The progressive withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East has continued since the end of the Iraq War. Washington learned from experience that direct military intervention’s economic and human costs outweigh its benefits. There may be no benefit in the first place when an American intervention seeking a new Middle East leads to an Iranian Middle East ruled by a regime considered by the United States to be the “world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.”
Barack Obama once stated in a speech that he had learned a “hard lesson” in Iraq, explaining how American military power alone cannot achieve Washington’s goals. This assessment did not come out of nowhere. It was backed by dozens of American reports and studies calling for a review of U.S. policies in the Middle East. Among these were the Baker Hamilton report, the U.S. Army’s latest studies in Iraq, and the conclusions of American research centers and experts who had worked in the region for years as diplomats, such as Martin Indyk, who recently wrote, “The Middle East isn’t worth it anymore.”
However, the Arab attitude in general, and in Iraq and Syria in particular, has been to wait on the Americans to draw the line and invent a solution to the endless civil strife, or to back one side over another. Those waiting for the Messiah to come from the White House see America as their only hope of winning. They also believe the reverse, that their opponents can only claim victory with America’s blessing. So America is both the cure and the sickness: it strengthens whom it wants, and it weakens whom it wants.
Even years after the American withdrawal from Iraq, many Sunni Arabs, who were the biggest losers of the U.S. occupation, have come to see American military intervention as their one and only salvation against their adversaries, the militias and Shiite forces allied with Iran. The Sunni Arabs have not found any way to counter Iranian influence except with American influence. Likewise, many in the Syrian opposition attribute their failure against the regime in Damascus to America deserting their cause. Despite this letdown, the majority of Sunni Arabs see no other way of toppling the regime than with Washington’s help. A better approach would be to first develop a coalition representing local and regional actors, and balances of power. Otherwise, Sunni Arabs risk coming to Washington as beggars, and any agreements thus made will not represent shared interests.
The Caesar Act, for example, has restored hope, or wishful thinking, rather, about America’s role in weakening the Bashar Assad regime. Yet, such thinking runs contrary to what has occurred in Syria since 2011, when the Western-backed opposition faced off against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime, then at its weakest point and not yet receiving Russian support. Commenting on the Caesar Act, Paul Pillar, former executive assistant to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has said, “Caesar will not change the regime’s behavior, you have a regime that insists on continuing a war that has lasted nine years without changing its path. The truth of the matter is, whether we like it or not, Assad, with the help of his allies the Russians and the Iranians, won this war. The opposition still has a stronghold in Idlib, but I don’t see any way under maximum pressure from America and the international community to make the regime change its behavior.”*
Perhaps the Arab attitude generally subscribes to this perception of America, that it “strengthens whom it wants, weakens whom it wants,” perhaps because Arabs have always lost their battles with the United States. Secondly, this Arab perception of America as “doing whatever it wants” may apply to Arabs only because U.S. military and political power always succeeds in overthrowing the Arabs’ regimes, occupying their countries, and insulting their sovereignty, while we find that the majority of recent American wars with other nations have failed to achieve what the U.S. achieved with the Arabs.
The Taliban, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba stood up to America and succeeded first in maintaining unity domestically, secondly in forming regional alliances for victory without America and against America itself, and finally in being able to drag out wars, such as in Vietnam where America lost 45,000 soldiers and failed to protect Saigon. The result of these three wars was that America withdrew, and the regimes whose overthrow was the reason for launching the war have remained in power until today. Indeed, Taliban leaders, many of whom were held prisoner by the Americans in Guantanamo, today negotiate with Washington and rule half of Afghanistan.
*Editor’s note: These remarks, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.
The author is a Palestinian writer for Al-Quds Al-Arabi.