U.S. Influence in Mideast fades in wake of Arab Awakening

Ten years ago U.S. forces in Afghanistan had the Taliban on the run, and the Bush administration was preparing to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain, confident that his regime would be only the first to fall in its plan to replace existing Arab rulers with regimes responsive to American and Israeli interests. The 9/11 attacks gave the Bush administration the opportunity it needed to extend America’s dominance over the Middle East.

But the neocons’ plans went tragically awry, since then costing the lives of nearly 5,000 Americans and at least 150,000 Iraqis and Afghans. According to the Eisenhower Study Group at Brown University, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have to date drained the U.S. treasury of nearly $4 trillion, roughly 30 percent of the federal debt. That sum will increase by another $2 trillion in coming years as 150,000 wounded veterans receive needed medical care and other benefits.

The costs to Iraq and Afghanistan have been incalculable. President Barack Obama claims his goal is to leave behind functioning states capable of defending themselves, but there is currently no prospect of such an outcome. Iraq and Afghanistan are today two of the most corrupt nations in the world, and Afghanistan is one of the poorest. The effort to build a reliable Afghan army continues to falter; 24,590 soldiers, 1 in every 7, walked off the job in the first six months of 2011. Prisons hold 19,000 suspected insurgents.

The wars that Washington promised would bring freedom to the people of both countries have instead resulted in fractured societies plagued by unemployment and violence, while their U.S.-backed rulers do little other than reap the profits from an influx of foreign aid. This grim picture is only too vivid in the minds of Arab protesters who have every reason to reject U.S. involvement in their cause.

The Egyptians and others demanding an end to corrupt dictatorships are also aware that those regimes were long supported and armed by the U.S. Where rulers have been replaced, the new leaders have little reason to trust us. According to Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, "We didn’t ingratiate ourselves with either the former regimes or the incoming ones. We’ve not found new friends and we’ve lost old ones. As a result, our influence in the region is probably the lowest it’s ever been."

Even partners in America’s ongoing wars show questionable allegiance to Washington. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki maintains friendly relations with Syria and Iran, and has gone so far as to accuse Israel of taking advantage of the Arab protests. "We must take notice and be careful not to be the prey of this usurping country," he said, undoubtedly more concerned with defending his own actions in suppressing domestic protest than in expressing support for the Palestinians.

In Pakistan, where the Obama administration has intensified its drone attacks, with reports of heavy civilian casualties, hatred of America is increasing, according to Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence from 2009 to 2010. In an Aug. 15 New York Timesop-ed, Blair argues that the U.S. "should instead be pursuing the sort of comprehensive social, diplomatic and economic reforms that Pakistan desperately needs and that would advance America’s long-term interests." There are few if any signs that Washington is taking such advice.

The same is true of Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly urged that U.S. forces call a halt to night raids and drone attacks, and refrain from rearresting or in some cases assassinating Taliban members who have come over to the government’s side. The Taliban recently posted on its Web site a statement saying it is willing to negotiate peace even before all foreign troops are withdrawn. "The Taliban’s public position has undergone an evolution," said Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. representative in Afghanistan. So far there has been no public response from the U.S., and meanwhile nightime raids, assassinations and arrests continue.

The current emphasis on combatting terrorism with military power is certain to continue, with much of the action carried out by personnel who operate below the radar. Even if Obama should withdraw all but a few thousand troops from Iraq by December, a strong U.S. military presence will remain.

The administration is greatly expanding the American Embassy in Baghdad, which is already the largest in the world, and its operations will be supported by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. The CIA will remain in Iraq and so, undoubtedly, will U.S. Special Operations forces. The Special Operations Command has a budget of nearly $10 billion this year, and is assigned to more than 70 countries. The highly trained commandos now carry out raids and assassinations over much of the world.

Considering that Washington officials wear blinders when it comes to distinguishing between national liberation forces and messianic extremists, and apply the word "terrorist" to resistance groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah as well as to al-Qaeda, the activities of the Special Forces and the CIA frequently backfire, with increasing resentment of the U.S. as a result.

One such incident recently came to light in Libya.When Obama announced his decision to go to war in support of Libyan rebels last April he portrayed Col. Muammar Qaddafi as a ruthless killer, claiming without evidence that Qaddafi was prepared to massacre his own people. It came as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the CIA has maintained close ties with Qaddafi’s spy agency since 2004.

Documents found at the abandoned offices of Libya’s intelligence services revealed that between 2004 and 2007 the U.S. sent at least eight suspected terrorists to Libya to be interrogated by a service notorious for its brutality. As part of a CIA program known as extraordinary rendition, suspects were abducted in various parts of the world, routinely tortured, and held for years without trial in secret prisons. Scores of innocent people who fell victim to the program and were later freed have publicized their ordeals but have received no apologies from the U.S.

One of the documents contained in the Tripoli files concerned the CIA’s capture of a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was dedicated to the overthrow of Qaddafi. The CIA promised the Libyans it would deliver the wanted man "to your physical custody, similar to what we have done with other senior L.I.F.G members in the recent past….We are committed to developing this relationship for the benefit of both our services."

In fact, the methods used to pursue and detain suspected terrorists seem designed to increase hostility to the U.S. One of the kidnap victims was Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who was seized by the CIA in Bangkok while on his way to Malaysia with his pregnant wife. There, Belhaj said, he was tortured by CIA agents before being sent back to Libya to face further torture and imprisonment. Belhaj today is a top rebel military commander in the forces that have overthrown Qaddafi. Neither he nor the many other Islamists among those forces are likely to favor warm relations with the U.S. and Israel.

The same is true of the Palestinians who persist against all odds in their struggle for self-determination and human rights. An America led by a president who opposes their bid for recognition at the U.N. and calls Israel "the homeland of the Jewish people," as Obama did last May, is likely to have neither influence nor credibility with future Palestinian leaders.

An Arab diplomat said recently of America’s weakening grip in the Middle East, "The people in the region say, ‘Why should we listen?’" If Obama hopes to play a positive role in the future of the Middle East, he will have to come up with a plausible answer.