The Arab world may have tired of the US acting as a global police force–but what's the alternative?by Jane Kinninmont / July 26, 2013 / Leave a comment
The people of Syria are not only facing a brutal civil war; they are paying the price for a variety of international power struggles now playing out in their territory. The worsening conflict, and the resulting refugee crisis, have exposed a lack of international diplomatic leadership in a region where many resent the US’s traditional role as policeman, but have not yet devised effective local alternatives.
A decade after the invasion of Iraq, it is that conflict that still shapes both US policy and public opinion towards Syria. Obama was elected promising a different foreign policy approach to George W. Bush—the President has no democratic mandate to launch another Middle Eastern conflict. He has explicitly spoken of a “pivot” towards Asia, at a time when China poses the biggest challenge to the global role of the US, and when the US is hoping to be less dependent on imported oil.
This raises questions about the sustainability of the existing political and security system in the Middle East, which has largely been shaped by the period of US unipolar dominance that started with the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, just as the Cold War was ending. A decade later, Iraq and the Gulf marked another turning point as the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation began to expose the limits of US power in the Middle East. Yet there is still nothing to replace US leadership.
Divisions within the UN Security Council mean it is hamstrung over Syria. Meanwhile, rising powers like China, India and Brazil have little appetite to imitate the US role in the region; they see the US’s military and diplomatic engagement as costly and unpopular, and would prefer to be more neutral in the region’s various conflicts. As was mentioned in a recent Chatham House meeting with Chinese experts on the Middle East, “China sees the Middle East as the graveyard for great powers”.
Within the region, the Arab League is still moribund. Turkey, a non-Arab power that initially made itself popular by supporting both the Arab uprisings and the Palestinian cause, has run into its own problems over Syria. And the Gulf Co-operation Council, the bloc of six Gulf monarchies, represents a minority in the Arab world, even if it…