The Shattered Remains of US Middle East Policy
By: Karl Sharro
Published Thursday, September 13, 2012
"How can this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?" asked Hillary Clinton.
The shocking attack on the US consulate in Benghazi late on Tuesday that left four Americans dead abruptly revealed the fragility of America’s position in the post “Arab Spring” Middle East. The statement made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the blast revealed the state of shock and disbelief that Obama’s administration is in. Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Libya, misleadingly interpreted by some as “leading from behind,” was abandoned hastily in a telling sign of the improvised nature of his Middle East policy. The death of the American diplomats will be a reminder that this improvisation has left the US weak and exposed in the region.
Surprisingly, most commentators have reacted to the attack on the consulate as if it is devoid of political context. The attack, like an earlier demonstration at the American embassy in Cairo, was largely linked to a film produced in the US depicting the prophet Mohammad in a derogatory manner. While the prevailing opinion seems to accept the logic of an enraged mob that is avenging an insult, the choice of target and timing should be considered more carefully.
There is evidence of a carefully orchestrated campaign to whip up a frenzy against the film and its makers and channel that into anti-American sentiment. The film, which was made in 2011 and is reported to be extremely insulting, passed by nearly unnoticed until now. This points to the possibility that it was merely used as a pretext to feed popular anger. While the Cairo protest, where demonstrators breached the embassy and burned a US flag, bears the characteristics of an attack by an angered crowed, the attack in Libya was entirely different.
An operation of this type involving a large number of gunmen equipped with heavy weapons in which 10 Libyan security personnel also lost their lives is unlikely to have been organized overnight. While the film might still have a connection to the attack, there’s little evidence of that so far. It is more likely that the attack was carried out by groups that are opposed to US presence in Libya and the role it is playing in Libyan politics.
This at once exposes the Libyan authorities’ inability to control the security situation and disarm militant groups and, more starkly, the US’ lack of control over the situation it helped bring about in Libya. The deteriorating security situation in Libya over the past few months has received little media attention so far, explaining why many failed to see the consulate attack in the context of an ongoing violent power struggle rather than an isolated incident of outrage.
The fact of the matter is that by intervening in Libya the US supported, and probably armed, groups that are intrinsically opposed to it and its regional role. That outcome was discounted when the decision to intervene in Libya was taken, but more crucially the US failed to push for consolidating power and weapons in Libya in a manner that would guarantee its interests and protect its presence there. The intelligence failure to detect threats against Americans is indicative of a wider decline of US influence and ability to control events.
To complicate matters further, the US seems now to exert diminished influence over its regional “allies,” notably Saudi Arabia which has funded and armed the groups in both Syria and Libya that are the most intrinsically opposed to America. Syrian rebels have complained of the disproportionate power that minor extremist groups now possess because of this “distorted” support. A similar process happened in Egypt but involving political and financial, instead of military, support.
The US will respond to the attacks by exerting pressure on the Libyan and Egyptian governments to find and arrest the perpetrators, and will no doubt be very vocal about its demands to try to recover some of its authority. It will also, as early reports have indicated, increase its military and intelligence presence in Libya. Despite that, there can be no mistaking the fact that once again it is in the position of responding rather than dictating the course of events in a strategically important region.
What is evident is that US policy in the Middle East lacks any coherence and has failed to recover since the ignominious withdrawal from Iraq and the collapse of its regional order following the ouster of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders. And while Republican politicians will attack Obama for his record, it is worth noting that they have displayed equal incoherence and lack of clarity when it comes to Middle East policy. This goes beyond party politics to a more fundamental question of what the narrative of American involvement in the region should be.
The events of the past few years should have dispelled the myth of the grand American scheme for the Middle East. Yet many continue to subscribe to an outdated and discredited idea that has been proven wrong over and over again. The reality is that the US has pursued arbitrary, and often contradictory, policy aims in the region for a number of years and the trend seems to continue. At the heart of this is the US’ inability to determine what its long-term interests in the region are and how it can guarantee them with minimal use of force.
The attack on the American consulate may turn out to be an isolated incident that the budding Libyan government can contain and prevent further repercussions, but it has definitely shattered the illusion that the US role in ousting Gaddafi gave it a comfortable position within the country. In parallel, there are groups in Libya who are obviously not content with the process of democratization and could mount a serious attempt to derail this process through violence, a prospect that might potentially require further US and international intervention. The US may soon find itself implicated in a situation that it did not seek but inadvertently helped bring about.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.