Has the US been a stabilizing or destabilizing influence in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War?
Either with regards to its geo-strategic interests, securing potential economic gains or working to deal with autocracy as the most common form of rule in the region which differs with its own idea of the ideal form of governance, the United States has always been involved with the Middle East in one way or another. Its involvement took on an even more profound shape after the Cold War ended, since now, the US emerged victorious, as the new world hegemony which gave it the opportunity to engage in ventures that had previously taken a back seat owing to the constant lingering threat posed by the Soviet Union.
This essay intends to analyze whether the actions of the US since the end of the Cold War have stabilized or destabilized state of affairs in the Middle East by specifically focusing on US’s ventures firstly, in Iraq and secondly, in Saudia Arabia. In attempting to gauge the nature of the effects of the US’s activities, both the level of security and the effectiveness of domestic political governance have been looked upon to analyze whether the overall effects have been stabilizing or destabilizing in these two particular countries.
The relationship between Iraq and the US has been exceptionally troubled since the end of Cold War. Marked by a period of prolonged suspicion and animosity in the 1990s, this relation took a turn for the worse when US declared war on Iraq in 2003. Although the war officially ended in 2010, Iraq is still entangled in dealing with the repercussions of the war amid repeated assurances of the US of providing any assistance, be it military, political or economic, that it might require for a complete recovery and normalization of its affairs.
Soon after war was declared, the central Iraqi government was overthrown and in its place, the US appointed a governing council with itself as the head. However, this arrangement was short-lived since within a year, this governing coalition ended and in a move depicting the country’s apparent transition to democracy, the control was handed over to the interim government which had come to power as result of the elections held in June 2004. Following the elections for the interim government, the US oversaw elections for a permanent government soon after, which brought Jalal Talabani (Kurd) and Ibrahim Jaafari (Shi’ia) to power as President and Prime Minister respectively. Significant political developments which followed later were elections for the National Assembly, the Parliament and the return of the previously banned, Baath Party officials to political activity along with parliamentary elections in 2010 which re-elected Jalal Talabani as President and Nour-al-Maliki as the Prime Minister (BBC News, 2012).
However optimistic this may seem for a country having been recently subjected to foreign invasion, this apparent transition towards democracy in Iraq had underlying flaws and unwanted repercussions for the country which could have been mitigated, if not avoided altogether, had the US’s steps been well-worked out and in line with what the local conditions demanded so.
Firstly, this sudden change in the political scenario brought about soon after the US invasion led to a deepening of the sectarian divide between people belonging to multiple sects in the population (Cordesman, 2006). This happened because US’s immediate dismissal of the secular Baath Party led to political power now becoming available to other, individualist political factions which were representative of the Iraqi population which had previously been underrepresented all throughout Saddam’s regime. This especially included the Shi’ite population of the country which, therefore, when given a chance to choose its rulers, was quick to elect a Shi’ia dominated government which came to power after the elections for the interim government held in 2004. This ultimately caused apprehension amongst the Sunni ranks in Iraq since not only were they now deprived of the previously advantaged position in the country’s governance which they had held throughout Saddam’s rule, they also feared a potential collaboration between the newly elected Shi’ia government in Iraq and the Shi’ia dominated, neighboring Iran (FPIF, 2012).
The repercussions that this political divide along sectarian lines described above had can be better understood if one looks at the security situation in the country at that time which is yet another unfortunate evidence of how US’s venture in Iraq contributed in destabilizing the state of affairs in the country. Soon after the elections, a Sunni militant insurgency erupted which targeted not only the newly formed government which they termed to be the “puppets of the US” but also launched numerous attacks on Shi’te civilians and holy sites (FPIF, 2012).Thousands were killed in numerous car bombings, terrorist attacks on shrines and other public places and encounters between the US military forces and insurgents became a daily occurrence so much so that the UN reported an average of a hundred civilians dying every day in Iraq and reported a total of 34000 civilians to have died in instances of violence throughout the country during 2006 (BBC News, 2012). In retaliation, the Shi’ite rulers retaliated with repressing and marginalizing other sectarian groups in matters of governance and also initiated numerous counter-insurgency programs. These were mostly characterized by abhorrent Human Rights abuses including activities like those of the infamous, government-backed, Death Squads operating in the country and the operations of a police force, maintained especially by the central government and allegedly supported by Iran to target Sunni civilians from amongst the population (FPIF, 2012). Therefore, it can be seen that the inter-sect differences which were given room to actualize and multiply after the removal of Saddam’s regime played a major role in affecting the level of achievement of stable governance in the country. Not only did it affect political stability but also aggravated the security situation in the country, to which the US was unable to respond in that it failed to timely come up with an effective security framework for the war-torn region, making the locals take refuge under their respective sectarian groups, thereby furthering this divide amongst the population (FPIF, 2012).
