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October 27, 2006

50 Years After Suez,
US Hegemony Ebbing Fast

by Jim Lobe

As the Middle East prepares to mark the 50th anniversary on Oct. 29 of the Suez Crisis that effectively ended European colonialism, a half century of U.S. hegemony in the region also appears to be coming to an end, according to a growing number of analysts.

The observation is based primarily on the serious damage done to Washington's position in the Middle East by its 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, where more than 140,000 of its troops remain bogged down in what seems likely an increasingly futile effort both to crush a Sunni insurgency that it failed to anticipate and prevent a larger sectarian civil war.

In addition, however, the passivity – or obstinacy – of the administration of President George W. Bush in failing to revive any kind of Arab-Israeli peace process, particularly in the wake of last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah or the ongoing deterioration of the Palestinian Authority, appears to have brought both Washington's image and influence in the region to an all-time low.

"American foreign policy in the Middle East is approaching a very serious crisis," noted Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under former President Jimmy Carter, at a dinner this week in which he noted the imminence of the 1956 crisis that he said marked "the beginning of [Washington's] domination of the region."

"We are facing the possibility of literally being pushed out of the Middle East," he warned, suggesting that only a major change in U.S. policy, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, can reverse the current trend.

While other analysts insist that Washington's status as the world's military hyperpower and its continued heavy reliance on Middle Eastern oil – let alone its continued presence in Iraq – ensure its continued relevance to the region, the consensus among regional specialists here is that its ability to affect events there has indeed been substantially diminished.

"The age of U.S. dominance in the Middle East has ended and a new era in the modern history of the region has begun," wrote Richard Haass, president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and a top Middle East adviser to the George H.W. Bush administration, in a remarkably downbeat article in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs journal.

"The U.S. will continue to enjoy more influence than any outside power, but its influence will be reduced from what it once was," according to Haass, who sees the new era as being one "in which outside actors have a relatively modest impact and local forces enjoy the upper hand – and in which the local actors gaining power are radicals committed to changing the status quo."

That this "New Middle East," as Haass titled his article, should be dawning 50 years after the Suez Crisis is particularly poignant, according to longtime observers of the region who note that, more than any other event, it was Washington's role in the crisis that boosted its image as a force for liberation and positioned it as an honest broker between Arabs and Israel.

On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel invaded Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula and within a few days occupied the Suez Canal zone that had been recently nationalized by the government of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. Pursuant to a plan worked out in advance with the two European governments, Israel then invited Britain and France to send their forces to the area as a buffer. When Nasser rejected their offer to do so, they invaded anyway.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had not been informed of the three countries' plans in advance, responded by threatening to "pull the plug" on the British pound and even to remove the U.S. nuclear umbrella from all three countries if they did not cease fire and commit themselves to a speedy withdrawal, one that was completed by early 1957.

To most historians, the crisis – and the humiliation inflicted on the invading powers – spelled the effective end of western European colonialism in the region and the advent of U.S. preeminence, a preeminence that was successively enhanced by the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the 1978 Camp David accords, and the end of the Cold War a decade later.

"Certainly, in terms of the prestige and image of the U.S. in the region, it goes without saying that Suez was the high point," according to Chris Toensing, editor of the Washington-based Middle East Report (MER). "The U.S. was seen not only as country that had itself not only thrown off the yoke of colonialism, but was willing to stick its neck out to help other countries do so as well."

If that helped establish Washington's "soft power" in the region, it also demonstrated to Arabs that the U.S. not only had influence over Israel, but was prepared to use it, even over the objections of both Tel Aviv and the increasingly influential "Israel Lobby" in Washington.

"It is the fact that we made Israel withdraw from Sinai that established us an honest broker [between Israel and the Arabs]," according to Richard Parker, a retired foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Morocco, and Lebanon during the 1970s. "Since Sinai, that has always been our trump card in the region."

Fifty years later, however, both U.S. soft power and its status as an honest broker – the two greatest achievements of the Suez crisis – are at their lowest ebb and, in Toensing's words, "sinking ever lower."

As of 2002, when the U.S. acquiesced in Israel's military campaign against the Palestinian Intifada, disapproval of the United States skyrocketed across the Arab world, according to public opinion polls which showed an even greater deterioration after the 2003 Iraq invasion and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal the following year.

"The U.S. has come to be seen as the quintessential colonial power, and, if anything, worse than the old [European] ones, because they were viewed as having an economic agenda – resource extraction – while the U.S. is seen as having both a resource-extraction and an ideological agenda," according to Toensing.

In addition, the Bush administration's failure to exercise any demonstrable pressure on Israel to seriously engage the Palestinians in a peace process, its transparent support for Israel's military offensive and bombing campaign in Lebanon last summer's war with Hezbollah, and its rejection to date of renewed Arab efforts to promote the 2002 Saudi peace plan in the wake of the Lebanon conflict have effectively destroyed the image of Washington as an honest broker.

"Our strong point was always that we were the only power that could do anything with the Israelis," according to Parker. "We still have that influence, but the key is whether we're prepared to use it. If not, it's going to waste away."

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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