them the “Iraqi Republican Guard” with $2.16 billion from the defence budget. Yet the PMF is still an independent force, nominally at least, allied to the central government in Baghdad. Iran, meanwhile, has very serious influence over the PMF, both politically and militarily, at the expense of the US and Baghdad itself. Some senior officers of the paramilitary group accuse the US, and perhaps Israel, of being behind the recent spate of attacks on its military installations around eastern and southern Iraq. It would not be surprising, at some point, to see the US involved in an open confrontation with the PMF.
In the south of the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia has been wreaking havoc in Yemen for the past four years with political, military and intelligence help from the US. Thousands of poor Yemenis have been killed while millions face starvation, yet Washington’s support for the Saudis hasn’t wavered. This has drawn Iran into the bitter conflict, giving Tehran yet more sway in the region. Moreover, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman was apparently implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen resident in America, but the US President shielded him from condemnation, frustrating efforts by other countries to take the killing before the UN for investigation. Such deadly US support for the Saudis goes back decades, when America encouraged the Saudi government to recruit, finance and arm jihadists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan throughout the eighties, leading to the birth of Al-Qaeda, which Washington then started to fight in the 1990s.
Of course, the Palestinian issue remains central to any sensible superpower policy in the MENA region, but the Trump administration has lacked an objective approach to the problem. Trump openly favours Israel while cornering the Palestinians, leaving them with little option but to reject any sort of engagement with the US at any level. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is undoubtedly relying on US support for his proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley and other parts of the occupied Palestinian territories, just as he received Trump’s backing for the annexation of occupied Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. Netanyahu has to win the Israeli General Election next week first, of course.
It is hard to find a US foreign policy success in the MENA region, which makes me wonder if its policy is actually to create chaos in order to sell more arms to the dictators, tyrants and warlords. Or are America’s foreign policy advisers simply failing their country’s interests by helping its enemies? Either way, or a mixture of both, failure is always the end result.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.