Secondly, the US can also be criticized for the lack of commitment that it showed in order to confer the status of a stable democracy on Iraq, something that it had claimed to have envisioned for the country in the first place. For a country that had been recently uprooted from decades of autocracy and which was oblivious to the norms and workings of democracy, what was needed was a gradual and effective, long-term plan which took into consideration the needs of such a region while being in transition towards becoming a democracy. However, what Iraq got instead was in complete contrast to this. The electoral process was rushed into place in 2004 where Iraqis, in a very short span of time, were required to elect new leaders and form a new government along with ensuring the commencement and functionality of renewed democratic institutions in the country. Coupled with this hasty change in the state of affairs, what made matters even more difficult was that the US, instead of giving prime emphasis to ensuring that the nascent democratic institutions operated effectively and that an efficient governance system was in place, stressed more on mere electoral processes in the country. The lack of governing assistance given to the newly appointed ministers, the little attention paid to local government systems, the presence of dysfunctional civil structures such as the under-resourced departments of Police and the Courts whose officials lacked the necessary skills and expertise required to deal with the sudden onslaught of issues etcetera are just some examples which show that the US failed to employ the necessary resources to help the Iraqi officials through the transition phase, a point that Carothers also talks about when he says “Yet at the same time….democratic principles” (Carothers, 2007).
These problems were further aggravated by the fact that the rehabilitation and reconstruction procedures in the country, for which billions of dollars worth of aid poured in from the US, were very poorly organized. Figures put forward by the Congressional Research Service stated that around $28.9billion worth of aid was given to Iraq to be spent on building the economic and political structures of the country between 2003 and 2006. However, the results did not turn out as anticipated because of multiple reasons. Firstly, the US failed to recruit sufficiently competent personnel required to implement the aid programs in the country and the ones who were at work were unable to comprehend a plan whereby the aid could be distributed efficiently on a national level. Moreover, the US sought to execute such plans on its own terms which were mostly incompatible with the Iraqis’ capability to implement them which ultimately rendered any long-term functionality of the programs impossible. Even where aid was proving to be useful, rampant corruption and the fact that such aid programs came without any security provided to the personnel by the military, and so were only limited to considerably safe areas in the region, severely undermined the potential that the large amounts of US aid and the prolonged presence of the US forces in Iraq could have gained for the region in terms of it becoming a stable state in the long-run (Cordesman, 2006).
Just like with Iraq, one of the most prominent linkages that can be drawn between the US and a Middle Eastern nation is the one associating it with the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia. Since the end of Cold War, both the countries have been directed by their mutual set of interests to collaborate time and again for ventures that have not only affected their domestic settings but have also had regional and global repercussions. Both the countries joined forces in the Gulf war and declared war against Saddam Hussain’s invasion in Kuwait, defeating the Iraqi Army in just a matter of days. Since then, the Saudia-US cooperation has grown many folds, characterized mainly by the large amounts of military assistance that the US provides to the Kingdom. Exceptions to this otherwise cordial relationship between the two nations include the 9/11 attacks and the disagreements over the probable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict (BBC News, 2012).
Saudia Arabia has always seemed of crucial importance to the US mainly because of its rich oil reserves and also because of its utility as being a force in place to check the growing influence and activities of Iran in the region. This is primarily the reason why the US has always sought to acquire a considerable control inside the Kingdom primarily by increasing military assistance given to Saudia (Blanchard, 2012).
