The death of former Libyan ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi allows the Obama administration to claim credit for ending a war it never wanted to fight. The White House wavered for weeks before it reluctantly joined the NATO campaign. It deployed far fewer aides to Libya than its allies, pledged much less money, and was the last major allied power to recognize the interim government. But the White House has a simple reason for celebrating—and slightly exaggerating—its role in ousting Qaddafi: American power is on the wane throughout the Middle East, and Libya is a rare success story.
From Iraq to Israel, Egypt to Bahrain, Washington finds itself relegated to the sidelines rather than directing the action. During the George W. Bush administration, Washington—using carrots and sticks—persuaded a number of governments to do its bidding: Saudi Arabia made peace overtures to Israel; Palestine held elections; monarchies like Jordan and Morocco pursued halting democratic reforms; Iraq cracked down on Shia militias and enfranchised its disenchanted Sunni minority; and Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip and offered a peace deal to the Palestinians. The Bush White House suffered many stumbles—none bigger than the invasion of Iraq—but regional governments at least took Washington’s wishes seriously.
Today, not so much. Bahrain ordered a crackdown on protesters, ignoring American exhortations to negotiate with the demonstrators. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen returned to his country despite President Obama’s demand that he step aside. Egypt’s military rulers rejected U.S. requests to lift a hated emergency law and to free a Jewish-American law student accused of spying. Iraq rebuffed an offer to extend the American troop presence and proclaimed support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank. “People in the region recognize that we’re not as dominant a power as we thought we were, that we were just as surprised by the Arab Spring as they were … and that we are, if anything, less capable of directing where things go from here than the indigenous peoples and governments,” says Gordon Adams, a foreign-policy professor at American University.
U.S. influence in the Middle East is ebbing for three primary reasons. First, the American public—preoccupied with economic issues and exhausted by a decade of war—has lost its appetite for deep engagement in the region, giving local rulers confidence that they can ignore Washington without major repercussions. Second, Arab governments, which watched Obama throw Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak under the bus, think that Washington will no longer trade mild political repression for stability. And third, the image of Mubarak on trial (in a cage) has motivated rulers to avoid a similar fate by using any means necessary to hold onto power.
Israel has its own reasons for tuning out the White House. In addition to settlement expansions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a televised West Wing appearance this summer to upbraid Obama for suggesting negotiations based on the country’s pre-1967 borders. Netanyahu’s hard-line positions on borders and negotiations with the Palestinians have bipartisan support in Congress. Israeli officials say privately that Netanyahu expects Obama to lose the 2012 election, and so the prime minister merely plans to wait the president out. “Netanyahu wasn’t the one who blinked first,” Adams noted.
The result? American entreaties are falling on deaf ears. During a recent trip to Cairo, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asked Egypt’s military rulers to repeal by November a law letting them detain protesters indefinitely; with less than two weeks to go, they show no sign of doing so. In Yemen, Saleh has refused to honor his pledge to transfer power, despite American pressure. When Bahraini authorities sentenced 20 doctors and nurses to long prison sentences last month for treating wounded protesters, State Department officials criticized the action. A Bahraini court recently set aside the original sentences, but the medical professionals will be tried again in the coming weeks, and it’s far from clear if, or when, they’ll be freed.
Iraq is an even more glaring example. The White House—anxious about Iranian influence and Iraqi political and security challenges—tried to sell the Iraqis on a deal to keep 2,000 to 3,000 troops in the country as trainers beyond the end of this year. The surprising thing isn’t that the White House worked hard to keep American forces in Iraq. It’s that the Iraqi government (installed with U.S. backing and kept afloat by aid from Washington) didn’t hesitate to say no. Barring a major reversal, the last of the 43,000 remaining troops will leave Iraq in six weeks.
In Libya, Arabic news channels showed Qaddafi’s corpse, and crowds jubilantly waved Libya’s pre-Qaddafi flag in Surt and Tripoli, talking optimistically about their future and firing guns into the air. The White House has its own reason to celebrate: It may be its last Mideast win for quite some time.
This article appears in the October 22, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.