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Opinion

April 8, 2015

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The Yemen choice

The Middle East imbroglio demonstrates the complexity of the post-9/11 world in which Obama’s foreign policy has managed to upset America’s traditional Arab allies while strengthening the position of its adversary, Iran.
President Obama’s preferred approach to US foreign policy largely flows from the strategies of retrenchment, ie reducing but not completely avoiding American military and financial commitments abroad, and offshore balancing, that is: using regional allies to check the rise of potential hostile powers.
Retrenchment has so far backfired in Iraq and a positive outcome in Afghanistan is yet to emerge. Offshore balancing is useful in regions where great powers have minimal engagements. In places like the Middle East the strategy is bound to spawn contradictions and Obama’s foreign policy therefore rests on inherent– and deliberate– ambiguity.
Thus, America is fighting alongside Iran to combat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria but in Yemen, the United States and its allies are attempting to repulse Iranian-backed Houthis. Similarly, in Syria the United States condemns the Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad but also tolerates it when fighting America’s latest fixation, the Islamic State.
Obama’s approach also offers concessions to change the preferences of an adversary. This appears to have worked in the case of Iran’s nuclear programme although it may not be a smooth ride to June 2015 when the deal is due to be sealed. Interestingly, while the nuclear deal could allow Tehran to end years of estrangement with the west, the Obama administration is simultaneously finding itself involved in decreasing Iranian influence in the Middle East.
There are many historical causes of intra-Muslim rivalries primarily involving Muslim backwardness and political greed. One cannot absolve the Middle East leadership of choosing parochial gain over national interest and in the process creating opportunities for the west to take

advantage of. Accordingly, much like the imperialist powers of the past the US too has attempted to achieve its strategic goals by exploiting intra-Muslim splits. The strategy has remained unchanged in the post-9/11 scenario.
Besides contributing to instability in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya the US is fighting a war in Yemen. In coordination with Yemeni governments the US has been using drones and Special Forces against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Recent events suggest that the US approach has failed to bolster Yemen’s stability.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have manipulated the Arab Spring. Tehran has taken advantage of the power vacuum created by Obama’s foreign policy ambiguity, making some big geopolitical moves to increase its influence in Arab lands.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are closely aligned in their concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and its expanding influence in the Middle East even as historical divisions between the two countries remain intact. The newly announced Arab coalition is far from a Nato-like joint force but it is certainly a collective message to Iran to refrain from interfering in Arab affairs.
Iran has its own regional objectives and shares the responsibility of fuelling sectarian strife. That said, Tehran is the only Muslim thorn in the ever-expanding Israeli side. (No joint Arab force to protect hapless Palestinians!)
With Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia spinning towards instability, the intra-Muslim conflict could spread with very serious global economic and security consequences. If the situation worsens and Israel finds itself in a precarious situation the Obama administration might end up in a deeper and more costly entanglement in the region.
The US war on terror has so far failed to eliminate terrorist networks. Today, the Islamic State is embedded throughout the region and could take advantage of the turmoil. Unlike Al-Qaeda, the IS has gained and sustained territory and according to news reports has recently announced the creation of new wilayat in Afghanistan, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. IS agents have carried out attacks in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula to underscore the group’s ambitions.
Al-Qaeda has of course spread to the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Some US analysts have recently cautioned against any American attempt to kill Al Zawahiri whose death could remove the main obstacle between IS-Al-Qaeda cooperation. Moreover, various Al-Qaeda branches are likely to defect to IS in view of the latter’s strategy of gaining and holding territory and its ability to recruit thousands of fighters.
Similarly, Boko Haram in Nigeria is a potential IS collaborator and Arab diplomatic sources have warned of possible collaboration between Somalian Al-Shabab and IS.
Since the 1980s American foreign policy choices under successive presidents have created space for non-state actors to grow with the backing of regional states at loggerheads with each other in the Muslim world. Any drastic shift in the regional balance of power in the Middle East will create more failed regions and yield immense benefit to IS in terms of gaining and sustaining territory.
Obama may not want greater entanglements abroad but 9/11 and recent events in the west have demonstrated that seemingly distant problems can very quickly find their way to Europe and America. The US therefore must focus on finding ways to resolve the Iran-Saudi conflict by taking all stakeholders on board; conflict resolution will not be possible without Iranian participation and leverage.
The unchecked downward spiral in the Middle East may have negative implications for Pakistan. Under such complex circumstances Islamabad needs to seriously rethink and re-evaluate its policy towards Saudi Arabia’s demand on the one hand and a potentially sanctions-free and re-socialised neighbouring Iran on the other. Pakistan’s territorial integrity, economic wellbeing and the welfare of its citizens must remain the top consideration.
The writer is a post-doctoral researcher at Birmingham University.
Email: [email protected]

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