End of Pax Americana: Has the US lost its mojo?
Fatima Al-Bahadly’s son Ali Karim was murdered in Basra. The Iraqi human rights activist had remained defiant even after her other son, Ahmad, was killed the year before. She ignored death threats and orders to leave the city, and continued her work opposing child recruitment by the militias.
Al-Bahadly was accused of links to the US by Iran-backed media outlets and of being behind the protests in Basra and other cities in southern Iraq. This was another attempt to break her. Al-Bahadly’s 26-year-old son worked closely with her in Al-Firdaws, the organization she created for the protection and education of women. He was found shot in the head and chest a day after he disappeared.
Al-Bahadly’s story encapsulates the concerns of most Iraqis, ever since protests intensified in the south and a series of assassinations targeted more than 36 anti-militia activists.
A couple of days after Ali Karim’s murder, however, US President Joe Biden seemed unaware of such developments or of the mood in the country as he met with Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to celebrate a new phase in their cooperation after the US troop withdrawal.
Biden sounded even more disconnected in a press briefing with Al-Kadhimi in which he promised to help Iraq with issues such as climate change and to donate sufficient vaccines to inoculate about 2 percent of the Iraqi population. He also said that the US would cooperate in fighting Daesh should the terror group return.
This not only shows total oblivion to what is happening in Iraq but also sends a message to Iran and its militias that the US leader is blind to them, that the US doesn’t see their actions against Iraqis as a concern, and that the US will leave them alone if they are not attacked themselves.
The message could be interpreted as a free hand or license to execute more protesters for the mere accusation of collaborating with the US.
This follows the same pattern of US withdrawal from Afghanistan less than a month before, or its focus on fighting Daesh in Syria since 2015, ignoring what is happening in the rest of the country. America seems to have checked out and abdicated its role internationally or at least in the broader Middle East.
Meanwhile, the message is clear to the rest of the world — and everyone is scrambling to adjust to or to fill the vacuum.
Russia, Iran and Turkey are stepping in to pick up the pieces in Syria and Afghanistan. China is discreetly doing the same on the economic front. In the Middle East, it could also mean that, eventually, the largest global oil reserves will no longer be traded with the US dollar, the main weapon that the US is still using.
The US still has a lot of force at its disposal. But it is losing the credibility that it still has the will, power or ability to use it.
The US, with the largest army in the world, still has a lot of force at its disposal. But it is losing the credibility that it still has the will, power or ability to use it. Like reputation, power cannot be lost in one place and gained in another; the projection of weakness and retreat is global. US allies are concerned, and its enemies are happy not only in the Middle East but also in Asia in places such as Taiwan.
It looks as if we are witnessing the end of Pax Americana, or US global influence, which began in the 1950s in the aftermath of the Second World War. If that is the case, then America’s stint as an empire will have been short lived, indeed.
The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun was perfectly placed to understand the rise and fall of nations and empires. He was born in 1332, halfway between the Mongol sacking of Baghdad by Genghis Khan in 1236 and the fall of Damascus and Cairo to Tamerlane in the early 1400s. His family had also just left Andalusia as the Arab presence there was crumbling with the fall of the kingdoms of Cordoba and Seville in 1236 and 1248.
One of the factors in the fall of nations, according to Ibn Khaldun, is when leadership gets rich, fat, corrupt and lazy, and the nation loses its fighting spirit. In modern terms, this is when a government starts to overspend on itself instead of on people and when taxes increase while services decrease. A heavy bureaucracy becomes inefficient, dragged down by its own weight.
A combination of an overly comfortable elite preoccupied with internal rivalry and a discontented population produces a lack of general will to go to war. That is when a hungrier, more aggressive and more warrior-like people will gradually overcome and replace the empire. According to Ibn Khaldun, the process takes at least four generations and a minimum of 120 years. There is a generation that builds, one that takes it to a peak, followed by a decline leading to the fall.
By that count the US is barely halfway there. It has not really reached that decadent phase in which it settles down to reap the benefits of empire, but seems to have skipped a stage and lost its mojo too soon. America’s withdrawal from the world looks more like an implosion than a defeat, fitting British historian Arnold Toynbee’s view that civilizations are more likely to die by suicide than by murder.
The Biden administration describes its foreign policy objectives as people centered and values based, promoting democratic values and multilateralism. So it is bad timing for the US to declare game over in the Middle East and abdicate to tyrannical regimes when the people of the region are protesting and aspire to the same democratic values the administration wants to promote.
There is a unique opportunity to invest in people, such as Fatima Al-Bahadly, who are risking their lives to build a better future for the youth of the region, 80 percent of whom, according to the Arab Barometer, want democracy to prevail. US and EU multilateral cooperation would be well spent in holding Iran accountable, and to push out its proxies and loosen their hold.
Instead of appearing to abandon them in favor of engaging with regional hegemons, Biden should embrace a regional vision, paying full attention to the demands of Arab youth and to the assassinations of people pushing for freedom and democratic values.
• Nadim Shehadi is executive director of the LAU Headquarters and Academic Center in New York and an associate fellow of Chatham House in London.