The Results of American Non-Intervention
Translated By Jackson Allan
Edited By Gillian Palmer
Kenneth Pollack* and Ray Takeyh, two American researchers who specialize in the Middle East, have presented an astonishing evaluation of President Barack Obama’s policy in the region. Obama’s approach is based on several deductions, the most important of which are that his predecessors — particularly George W. Bush — may have exploited America’s political and military power too much in the Middle East, and that focusing on Asia will bring greater returns.
Obama has reduced America’s role in the region. In practice, we have seen this in America’s departure from Iraq. We have also seen it in America’s refusal to intervene in Syria despite the wishes of principal Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and the open calls of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of political Islam’s most prominent figures.
After five years of reduction in America’s role in the region, the country’s interests there have not been harmed, according to the Foreign Affairs article. Oil prices, America’s most important interest, have stabilized, in contrast to the George W. Bush administration, and Iraq has become OPEC’s second largest oil producer. Likewise, thus far there has been no major terrorist attack against Americans in the Middle East, the United States, or any place at all. And America’s allies in the region, particularly Israel, are not facing real challenges.
This analysis conforms to the realist theory of international relations. According to this theory, the United States does not care about what is happening within various countries as long as its interests are protected. This is the opposite of the idealistic theory of the Bush administration, which favored intervening in everything.
But the authors of the aforementioned article do not entirely agree with Obama’s theory. They think that the relative calm surrounding America’s interests may not continue for several reasons: Syria, Yemen and Libya are experiencing problems that may turn them into breeding grounds for terrorists hostile to the United States, and the price of oil may not stay stable if the situation in Iraq becomes strained. Similarly, there are complicated circumstances in other countries. The authors call for some degree of intervention, one that is lower than the “militarized over-involvement” of George W. Bush. They find it strange, for example, that the Syrian regime continues to benefit from Iranian support, Russian weapons and Hezbollah fighters without the Syrian opposition receiving sufficient support.
There are interesting points in the authors’ analysis, but there are also points that need more exploration. For example, the authors largely ignore the danger of not brokering a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Similarly, the idea that Arab countries and governments allied with the United States no longer depend on the latter because of its reluctance to intervene may have important repercussions in the future.
In reality and in contrast to the authors’ expectations, it is possible for America’s interests to remain safe while internal conflict continues in the Middle East. For example, if terrorist forces are not eliminated, they will be too busy strengthening their capabilities in countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen to turn to the outside world. This contrasts with their prior situation in Afghanistan, where they were stable and idle and hence turned outward toward Washington and New York. But the rebound of America’s declining importance to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries may be that their governments are forced to solve regional problems that affect (or they fear will affect) them using their own plans and initiatives.
Furthermore, American non-intervention — or reduced intervention, in other words — in the region presents a challenge to many, even on a philosophical and political level. Everyone wants to use American intervention as a pretext. Former Egyptian President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak wanted to explain the uprisings against him as American intervention. And the Muslim Brotherhood, which often talked about Western conspiracy, found itself in a situation in which the Americans were not actually intervening in its affairs, but conducting discussions with it. The Americans seemed closer to criticizing its adversaries in the region.
The question that needs greater exploration is: How should the various powers adjust their calculations based on America’s current vision? And will this policy continue after Obama?
*Translator’s note: The author of this article misidentified Kenneth Pollack as the political scientist Kenneth Waltz.
Published in Watching America
Original Arabic published in Al-Ghad, Jordan, 22 May 2014