Although, this military build-up and the associated increasing cooperation between the two nations was meant to serve the interests of both these countries, the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent threat of terrorism which it entailed for the entire world created a myriad of other problems for both the regions to deal with. As was revealed later, fifteen out of nineteen attackers involved in the attack were of Saudi origin and one of the prime reasons identified for the attacks was to strain the growing relations between the US and Saudia in order to dismantle the regime which had failed to provide for its people. Although this did affect the previously cordial and stable relations between the two countries temporarily, ironically, countering terrorism yet another cause for which the two countries vowed to work together. However, this led to deterioration in the security situation inside the Kingdom where the growth of Al-Qaeda and the threat that it poses to the security of the people has become evident ever since. From 2003 till present, Al-Qaeda has been claiming responsibility of numerous suicide bombings and other terrorism related activities which have specifically aimed to target American officials inside the Kingdom but have ultimately also claimed lives of locals too (BBC News, 2012).
Apart from just being a domestic Saudi issue, the threat of Al-Qaeda has now taken on a shape of a regional problem too since its presence in Yemen (AQAP- Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) is a cause of grave concern both for the Saudia and the US government alike. The current leadership in Yemen of the AQAP is Saudi in origin since all those who failed in Al-Qaeda’s campaign in the Kingdom have now taken refuge in Yemen. Owing to its close proximity with the SA, the current political instability in Yemen coupled with the threat posed by Al-Qaeda could endanger the Kingdom’s stability which is why Saudi and American forces have joined in to deal with the threat of terrorism arising out of Yemen which could possibly have positive results for all the parties involved. However, things get even more difficult when the activities of Saudia are seen in combination with the kind of relations that Saudia and Yemen have had in the past. Although SA would want to curb any Al-Qaeda activity in the region, Yemen views Saudia as being ill-willed, aiming to break Yemen in order to counter any threats which a unified Yemen could pose to its existence (Blanchard, 2012).
Moreover, an interesting interaction between the two countries has come to be seen with regards to the Saudis’ demands for more reform and ‘change’ for themselves. In wake of the recent “Arab Spring” in the region and the various regime changes or multiple instances of reforms being granted to Middle Easter regions which have undergone change, Saudis have also demanded changes in the way the Kingdom’s run. Some of these demands include demands for provision of basic human rights, more employment opportunities, women’s demands for gaining employment in public spheres, to get education and to be able to have access to other basic rights such as voting and driving in the Kingdom (Blanchard, 2012). Unsurprisingly, these demands have been unwelcome by the ruling elite but have been accepted and encouraged by the US, keeping in view its democratic values in mind and the way it had encouraged the rest of the ME going through the ‘Arab Spring’ to look towards a ‘change’. However, what should be noted here is that the US has not pushed the monarchy beyond a certain limit to make sure that it does in real, provide change to its society, Rather, it has on most occasions just of provided lip-service encouragement to the population that is demanding a change in the conventional system of things. In that case, it can be seen that the US’s actions and words, in this regard, not really challenged the stability of political rule in the Kingdom.
Conclusively, when US’s venture in Iraq, as is described above, is analyzed, it can be easily concluded that the US and its activities destabilized the country. Starting from providing false grounds for declaring war in the first place to ending up, failing to deal with the circumstances that resulted, the US was wrong on many levels. By going in, not only did it aggravate the security situation of the country by flaring sectarian differences amongst the population which were not as manifest in the country’s politics as before, it failed to equip the country with any viable democratic structures which could guarantee long-term political and economic stability of the county. Even today, the effects of an incomplete transition to democracy are evident in how Iraq ranks on a “Democracy Index”, where it comes at 111st position out of 167 countries observed and is still termed as a“hybrid regime” somewhere between a “flawed democracy” and an “authoritarian regime” (Costsofwar, 2010). As for its interactions with SA, it can be seen that although the US hails itself to be the guarantor of civil rights and liberties and terms itself to be a strong proponent of people’s freedom, it has not pushed SA enough to provide effective reform and freedom for its people and so has not really, by its actions, affected the political stability of the Kingdom. This could be understood if US’s actions are seen in context of its interest in the region. Although it shows outward support to the people of SA demanding reform and change, it is not in its interest to push the SA’s ruling elite to do it in real since that would encourage political instability in the Kingdom (keeping in view how the public would be encouraged to demand more change while the regime is not in favor of such grants) which the US would not want given how stability in the Kingdom is crucial for the US to achieve its own interests in the region. As for the threat of terrorism, US’s actions to counter the threat have no doubt affected the level of security in the Middle Eastern region. In an attempt to curb its activities, the US has resulted in letting it take roots in various regions other than SA which make it even more difficult now to tackle the danger that it poses; not only does it harm the stability of the Middle Eastern regions but also of the United States itself.