The United States needs friends around the world more than ever, and it is finding out that it does not have them. In the Middle East even its closest Arab allies are embarrassed by its actions and are unwilling to link themselves to its regional initiatives, leaving the US stranded and looking increasingly incapable.
What has made things worse for Washington is that it has tried to rebuild close relationships in the Middle East, but it has not been successful. This is mainly because the attempts to re-forge links have not been based on genuine concerns of the Arab states, but on America's perception of the dangers in the region. For example, President George W. Bush's trip to the Gulf in January was not really about the Gulf and its concerns, but about his desire to build an Arab alliance to restrain Iran.
This dangerous lack of willing allies has been created by Bush's fiasco of the occupation of Iraq. The US-led invasion of Iraq was a military success and toppled a dictator from power, but the totally inadequate political plan for rebuilding the country left a disastrous political vacuum that has plunged Iraq into years of violence and political mayhem.
Working with Arabs as partners
The US has to realise that it cannot force its will on the Middle East. It has to realise that it wants to encourage any policies, it will have to radically change the way it works. That means working with Arab states as partners in what is happening. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US was seen as the world's sole superpower which had the ability to enforce what it wanted, in any sphere that it focused on. After the invasion it is obvious that unilateral American action in pursuit of any ambitious goals cannot succeed without solid and committed support from the region. The whole of the Arab world has seen that although the US won the war, it has failed to implement the Iraqi democracy for which Bush launched the war in the first place.
In the future the US will need to work more deliberately with its allies in the Middle East, which means that it will have to listen to its friends, as well as telling them what it wants. The conversation will have to be two ways, so that the US is not left stranded again, as it has been in Iraq.
It is hopelessly optimistic to speculate that the Iraq adventure has taught the US establishment the importance of heeding advice from the Arab states in the region, but no administration would want to repeat the obvious failure in Iraq. The clearest and most obvious lesson is that America cannot run the country on its own: but if it is going to work with the Iraqis, it means that it has to have the humility to listen to what the Iraqis want.
Although this lesson seems obvious, it may not sink in. Years of history show that direct American military action in the Middle East has always been dogged by disaster, yet the country remains ready to use its military power. In 1958 president Dwight Eisenhower sent US troops to Lebanon to support the anti-Nasserite president Camille Chamoun. However, after a few months the US troops had to leave, the US administration had forced Chamoun to resign, and had nominated Fuad Chahab as a new president.
In 1980, the US attempted a rescue attempt of the 52 US hostages in Iran, but it failed leaving several Americans dead on Iranian soil, largely due to its own poor communication and incompetence. Later in Lebanon between 1982 to 1984, the US marines were part of the multinational force in Lebanon, but that ended after a massive suicide attack on the marine's barracks in 1983 left 241 US personnel dead. Even Reagan's attack on Libya in 1986 did not halt Gaddafi's anti-American and other activities.
The way forward is for the US to recognise that it shares many values with Arab states, and it should build on those to develop joint political initiatives. This means stopping unilateral action, and disregarding the disastrous doctrine of pre-emptive action. It also means engaging in a major rethink on how to find peace in Palestine (which is not the Annapolis process), working with all Iraqi parties to find a way to build political consensus on how to run that country, and working out a way in which the US can accept that Iran is different yet can be part of the international community.
It is very doubtful that in the last ten months the Bush administration will even try to take on board these points, but those who are preparing for the new administration which will take over at the end of this year will need to be thinking about how to relaunch American diplomacy in the Middle East, without the military.