Nearly everyone with even the remotest knowledge warned the US administration and its Secretary of State, John Kerry, that 2013-2014 was not the propitious moment for achieving peace. But Kerry, for whatever reason, knew better. Aging politicians tend to have a legacy problem, especially defeated presidential candidates. But I’ll give the secretary the benefit of the doubt. Let’s just say his motives were pure, but his timing was faulty.
In the Middle East today, long-term stability must be worked out among the Arabs themselves before there is any hope that the future of Israel/Palestine can be decided. Across the Levant from Lebanon to the Iranian border, an Arab civil war is raging between Sunni and Shiite. The one exception to this sectarian drama is the PLO. The Palestinians are playing their cards very close to their vests, and when it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran they are most certainly hedging their bets. The PLO, now with its inclusion of Hamas into the PA, has a hand or a foot or a finger in every camp. From moderate to rejectionist, from Sunni to Shiite, from Saudi-Egyptian to Qatari-Turk, from Russian to American and of course into the European mainstream, the PLO has become the ultimate chameleon. And why not? They are merely following in the same path of confusion generated by the current administration in Washington.
What is American policy in the Middle East today? Does anyone know? In Syria, US involvement has been negligible. It had a great opportunity to forge a pro-democratic policy early on but chose instead to “lead from behind” (whatever that means). Obama and his spin-masters didn’t listen to Hilary when she was Secretary of State. But Mrs. Clinton was right on the money. The US should have been supporting the democratic opposition to Assad from the beginning. We should have given Iran and Russia clear warning: We’re in this game too, and our clear interest is a democratic-pluralistic outcome to the so-called Arab Spring. The ayatollah needed to see a firm hand on the American tiller, but what he got was the most nebulous presidential doctrine since Calvin Coolidge. The die was cast.
In Iraq, we should have put our foot down and never allowed Assad to be resupplied by air. We had strong connection to al-Maliki, and we should have constructed a policy whereby Iraq could become the ultimate buffer-state. Instead, we allowed the Iranians a near free hand, and the Sunni-Shiite war has now spread to the eastern provinces. Once again, Obama and company led from behind. But after nearly ten years of war, what did we really achieve in Iraq? Other than allowing Iran to gain the upper hand, we achieved next to nothing, and the situation continues to deteriorate. Mere physical retreat was not an acceptable foreign policy goal. But neither was an American hegemony. Under Obama and his predecessor, Bush 43, the US drifted from one extreme to another. Neither president had a handle on where the US needed to go in this vital region. Without an appropriate structure for non-hegemony, the Middle East balance tends to play itself out on the conventional battlefield. But the US never talks about non-hegemony. Its policy has been one of strength, and strength alone. But between US hegemony (Bush 43) and perceived US retreat (Obama) lies chaos.
Today the nations of the Persian Gulf still control nearly thirty percent of the world’s known oil reserves. Stability in this region will remain a vital component of the global economy for some time to come. Yet a military presence in the Gulf is not a replacement for an adequate policy. In fact, over the long term, the American military presence has brought about the prospect of a broad-based nuclear proliferation which, if not stopped, could be devastating not only for the region but also for the world. Yet US policy within the Iran nuclear negotiations has not been promising. Grim would be a more apt description. Like its position on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, America’s negotiating position with Iran has failed to absorb the regional context. While asking for somewhat tepid Iranian concessions in order to achieve a deal, the US has failed to connect the dots as to Iran’s designs in connection with its Shiite Arab allies. It’s the region as a whole that needs a plan. In fact, in this case the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Within the PA, America’s missteps have been noted. So too has the American confusion been calculated by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their Iranian backers. Assad and Hezbollah are more than just hanging on, and the Palestinians want a part of the action. With America leading from behind, a vacuum has been created, and Israel, Saudi Arabia and even Jordan have become most vulnerable. Egypt, once at the center of the Arab world, has now become a peripheral player. The stalemate in Syria suits Iran. With Hezbollah and the assorted pro-Iranian militias in place for the long run (and growing), Iran has situated itself on Israel’s northern border. Other than entering the Syrian Civil War, Israel can do little about it. This does not bode well for the peace of the region or any nuclear deal that the Americans might cut with Iran. Something has to give– Washington’s response: Blame Israel for the breakdown of the Palestinian peace talks.
