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The Middle East Vacuum

Michael Young has a must-read article in today’s Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star. Young tackles the question of American decline in the Middle East and its consequences. He rather persuasively lays out the twofold argument that this is good for Iran and that the consequence of this decline might push President Obama in the direction “he dreads most” — namely, military action. (Naturally, this act would first require President Obama to recognize his policy’s failure and to realize that an Iranian ascendancy in the Gulf is bad for American interests.)

The article is illuminating as a succinct but comprehensive summary of all that is wrong — and misunderstood — about present U.S. policies in the region: from the marginal relevance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the limited role that Gulf States have in countenancing Iran; from past, present, and possibly future policy blunders in Iraq to the Afghan challenge; and where Obama may be getting it all wrong. All this is known — though Young argues it well. A less discussed point deserving of more scrutiny is that the vacuum created by a U.S. retreat will not be filled by powers of a gentler kind:

The notion sounds absurd. America lose the power that it has managed to retain for as long as most of us have been alive? Perhaps it is absurd. But consider this: given President Barack Obama’s lack of a coherent strategy for the region, everywhere we see deepening vulnerabilities, when not a conscious decision by Washington to downgrade its ambitions in the face of more dynamic regional actors. These actors have shortcomings of their own, but they appear to be better prepared to deal with the consequences than the United States.

Just a reminder of what this means in practical terms: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has just signed agreements to build nuclear reactors with both Syria and Turkey.

Those resentful of American power — including the liberal academic environment that shaped President Obama’s worldview during his formative years — should take notice of what a retreat of American power means. Not a kinder, gentler world, where the oppressed of the earth, finally free from imperialist chains, are able to realize their full potential. It means that authoritarian regimes assert themselves. The oppressed will remain so — more so. As for all those considerations that tame Western powers’ pursuit of their national interests (ethical concerns, respect for local cultures, protection of the environment, rule of law, and the like), forget about it. Power will be raw, at its most ruthless, heads will roll, and blood will flow, while the regional order is reshaped by the new powers that be.

The Middle East will be perhaps the place where the end of the American century will have its earliest and worst impact — Russia will reassert its influence by helping regional powers push America out while bullying Washington’s allies into subservience. In the process, the old Arab order may collapse. Nuclear proliferation will undo the fragile balance of power that currently prevents regional war. And America’s retreat will enable local Islamists to remove the lid of Western influence over the explosive cocktail of Arab authoritarianism, economic underdevelopment, and demographic explosion.

All in all, quite a set of accomplishments by realists, engagement seekers, and those embarrassed by America’s power and image in the world.