US introspection is Gulf's new opportunity

09 September 2008
The election in the US will allow more power to be placed in the hands of Middle East leaders in the future, no matter which presidential candidate eventually wins.

The US presidential nomination process has produced two accidents. One is Barack Obama who may be the only Democrat capable of losing to a Republican in November. The other is waiting to happen. If John McCain wins, his health is the sole obstacle between Sarah Palin and the Oval Office.

The country's most expensive election will culminate in one of its biggest gambles. The Democrats have rejected the past by selecting a candidate with no record. The Republicans have one with not much of a future. There is no riskless option for US voters in 2008.

The vice-presidential nominees may reassure nervous votes, but not by much. Joe Biden's experience in the senate is lengthy, but his presidential pretensions have been consistently rejected by his own party. Palin's appeal as a successful career woman and mother is offset by her lack of experience. Neither was anyone's first choice.

The two presidential candidates appear completely different, but they have much in common when it comes to the Middle East. Nothing either candidate has said suggests a new direction will soon unfold for US policy.

US dependence on Middle East energy has grown despite the quadrupling of oil prices since 2003 and will persist, whatever McCain or Obama say. US commitments will continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, where US security spending will become less visible, but not much smaller, whatever the result. Both McCain and Obama prioritise Israel.

In office, the winner this autumn will face two insuperable obstacles to continuing the Middle East policies of President Bush. The US economic downturn could yet develop into a lengthy recession. The appetite among the majority of Americans for foreign adventures is sickening.

Both factors are already at work on US Middle East policy. The Democrats' victory in the 2004 congressional elections showed there was insufficient support for radically re-ordering the Arab world in the US' image.

The National Intelligence Estimate at the end of 2007 destroyed the case for an assault on Iran. The US has military forces in the Gulf but its leaders lack sufficient popular support to deploy them other than in extreme circumstances. It surely won't be long before some will question why they are there at all.

The US' declining capacity to project its power in the Middle East has echoes of 1968, the year that the UK confirmed British forces would leave the region. Gulf rulers feared the consequences and the main result was the creation, more than three years later, of the UAE.

But there is no real parallel in the US' uncertainties 40 years later. US forces will remain in the Gulf. There is no serious threat to the status quo from a regional power. And there is no spectral challenge equivalent to Soviet Communism. A closer equivalent may be the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 which ended competition within the Persian Empire. Russia then, like Washington now, could no longer afford the cost of Middle East forays peripheral to its core national interests.

The consequences could be profound. The Middle East today is probably freer than it has been since Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798 from the threat of destabilising foreign intervention. Leading Middle East countries, including revolutionary Iran and maverick Libya, want to consolidate the status quo, not change it.

This is why the US' introspection, reflected in the candidates for the presidency of its two main parties, is a signal that the future of the Middle East is now in the hands of the Middle East itself. This is a development that may be beyond some of its leaders. But a new generation is rising with a completely different outlook on the region and the world.

Enriched by high oil prices and globalisation, much of the Middle East is better placed than it has ever been to end division and conflict permanently. This surely is the best possible answer to a US presidential campaign that offers everything but hope to the people of the region.

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