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US free to blunder in Middle East until it faces worthy adversary, policy expert says

International relations expert John Mearsheimer says US foreign policy will be 'more irresponsible than ever' unless it is checked by rising China
US Marine places flag over statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003 (AFP)

LONDON - The United States has made a "giant mess" of the Middle East and will continue its abysmal foreign policy blunders unless it faces a peer competitor such as China in the near future, according to a prominent US international relations expert. 

John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said that since 2001, the US had sought regime change in five countries in the greater Middle East, failed miserably in all, and yet continues to follow the same flawed policies.

The reason its does so, he told an audience at the Chatham House think-tank on Thursday evening, was because of its unopposed global position, its enviable geographic security and the "groupthink" of a Washington bent on global dominance.

He said only the rise of another great power, acting as a counterbalance, could change the status quo.

"The first thing you have to understand is American grand strategy. We are bent on dominating the world militarily and we are deeply committed to spreading liberal democracy all over the planet. 

"Underlying this strategy is the assumption, in the words of Madeline Albright, that the United States is the 'indispensable nation'; the idea that we are superior to everybody else. So we have the right, the responsibility and the wisdom to dominate a region, like the Middle East, and do social engineering at the end of a rifle barrel. 

"That's what's driving foreign policy. And the centrepiece of the United States's grand strategy has been regime change in five places - Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt. Yet all have been disasters. 

"Just look at the record. It's one abysmal failure after another; the terrorism problem is worse, the refugee problem rocking Europe - that's mainly the compliments of the United States.

"Yet we continue to pursue these policies."

The US does so, Mearsheimer said, because it is the most secure great power in the history of the world. "And we are free to do foolish things, because there are hardly any consequences.

Mearsheimer: US foreign policy is one abysmal failure after another

"The United States is physically separated from all its potential adversaries by two giant moats, has thousands of nuclear weapons and no rivals. And this is what allows us to run around the world doing all these crazy things and continue to pursue policies that fail.

"There's no great cost to us. Look at the refugee problem - it's you in Europe facing that, not the US." 

Different flavours of US presidents, such as Barack Obama and George W Bush, made almost no difference to this status quo, Mearsheimer said

"Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Bush didn't do Syria or Libya, Barack Obama did those. Obama was the principle policy-maker on Egypt."

Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate who served in the US military between 1965 and 1975, said his country's military leadership enabled the elites in their quest.

"We have a military that represents a very narrow slice of society. We're not drafting. If we had a draft there would have been no Iraq war. All those people coming out of Harvard and Berkeley - they don't want to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"But the narrow slice of society fighting these wars is deeply committed to doing so. They see themselves as protecting the United States, that it is their patriotic duty. And this means the elites have this instrument they can use to pursue these wars. 

"This is the basic cause of this mess."

He said nothing would change until the US faced a worthy adversary.

"I don't think the consensus that now exists in the US on liberal hegemony - global domination - is going to be undermined any time soon. It is deep seated," he said.

"Geography is not going to change. I see no sign that anything is changing in the military waging these wars, which they lose. There is no evidence of revolt among the generals. And America's allies don't bark at the United States.

"In the case of Britain, you also like going on these excursions. You tell yourself stories about how this all makes sense.

Taking on the Chinese is going to be a very tricky issue and the United States is going to have to pay really close attention to deal with them. -John Mearsheimer

"There is only one hope: the rise of China. If China continues to rise, the US will have to put its pivot strategy into practice in a big way. Taking on the Chinese is going to be a very tricky issue and the United States is going to have to pay really close attention to deal with them.

"And if the US has to deal with the Chinese, it is going to have to be very careful and smart about how it deals with the Gulf, because what happens with the Chinese and the Gulf goes together. China gets a quarter of its oil from the Gulf, and that figure is expected to rise.

"So the US, if China rises, will have to be strategically very smart - it will be dealing with a potential peer competitor. And that is going to have ramifications for the Middle East."

Conversely, a flatlining China would assure US hegemony and allow it to prosecute its grand strategy for decades to come.

"If China does not continue to rise, the United States in 2050 will be much more powerful relative to every other country on the planet than it is today.

"Our principal competitors from the 20th century - Germany depopulating, Japan depopulating, Russia depopulating - the balance of power is going with the US. 

"There is only one country that can give the US a run for its money and that is China. If it does, that will force us to act smarter, because we won't be able to afford to screw up.

"If that Chinese growth levels out, the end result is that we will be more powerful than ever, and we will be more irresponsible than ever."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.