A weaker US hand in the Mideast

With American leverage seen as diminished, Iran and others have more room to move in.

Even before this summer's war between Israel and Hizbullah, American influence in the Middle East was seen to be waning, with the US bogged down in Iraq and the Bush administration's signature vision for the region – democratization – increasingly controversial.

But as the US joins international powers in attempts to bolster a shaky cease-fire in southern Lebanon, American leverage is seen by many to be even weaker. That could have deep consequences in a tinderbox region that has long looked to US leadership to pull it back from the brink, analysts say.

One of those consequences, they add, is that with America no longer setting the agenda as it once did, the way is clearer for other influences – for example, Iran and radical Islam – to move in.

"There was a time when we really led, when we weren't the last ones to the table but were the ones setting the table," says Jon Alterman, a former State Department policy-planning staff member now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

"Now instead of the leading force, we seem to be leading less – and the world and the Middle East in particular seem to be following less." Among other things, he adds, "that allows for rivals like Iran to gain in influence."

Some specialists in the region say the brief but devastating Israel-Hizbullah war leaves the United States even more tarnished, particularly among moderate Arabs, because America was seen to be either ineffectual or snail-paced by design at stopping the fighting and destruction in southern Lebanon.

"The disillusionment is greatest among those who were sympathetic to the US and its plan for the Middle East before this war, but who became dismayed by the intensity of destruction in Lebanon and the lack of American reaction to it," says Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League diplomat.

Many Lebanese were convinced that the US had turned to Lebanon as the next best symbol of the American project for Middle East democratization after "the failure in Iraq," he adds. But in a few short weeks that pool of support, already rare in the region, dried up and has been replaced by more solidified assumptions about US support for Israel – and by broader support for Hizbullah.

"When the chips were down, the Lebanese and Arab people saw that Israel was presumed by the government of the United States to be innocent, while everybody else was presumed guilty," says Mr. Maksoud, now director of the Center for the Global South at American University in Washington. "The other consequence is that the role of Hizbullah is enhanced, not weakened," he adds, "with the result that the insistence of the US that it is a terrorist organization totally rejected by Arab people and Lebanese society."

One of the biggest concerns of experts who see weakened American influence in the region is that such a vacuum of leadership has often meant havoc in the past. "What we're seeing is a region left to its own devices more," says Mr. Alterman, "but its instincts have not always served it well."

Lebanon could yet provide an example of how the lack of outside leadership could result in renewed instability. The Lebanese government says its army will not take on the task of disarming Hizbullah, but no outside power appears ready or willing to enforce that demand of the Security Council resolution ending the war. This could set the stage for another flare-up.

Yet as dark as that leaves things sounding, some experts still believe that Hizbullah's new honeymoon with the public will be short-lived – and that, what's more, Iran's rise in influence actually offers the US an opening to reaffirm its leadership in the region.

James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, acknowledges that forces like Hizbullah, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and Iran are on the ascending seat of the seesaw of influence in the region. But he believes that rise will be temporary as populations eventually see the consequences of those forces' politics.

"Hizbullah has thrown a monkey wrench in the works, especially in a country [Lebanon] where the US had been seen as an important ally in regaining independence from Syria," Mr. Phillips says. "But now the focus has shifted to the situation in the south, and that has hurt US influence."

Still, Hizbullah is likely to see its newfound popularity fall as the physical and financial consequences of its actions sink in, he adds – and especially if unmet international demands, such as the disarming of Hizbullah, threaten another war.

But Phillips says the US could encounter an even greater opportunity to reassert its influence as a result of Iran's rising influence across the Middle East.

"I see a new kind of leverage for the US arising out of this, as we're likely to see the Arab states that are worried about [Iran] look to the US for protection," he says. "I'd rather see a weaker Iran, but a stronger Iran and the concerns about it do give the US some leverage it didn't have before."

Maksoud of American University says the Iranian juggernaut could influence events another way as well – with concerns about Iran prompting the US to adopt a new approach to region. But that, he says, would require more proactive steps by moderate Arab regimes.

"The Arab governments have not taken the measures they could to prompt the US to reassess its approach to the region," Maksoud says.

But one problem with a strong focus on the region's governments is that it leaves the publics – civil society and the so-called "Arab street" – out of the equation. And that is where the US continues to meet its stiffest resistance.

"It's often forgotten that the US has actually had some tremendous successes in the Middle East over the last 15 years," Alterman of CSIS says.

One example: Outright opposition to US policy, he says, is really limited to the governments of Iran and Syria.

But until the US manages to reverse its low standing among Arab publics, its influence in the region is not likely to rebound.

"Yes, governments agree with the US that they face an existential threat from the religiously inspired radical groups," says Alterman. "Where we've been much less successful is in getting any popular support for the US approach. If mainstream opinion remains against us and moderate religious forces turn increasingly hostile," he adds, "we will continue to lose ground."

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