How utterly naive; but American policy toward the Palestinians has always been hopelessly misguided. They actually believe that the PLO would be satisfied with a demilitarized state on the West Bank. This is definitely NOT the case. What the PLO wants (you can now include Hamas and Islamic Jihad under the PLO umbrella) is a militarized West Bank state, period. Whoever controls the central river valley of Israel/Palestine controls the destiny of the country. This has been true from the Biblical time of David, through the Crusades and into the modern area. Only a one-time preemptive air strike saved Israel from annihilation in 1967. Of course, the PLO wants Israel to return to the 1949 armistice lines, and they’re placing their bet on Iran and (perhaps) Obama’s nuclear capitulation toward the Tehran regime.
It’s the regional context which has shifted Palestinian strategy. With Turkey and Qatar firmly in the Muslim Brotherhood camp and advocating a soft appeasement toward Iran, with Europe’s hardening attitude toward Israel’s presence on the West Bank, with the absence of Egypt and the isolation of Saudi Arabia, with the Shiites in power in Iraq, Abbas and Hamas have realized that this might be their propitious moment. We went from Kerry optimism to hard-boiled Palestinian opportunism in the blink of an eye. Of course the Abbas-Hamas shift has been a direct result of an absence of US policy coherence. Perhaps the two Palestinian factions even sensed an ally in Obama, a kind of twenty-first century Jimmy Carter. Whatever the reason, Hamas has now situated itself on the West Bank as well as Gaza and merely a short river crossing away from its Jordanian counterparts in the Islamic Action Front.
So where is US policy in the Middle East? It’s everywhere, and nowhere. Its so-called allies are all disjointed. Saudi Arabia is hard line toward Iran, while Qatar seeks detente. Iraq’s Shiite leadership has turned away from the US during the Obama years and has taken a strong direction toward Tehran. Jordan plays the PLO card but gambles that the PLO will never really take over the Jordan River Valley. Meanwhile, as the regional vacuum continues, Iranian encroachment cannot be anything but a grave worry for the royal family. Israel doesn’t trust the Obama administration’s judgement on nearly every aspect of its Middle East policy. Egypt looks to Saudi Arabia for financial support, but the Saudis worry that an ineffectual US response to an Iranian regional power-play means that funds must be spent at home on military preparedness and increased hardware. This causes even greater worry in Cairo because without economic advancement, Qatar and the Brotherhood could make a comeback. How many years (months?) does Sisi have to turn Egypt around? This then translates back to Israel’s biggest worry: An Iranian-Egyptian-PLO axis. Even with a good nuclear deal, Israel’s strategic position could worsen as the sanctions on Iran are lifted and its regional position strengthens. Jordan has time working against it, while Saudi Arabia knows that the PLO can turn against the two kingdoms in a Tehran heartbeat.
Time is running out. If the US cannot come up with a rational Middle East policy, then someone else must. Jordan must work out an alternative peace plan to the PLO’s Iranian design (follow Price Hassan’s lead). Democratic federation as first envisioned in 1972 (using the English constitutional model) would be best. This could open the door for a new security regime on a regional scale for Saudi Arabia and Israel. The bloc of Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia must be the balance against Iran. Iraq must become a viable buffer-state, never moving either east or west. A non-hegemonic Zone of Peace with a zero-enrichment nuclear-weapons-free region becomes the goal, as Turkey anchors the balance to the north. In this way, a permanent structure could be placed upon the region as the “shifting sands” of power become a thing of the past. The UN Security Council could enshrine the concept into international law. With Russia and China on board, American military assets could be re-positioned toward the Atlantic as the region disallows no dominant power. This structure could encourage the entire region toward peace, economy and cooperation. It certainly beats the alternative blueprint.