For several decades, the worlds leading superpower has been trying to help Jews and Arabs reach an agreement over a disputed territory in the Middle East, and to secure its own hegemonic status in that region. But another diplomatic effort to make peace in the Holy Land reached a deadlock, because it was becoming too costly for the superpower to maintain its military presence and diplomatic influence in Egypt, the Levant, the Persian Gulf, the Eastern Mediterranean and South Asia, at a time of growing financial constraints and challenges from new international players.
On Friday afternoon, February 21, 1947, the British ambassador to Washington, Lord Inverchapel, showed up at the State Department and informed Under-Secretary of State Dean Acheson that his country could no longer continue providing financial and military support to Greece and Italy. The British are abdicating from the Middle East, Secretary of State George Marshall told President Harry Truman.
Indeed, with defense accounting for 40 percent of the British budget in 1947 and the Americans pressing London to repay the huge loans it owned them, Britain adjusted to the new geopolitical realities by ending its prized mandate of Palestine in May 1948, less than a year after giving up the jewel in the crown of India.
The transition from Rule Britannia to Pax Americana in the Middle East was completed during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when the United States threatened to withhold financing that Britain desperately needed unless its forces withdrew from the Suez Canal. And the United States attained what amounted to the dominant position in the Middle East in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War and the ensuing victory in the first Gulf War, in 1991.
Like Great Britain in 1947, the United States is finding it more and more difficult to maintain its military and diplomatic status in the Middle East. Its defense expenditures constitute close to a third of its overall budget, at a time when the burden of its fiscal debt is becoming unsustainable.
The failure to defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the specter of a nuclear Pakistan turning into a failed state, rising concerns about the decline of Iraq into a civil war after the U.S. withdrawal, the growing power of Iran and its regional satellites, the threat that the Arab Spring is posing to regimes that were willing at least to accept the U.S.-backed status-quo, and the deadlocked Israel-Palestinian peace process all these are clear indications that the era of Pax Americana in the Middle East is over.
But unlike Great Britain in 1947, the United States cannot pass the Middle East torch to a friendly global power willing to assume its responsibilities. The European Union lacks either the military capability or political will to play that role. Americas presumptive rival, China its largest creditor nation with over $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, mostly in U.S. dollars could use its economic power to exert pressure on the United States. But the Chinese are not interested in getting stuck in the quicksand of the Middle East and prefer to allow the Americans to continue wasting their military and economic resources there.
So the Americans will continue muddling through in the Middle East for some time to come, juggling their numerous and incompatible alliances (with Israelis, Arabs, Turks) and commitment (to order and change) while trying to cut their strategic and economic costs. And all this is happening as Turkey and other regional actors try to form a post-American order in the Middle East that even under the best-case-scenario will include support for an independent Palestinian state, and will certainly not be compatible with the positions of the current Israeli government.
Israeli leaders should take advantage of a narrow window of opportunity in the form of the ability of the United States to still maintain some level of global influence, in order to try to reach a regional agreement that would favor their own interests. When that window of opportunity closes, Israel is likely to find itself operating in an international system in which its American friend would be only one of several poles of power.
Dr. Leon Hadar is a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst.