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Hichem Karoui: US image needs to change
August 13, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

In order to succeed in the new Middle East emerging from the Arab spring, the Obama administration still needs to change the US image projected by former administrations, — a mission that it failed to achieve so far.

In “The American Way of Strategy: US Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life,” Michael Lind says that the American grand strategy since the emergence of the United States as a major power in the late 19th century combined two objectives consisting in: “maintaining US hegemony in North America, and preventing the emergence of a rival and hostile hegemony in one of the three regions outside North America with major industrial or energy resources — Europe, Asia and the Middle East.” The second observation is that to achieve this objective, the American leaders during the two world wars sought to prevent the emergence of rival hegemonic powers in other parts of the world by an effort of “cooperation in a multi-polar world, not by means of global US hegemony, lonely, and exclusively.”

But “after the fall of the Soviet empire, American officials broke up with this tradition,” said Lind. Indeed, they changed course, preferring the system of alliances — temporary and hegemonic — that the United States built during the Cold War, a system in which their country will establish a global exclusive hegemony. Therefore, this plan for domination of the entire outer region with significant resources, whether it is called “primacy” or “hegemony” was a radical change with respect to the previous policy, which “sought to preserve rather than hinder the diversity of power in the world.”

The Pentagon planners have difficulty recognising publicly that the US strategy is that of an empire. However, several analysts have thus described the USA after the Cold War, including the right-wing and particularly the neo-conservatives. For example, Robert Kagan described the US as a “benevolent empire;” Elliot Cohen — another neo-con — wrote in 1998 that “the United States needs an imperial strategy;” another neo-con Stephen Peter Rosen said: “if the United States must maintain an imperial power, it has to create and implement the rules of an empire hierarchically and inter-stately.”

But for Lind the description of the United States as an empire is wrong. His argument is that “traditional empires exploit people to collect taxes and tributes and governed them directly or through intermediary servants. A genuine global empire is incompatible with the existence of sovereign states, even the smallest and the weaker.” Subsequently, he prefers to speak of hegemony, because “it is compatible with a liberal international order based on the independence of several states.” Better: in a global society of sovereign States, a hegemonic power “can ensure the security of other States as well as himself.”

This is different in his eyes from the kind of power wielded by the agricultural empires of the past or even those of the industrial era, such as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union. Thus, the precedents of the US hegemonic policies are not to be looked for in ancient Rome or even in the 19th century’s Great Britain. They should be looked for about the “informal protectorates” that the United States has established over Western Europe and East Asia during the Cold War and about the informal sphere of influence that the United States has strengthened in North America and the Caribbean in the early 20th century.

However, the problem with the strategy of US hegemony is not in its stated goal of providing security for America, but rather in the method chosen to achieve this: the military rule in each critical region of Asia, the Middle East or Europe. Here, one can only agree with Lind that the hegemonic strategy is simply not necessary to ensure US security and its costs are exorbitant.

Lind discusses the two main arguments of the defenders of the hegemonic strategy: the “security dilemma,” a theory that the only alternative to replacing US hegemony would be unleashing local arms race and devastating wars ravaging the region.

Their second argument is that the strategy of hegemony is compatible with the American Way of Life, ie, it can perpetuate itself without being too heavy humanely and economically. Both arguments are easily refutable.

The idea that global conflicts of the 20th century — the two world wars and the Cold War — have been produced by a “security dilemma” in Europe is simply false, as Lind showed. These wars were rather the product of the “aggressive ambitious plans in Berlin and Moscow.” After a historical argument, he concludes that if the theory of security dilemma is wrong, then “the major argument in terms of US national security falls.”

Consequences arising directly from this conclusion: if the idea of an inevitable security dilemma is false, then it may be possible for the United States to benefit from the security at a cheaper cost even if the US is not the hegemony in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Briefly: “the strategy of hegemony fails the test of necessity. It is not necessary for the national security of the United States.”

This is the point the Obama administration seems unable to get so far and as long as it is led by the old strategic-military goals of the Empire in the Middle East. These goals have been repeatedly rejected by the population in the concerned region. Under the Bush administration, an opinion poll undertaken for the Brookings Institution (in 2005) revealed that people think of the US role this way:

— The United States is in the region for oil (76%); to protect Israel (68%); to dominate the region (63%); to undermine the Muslim world (59%); to promote democracy (6%); for Human Rights (6%).

— When asked “what is the country that threatens regional peace?” The answers were: Iran (6%), Israel (70%), United States (63%).

Many Arabs trusted Barack Obama when he spoke to them in Cairo, addressing their minds and their hearts. Today, we still may understand the difficulties of the Obama administration; but if nothing is done at least to alleviate the plight of the Palestinian people and renew hope in the possibility of peace and statehood, then the old image of the US as anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian will stick to the minds, not the Cairo famous speech; and in the context of the ongoing Arab revolution, it will not do any good to the US and its relations with the Arab and Muslim world.
The author, an expert on US-Middle EAst relations, is based in Paris

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