You can't lose what you never had.
No sooner did an army of dissidents this year peacefully dispatch Hosni Mubarak, a dictator who served at the pleasure of the U.S. government for sustaining an empty peace with Israel despite the human costs of his rule, did militarists in Washington condemn the Obama administration for "losing" Egypt. (They were joined by Israeli Likudniks and corrupt emirs in the Persian Gulf.) Last week, after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas submitted his bid for statehood with the United Nations, largely out of frustration with the relentless spread of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, President Obama was scorned for relinquishing America's leadership role in the Middle East.
This may come as a shock to beltway parochials, but the notion of American pre-eminence in the Middle East has been as illusory as the Arab-Israeli "peace process." Despite its enormous investment in the region—hundreds of billions of dollars doled out to Israel and Egypt as part of the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords while maintaining a huge military presence in the region—America has been treated more to raspberries than obeisance from its Levantine allies. Appeals from the White House for a freeze on Israel's colonial enterprise on Palestinian land have been contemptuously dismissed by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, a man reviled pretty much everywhere but inside the dark manifolds of his ruling coalition and a fungible U.S. Congress. Sanctions and diplomatic isolation have done nothing to restrain Hafez al Assad, the jackal of Damascus, from slaughtering his people. The military-led interim government in post-Mubarak Egypt, like its predecessor a recipient of generous U.S. financial and in-kind aide, has blocked State Department efforts to promote democratic reforms through local NGOs. Even Mubarak routinely thumbed his nose at American hectoring about the urgency for liberalization and basic human rights.
Truth be told, American influence in the Middle East peaked in 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower ordered Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw from the Suez Canal Zone, having invaded it in a monumentally foolish attempt to subvert Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's strongman and leader of the post-war non-aligned movement. Having thus generated a reservoir of goodwill in the Arab Middle East, the White House promptly squandered it by halting U.S. aide for the Aswan Dam project as punishment for Nasser's Arab nationalist movement, which it perceived as a threat to western interests throughout the region. (The action had the perverse effect of chasing Nasser into Moscow's orbit.) American influence in the Middle East has been waning ever since, though it spiked briefly in 1991, when then-President George H.W. Bush leveraged his successful ousting of Iraqi troops from Kuwait into a three-day Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid.
Unfortunately, the White House failed to build on the largely symbolic gains achieved at Madrid. The Oslo Accords, signed two years later, made a bad situation worse by Balkanizing the Palestinian territories into Israeli-controlled zones drawn to protect the ever-expanding complex of Jewish settlements. By 1995, when Abbas replaced Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian leader, only forceful pressure by Washington on Israel to freeze and then dismantle its colonial enclaves could have salvaged the peace process as well as America's image in the Middle East. In fact, the settlements expanded as Abbas's credibility diminished. As a senior World Bank representative told me in Jerusalem in February 2007, "Washington and Israel have done a great job of undermining Abbas. This poor sap hasn't been able to deliver a thing."
The sap has risen. For better or for worse, Abbas this week appealed to the United Nations for statehood, setting up the diplomatic "train wreck" the White House labored fiercely to pre-empt. In doing so, he revealed what has been clear in the Arab world for decades: that the image of America as influential arbiter in the Middle East thrives only in the minds of politicians and policymakers in Washington.