By Mohammad Mazhari

U.S. influence in West Asia has declined: Oxford professor

August 11, 2021 - 21:7

TEHRAN - A professor of international relations at the University of Oxford says that the U.S. has yielded the initiative in West Asia.

“U.S. influence in the Middle East (West Asia) has declined. Having failed to lead on Syria, it has yielded the initiative there to Russia, Iran and Turkey,” Richard Caplan tells the Tehran Times.

As the United States is completely withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is important to reflect on the broader and longer-term reverberations of that withdrawal.

 Some observers are of opinion that the U.S. defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq show that the era of a unipolar world is coming to an end.

 “In the Israel-Palestine conflict, it long ago ceased to be an honest broker and its influence over Israel has diminished,” the Oxford professor adds.

 “Having withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under Trump and failed in its attempts to apply ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran, it finds little scope for diplomatic action there, especially now that Iran has hardened its attitudes towards the United States,” the Oxford professor remarks.

 Regional powers have been and are likely to continue to take advantage of U.S. waning influence in West Asia. 
Following is the text of the interview:

Q: What is your prediction about the future of the world order? Will the world witness a continuation of a unipolar state, or bipolar (U.S.-China) or multipolar?

A: It is unwise to attempt to predict the future, especially with respect to world politics. However, it is fair to say that while the United States occupies a pre-eminent position in global affairs, the ‘unipolar moment of the early post-Cold War era, as the political analyst Charles Krauthammer called it, was just that – a moment. The United States now faces serious competition, from China especially, but it remains a dominant power. 

Q: An article in National Interest claims that "from the beginning of the twenty-first century, though, the ability of the United States to act as a unipole was challenged by several factors" including America’s inability to prevail in its large-scale, long-lasting military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and U.S. ineffective response to Russia. Do you think the U.S. will manifest a weak role on the international stage?

A: It depends on what one means by a ‘weak role’. The United States, under Biden, is seeking to regain the mantle of global leadership following the U.S. retreat from multilateralism under Trump. Whether it can succeed is another question: the experience of the Trump administration has raised doubts, even among America’s closest allies, about the reliability of the United States.

 If by a ‘weak role’ one means less interventionist militarily, that was already the case (to a degree) under Obama, who ‘led from behind in the NATO operation over Libya in 2011, and who was reluctant to engage militarily in Syria subsequently. 

The U.S. has been chastened by its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and has no appetite for ‘wars of choice’ at this time. The United States under Biden will rely more heavily on multilateral diplomatic approaches to global governance and will seek to play a major role in those approaches.  

Q: How could regional powers like Iran, and Turley curb the U.S. influence in West Asia?

A: U.S. influence in the Middle East (West Asia) has declined. Having failed to lead on Syria, it has yielded the initiative there to Russia, Iran and Turkey, as you point out. In the Israel-Palestine conflict, it long ago ceased to be an honest broker and its influence over Israel has diminished. Having withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under Trump and failed in its attempts to apply ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran, it finds little scope for diplomatic action there, especially now that Iran has hardened its attitudes towards the United States. Regional powers have been and are likely to continue to take advantage of U.S. waning influence in the Middle East (West Asia). 

“The U.S. has been chastened by its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Q: How do you assess Trump's presidency in U.S. history? As an initiation of decline or just an exception period that can be repaired?

A: It is too early to judge the long-term effects of Trump’s presidency. Take the question of the U.S. standing in the world. While Biden is seeking to restore U.S. standing, it is too early to say whether the damage Trump caused will be short-lived or long-lasting. Independent of the Trump effect, China’s growing influence, in Africa for instance, represents a distinct challenge for the United States which would have emerged without Trump’s self-inflicted wounds. 

On the ‘plus’ side of the ledger, Biden’s massive effort to rebuild America’s infrastructure, which has deteriorated badly after many years of neglect, may also create a serious uplift for the U.S. economically, with consequences for the U.S. position on the global stage. 

Q: What are the implications of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan for the world? Irresponsibility or failure of U.S. policies in West Asia? Why didn't the U.S. try to collaborate with its foes like Iran to advance its plans?

A:  Even before Afghanistan, with the U.S. retreat from multilateralism under Trump, U.S. allies and other countries have had reason to be concerned about the seriousness of U.S. commitment. While one can understand the U.S. frustration with ‘forever wars’, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will surely raise questions about its reliability as an ally. 

Success in Afghanistan would have required, among other things, a concerted regional approach—especially with Pakistan, whose continued support of the Taliban ensured that they would remain a potent force. Iran and the United States, which are divided over so many other issues, do have common interests in Afghanistan: it would have made sense for them to work together. That is just one manifestation of the tragedy of this long-broken relationship.

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