The upheaval in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, driven by forces largely beyond US control, have starkly exposed Washington’s weakness there, analysts say.
For some observers, the events crystallize a dramatic reversal of fortunes from the 1990s, when US-led troops evicted Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait and launched an Arab-Israeli peace process that lasted a decade.
In just a few weeks, a groundswell of popular anger has taken on autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan — all US allies — while Iran and Syria-backed Hezbollah brought down a pro-Western government in Lebanon.
And in the Arab-Israeli conflict, where Washington has for decades been the main peace broker, the Palestinians are turning to the UN for solutions after peace talks with the Jewish state collapsed last year.
Filling a vacuum, countries like Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia meanwhile are trying to play increasing roles in regional diplomacy, analyst Shibley Telhami said.
“There is no question that American influence has diminished substantially over the last decade,” said Telhami, a political scientist at the University of Maryland.
In the 1990s, a “Pax Americana” and US regional military dominance followed the expulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, as Washington leveraged its military success to launch Arab-Israeli peace talks, Telhami said.
However, he said, the Sept. 11 attacks changed the equation, as US forces led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that have cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars while leading to a rise in anti-Americanism.
US and Israeli foe Iran has meanwhile seen its influence rise.
The US has accused Iran of meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as of arming and funding the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“The influence of Iran in Iraq is as large as that of the United States,” said Marina Ottaway, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Former US president George W. Bush meanwhile made the situation worse in Lebanon as he tried to push Syria out, only to see its influence return with a vengeance, Ottaway said.
“After they [Syrian troops] were forced to pull out of Lebanon, then the situation became much more unstable because Syria was jockeying to get back into position,” she said.
Lebanon’s pro-Western government collapsed on Jan. 12 after Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the Cabinet over a UN probe into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Syria has since thrown its support behind Lebanese prime -minister-designate Najib Mikati, who is backed by the Hezbollah-led camp and who has wrapped up consultations on forming a new government.
US-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meanwhile “is trying to generate a new dynamic that has nothing to do with the United States” by going directly to the UN and the Europeans, Ottaway said.
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator, said Washington overestimated Lebanon’s pro-Western camp and “stumbled and bumbled around” Palestinian-Israeli peace talks as it demanded an Israeli settlement freeze.
“In Tunisia and in Egypt … we are clearly struggling to define what is an appropriate and effective role for the United States in the face of these momentous changes,” he said.
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