It can be argued that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center altered the traditional nature of foreign policy towards the Middle East as defined by the US-Middle East Cold War relations. The terrorist attack has both direct and indirect impacts on foreign policy, power balances and interstate relations in the region. The magnitude of the attacks served as an impetus for fundamental changes in the nature of US-Middle East foreign policy.
More importantly, the terrorist attack brought to the fore the predominance of neo-conservatism, unilateralism, the promotion of preemptive intervention, and the inclusion of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in US policy. It is important to note that the change of the foreign policy agenda and the upsurge of neo-conservative principles in foreign policy were the main causes of the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the push for regime changes in Syria and Iran, and the pressure on nations to openly show whether they are US allies or enemies in resolving the global challenges of the 21st century (Salem 2008).
Again, these fundamental changes led to a renewed call for democratization as a way of eliminating possible threats from terrorism and replace repressive states with democratic states with participatory political systems. While these changes have yielded positive effects, they have also yielded certain indirect consequences such as the worsening of the Shi’i-Sunni conflict in Iraq, the strengthening of Al-Qaeda in some regions, the resurgence of the decades-old Kurdish ambitions, as well as the empowerment of Iran.
With regard to the promotion of preemptive intervention, it is important to note that US military involvement in the Middle East is not a recent development. US military forays in the region can be traced to the 1980s when US Navy began escorting oil tankers passing through the Persian Gulf. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, military involvement was scaled up to the full military engagement in 1990-1991. During the Operation Desert Storm, US forces succeeded in pushing Saddam’s armies out of Kuwait.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on US oil, the government embarked on yet another full scale engagement to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and overthrown the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein (Salem 2008; Guinhong 2003). This foreign policy stance led to three specific consequences. First, it demoted Iraq from being the most powerful state in the region to be a weak state controlled by occupying forces. The fall of Saddam’s regime created a regional power vacuum and an alternation of regional power balance.
Secondly, the fall of Saddam and his regime also created a domestic power vacuum which stimulated the sectarian and civil warfare alongside an attempt to democratize Iraq. Third, by placing the US military machine in close proximity to Iraq’s neighbors, the terrorist attacks and the subsequent Iraqi invasion created an avenue through which the United States could fully control the nature and direction of regional regime changes in the Middle East (Salem 2008).
Unfortunately, this position of influence has reignited the age-old anti-colonial sentiments of anti-Americanism. Salem (2008) also reiterates that the paradigm shift in United States foreign policy in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks marked a historical rise in the strength of Salafist jihadists supported by Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network. It led to the expansion of bin Laden’s influence on the Arab world. However, the strength of Islamic fundamentalism was dealt a great blow with the overthrow of the Taliban regime.
The occupation of Afghanistan by allied forces has also served to put a cap on the development of jihadism. Thus, even though jihadism as promulgated by Al-Qaeda continues to exist, its operations have significantly moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, Middle East, Asia and Europe. The Iraqi conflict has also indirectly led to the strengthening of Iran as a regional superpower (Andrew 2002). However, the reemergence of Iran as a regional superpower has exacerbated heightened Shi’i-Sunni tensions, social unrest, ethnic cleansing in Iraq.
These impacts have also spread to other Middle East countries such as Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s eastern province. With regard to interstate relations, the current foreign policy towards the Middle East has created a new balance. On one hand are Sunni States such as Egypt, UAE, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand are Shi’i states such as Alawi led Syria, Hesbolla in Lebanon and Shi’i dominance in Iraqi government. In essence, the new foreign policy may ultimately create a new balance of power and interstate tensions based on the Shi’i-Sunni factor (Dagci 2007).
With regard to policy towards Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Gaza and West Bank; the United States foreign policy was objectively targeted towards ensuring that the flow of international aid and humanitarian goods is not negatively impacted (Salem 2008). On the diplomatic side, the US instituted measures aimed at bridging the gaps in the Israeli-Hamas relationship and the stabilization of the security situation in Gaza and West Bank. With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US policy still retains its preference for a two-state solution (Pressman 2006).
Pressman (2006) also adds that US policy towards the Palestinian Authority is based on their willingness to renounce terrorism and terrorist organizations within their jurisdiction, recognize that Israel has a right to exist, and accept that all past Israeli-Palestinian agreements are valid. According to Salem (2008), the changes in policy largely influenced Israel’s policy towards Arab states in the region. It had an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It is only after US military involvement in Iraq that Israel too began to pursue relatively aggressive policies towards its neighbors.
For instance, in summer 2006, Israel carried out an offensive against Lebanon to eliminate Hezbollah and against Gaza Strip to eliminate Hamas. Additionally, US policy influenced Turkish policy and its interest in winning European membership. With the beginning of the Obama administration, there has been a slight change in the nature of policy towards the Middle East. Byman & Simon (2009) notes that even though counterterrorism still remains an integral component of US policy towards the Middle East it should not be the principal focus.
Foreign policy should focus on strengthening local capacities so as to increase their capacity to counter extremism and Islamic fundamentalism, maintain adequate military and intelligence capability to prevent the reemergence of Al-Qaeda activities, protect refugee camps in Jordan, promote democratization in Syria, Iran and Lebanon and avoid activities which have the potential of reinforcing anti-American perceptions and attitudes (Byman & Simon 2009; Miko 2005; Galez 2009).
On the contrary, some authors argue that the nature of US policy is in line with their objective of expanding capitalism and prerequisite capitalist institutions aimed at remolding the Middle East both economically, culturally, politically, and ideologically (Joya 2005). Thus, the shift in American policy is simply a response to varying developments which threaten the imperialist intensions of the United States. Conclusion US policy has largely revolved around economic liberalization, non proliferation of nuclear weapons, and political democratization.
From the post Cold War era to the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, US policy towards the Middle East has maintained militarized policies to achieve broad economic, political, security, cultural, and ideological objectives. There have been widespread changes in the global political system, but 1989 and 2001 remains critical turning points. Even though the structure of politics as determined by the concept of sovereignty and state independence remains unchanged, the US policy response to the September 11, 2001 has adopted a new assertive stance, but the basic drivers of policy changes still remain intact.
In a nutshell, there exists a remarkable continuity in the nature of US foreign policy. All the catalyzing events which act as the drivers for change are just manifestations of an evolving global political system.
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