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A US resurgence in the Arab world?

The US is shoring up its position by maintaining ties with rulers rather than peoples, many of whom resent foreign involvement in their countries

The initial stages of the Arab Spring saw the United States lose considerable regional influence. This was compounded by the completion of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in December 2011. Long-time authoritarian allies in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen were toppled, Bahrain's monarchy was under threat, and Washington faced accusations throughout the region of both meddling and of not doing enough.

Even the toppling of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, and the revolution against Syria's Bashar al-Assad, did not bring the expected benefits to the US. Washington's paltry support for the Syrian opposition has enabled Assad to maintain power with the help of his foreign allies - principally Iran, Hezbollah and Russia - which have cemented their influence in Syria.

The post-Gaddafi government, although allied to the US, had little control over Libya in the face of myriad warring militias, which have forcefully and successfully opposed attempts to co-opt them under a national army. American support for Tripoli's efforts in this regard made it an enemy of the militias, which saw it as a plot to weaken and undermine them.

The ensuing lawlessness, insecurity and violence provided fertile ground for al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups vehemently hostile to the US. One of the most headline-grabbing events in Libya last year was the attack on the American embassy, which killed the ambassador and other staff.

However, a combination of American policies and regional developments has resulted in something of a comeback for Washington. In turning a blind eye to allies' abuses, and putting American troops back on the ground, the US presence in the Middle East under Barack Obama looks more and more like it did under George W. Bush.

Iraq and Syria

On 13 December, Congress adopted a defence spending bill for 2015 that expands the fight against the Islamic State (IS), including $3.4 bn for the deployment of American forces as part of “Operation Inherent Resolve”. This overturns repeated assurances from Washington that it would not put troops on the ground. Given the deployment of increasing numbers of American "advisers" to Iraq, this is a classic example of mission creep.

Three years after their withdrawal, American troops are not just returning to a country they invaded and occupied, but are doing so at the invitation of Baghdad. It is unclear whether US forces will also be deployed in Syria, where IS also controls large swathes of territory. Such a scenario looks more likely now than at the start of the campaign against IS.

The legislation passed by Congress further consolidates Washington's influence in both countries by providing funds for bolstering the training and equipping of Iraqi troops and Syrian rebels.

Egypt

Since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, hostility in Egypt towards the US reached its zenith following the ouster last year of his successor Mohamed Morsi, amid wild rumours and unfounded accusations of the Obama administration's support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Washington's partial, temporary suspension of aid to Cairo in October, amid brutal crackdowns on demonstrators, led to the further decline of its leverage in Egypt. The interim government condemned the US decision and refused to change course. Subsequently, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has turned to Russia for arms and Arab Gulf states for money.

This has led to a much more muted and conciliatory tone from the US. It used Sisi's election earlier this year as an opportunity to try to wipe the slate clean in order to shore up its influence in the Arab world's most populous state, and one of only three to conclude a peace treaty with Washington's ally, Israel.

The US is "loath to walk away from the country after investing tens of billions of dollars in a relationship with the Egyptian military for nearly four decades," wrote Michele Dunne, senior associate in Carnegie's Middle East Program.

Indeed, this week Congress passed a bill providing up to $1.4 bn in mostly military aid to Egypt. Unlike last year's bill, it includes a waiver, allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to ignore preconditions on democracy and human rights for national security reasons.

Libya

The deteriorating situation in Libya - which now has two rival governments - has, to an extent, helped the US position there. Washington recognises one of the administrations, but open combat, political stalemate and regional involvement have meant that both Libyan governments are reaching out to the US in an effort to bolster their positions.

Yemen

The US lost an ally when former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of office by mass protests. However, the transfer of power was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and endorsed by the US, so the transition did not hinder American influence. Yemen is still reliant on US aid, which in the last three years alone has totalled more than $600 million, and American drone strikes continue unabated.

The deteriorating situation has arguably worked in Washington's favour. A resurgent southern secessionist movement, control of the capital and major territorial advances by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, and an emboldened al-Qaeda have caused the vulnerable Yemeni government to more keenly seek American help.

On Monday, an aide to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi accused the Houthis of plotting to bring down the government. As such, US aid is in no doubt given the long-term American military campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Washington's desire to thwart Iran's rising influence via the Houthis.

Tunisia

Though the US lost another ally when Tunisian President Zine El Abidine was ousted, the relatively stable transition since has meant that American influence has not taken a hit. This has been helped by hundreds of millions of dollars in aid since the revolution. According to a Pew Research poll in 2012, only a quarter of Tunisians believe their country's relationship with the US should be less close.

The Gulf

While the US has been very vocal in condemning human rights abuses by antagonistic regimes in the Middle East, it has been relatively silent over abuses by its allies. This was particularly apparent during Bahrain's revolution, which was put down with the help of troops from GCC states.

The US has largely continued to turn a blind eye to Manama's suppression of domestic opposition, and its hollow promises of reform and dialogue. There have been moments of tension over occasional, mild American criticisms of Bahrain's human rights record, and of allegations of contacts with dissident groups, but neither Washington nor Manama have allowed such incidents to snowball.

American silence, while hypocritical, is unsurprising given the importance of its ties with the Gulf states, particularly with regard to energy resources, arms sales, counter-terrorism, and common opposition to Iran's regional ambitions. While Bahrain's Shiite majority feels betrayed by Washington, the relative stability of the Arab Gulf states amid regional turmoil has left American dominance there unchallenged.

'Unwilling to learn'

The US has managed to weather the regional storm that saw its influence decline in the early stages of the Arab Spring. However, it has done so by continuing its traditional Middle East policies - military force and authoritarian allies - rather than evaluating why those policies have caused so much public resentment.

The US is shoring up its position largely by maintaining ties with rulers and generals rather than peoples, many of whom continue to feel deeply disgruntled not just with how they are governed, but with foreign involvement in their countries and region. The Arab Spring showed that this is not a viable long-term policy, a lesson the US - and other foreign powers - seem unwilling to learn.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The National, and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the International Media Council "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting" on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US President Barack Obama speaks at an event for the Senior Executive Service at a hotel in Washington on 9 December (AFP)
Photo: US President Barack Obama speaks at an event for the Senior Executive Service at a hotel in Washington on 9 December (AFP) - See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/essays/unmasking-obama-presidency-1238534772#sthash.Du6dr6BB.dpuf