If you don’t have a Syrian policy, you’re left without an Iranian policy. If you don’t have an Iranian policy, you can’t possibly have a Jordanian policy. And without knowing in which direction Jordan might go, there is absolutely no way to successfully engage upon an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. This is the essence of Kerry’s chaos. It is very much like Sarah Palin’s Middle East dictum: “Let Allah sort it out in Syria”. But what if Kerry’s chaos is the best case scenario? Some analysts believe that the US administration has actually tilted toward Iran. This is how Israel’s neighbors view the American response to their region. Are they wrong, and is US Middle East policy under President Obama merely ad hoc? Or is something much more dramatic going on?
Personally, I believe that Kerry’s chaos is ad hoc, because like the famous Tip O’Neil (former US speaker of the House) used to say: “All politics are local”. In the locality of the USA, any kind of military engagement in the face of the current and prolonged jobs and income recession is about as popular as snow on an Atlanta freeway. That’s not very popular at all. So from a political point of view, the Republican House victories in 2010 and 2012, as well as the next Congressional election this November, especially in the Senate, have tied Obama’s hands by dire political necessity. Even though the Administration says that “all options are on the table”, the reality speaks to a public who look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and say: “We can’t afford this kind of involvement anymore”. And they’re correct. The dirty little secret in US politics is that to be successful, it helps immensely to be a neo-isolationist.
President Obama himself is the living embodiment of this secret. Of course, the President doesn’t call himself an isolationist. His policy speaks in the grandiose language of peace and reconciliation. Since his famous Cairo speech of 2009, Obama has had his “hand extended” toward Israel’s arch enemies, if only they would “unclench their fist”. So far, five years into the “new diplomacy”, a war like no other rages in the Middle East, and its endgame is not visible, nor are its ramifications even remotely clear. Secretary of State John Kerry pursues an Israeli-Palestinian “Framework for Peace” as if all was well within the region and America’s Arab allies were behind his efforts to the maximum. However, the secretary must be living in a fog, because among the Sunni Arab states the future of a mini-state on the West Bank has become about as important as the future of Scottish independence.
Don’t look now, but to the region in general, Israel and the PA have become a sideshow. Call it Persia vs. the Arabs, or Shiites vs. Sunnis, or Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, call it what you will, it amounts to a war between two camps hell-bent on rolling back the hegemony it perceives in the other. The region of the Middle East is afflicted by the worst geopolitical storm to ensnare the planet since WWII. From Tehran to Beirut, the very future of the region remains shrouded in an anarchy that has called into question the last seventy years of US leadership and its structure of global enforcement. Diplomacy without strength is neither strong nor diplomatic. In this type of environment, the paranoia of the region’s principal actors complicates even further what limited diplomatic action remains.
The so-called tilt toward Iran is just such a paranoia. I don’t believe for a minute that the US has tilted toward Iran. Obama and Kerry can’t possibly be that crazy. First and foremost, they’re successful politicians, and they watch the polls. If anyone could prove that they had tilted toward Iran, (for instance, if there were a “smoking gun”), impeachment proceedings would begin immediately. But among many in the Middle East this perception is real, and it is not a part of some conspiracy theory. Israeli and Sunni Arab leaders look at the facts on the ground. They are realists who understand their neighborhood. And the facts on the ground disturb them immensely.
First comes the clear-cut absence of US red lines. In the Middle East, once a red line is drawn, it must not be crossed without military consequences, period. Obama’s September 2013 Syrian debacle, where the use of chemical weapons was not punished through air strikes, but with Russian and Syrian “promises”, hurt American credibility deeply. Next comes Obama and Kerry’s mantra that “Assad must go”. Both men have said this repeatedly. Obama had said it early (at least, two and a half years ago) and Kerry often. In fact, the entire US approach toward Syria has lacked an enforcement mechanism to leverage diplomacy. Talk is cheap, but in the Middle East, action is everything. Geneva II has shown itself to be empty of any substance other than rhetoric. But because of Obama’s political dilemma, which has led him politically to a neo-isolationist position, rhetoric has trumped red lines.
Second comes Iraq and Lebanon. In the Sunni Arab world, the tilt toward the Shiites couldn’t be more clear. Hezbollah has been allowed to enter the Syrian fray without repercussions. The March 14th Alliance has basically been abandoned by Obama and Kerry. Iranian forces and materiel have been issued a free pass through Iraqi airspace on their way to Syria and Lebanon. Now the administration has decided to give the dominant Shiite government in Iraq advanced weaponry in a cooperative effort to suppress al-Qaeda and its Sunni supporters. At the same time, no weaponry has gone to the Free Syrian Army in Syria.
Next comes the maddening example of the human rights abuses by the renegade Assad regime. As barrel bombs rain down on innocent civilians, Kerry and Company can only scold the Assad regime for its humanitarian crimes. But the Sunnis remember Bosnia and Kosovo during the last Democratic administration, under President Clinton. They expected a policy of similar action in the face of an even worse humanitarian nightmare in Syria. Instead, they have received the new US policy of neo-isolationism. Even Democratic stalwart and most likely 2016 Democratic Party presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, has turned silent and without a policy prescription. Could it be that she too is reading the polls and doesn’t want to upset her center-left base?
Finally, there is the massive question of Iranian nuclear intentions and the US response. Unfortunately, the interim deal has only exacerbated the negative perception of a US tilt toward Iran. This is the most depressing aspect of the new US policy under Obama and Kerry. For the simple reason that the military aspect of the program was never addressed, the nuclear issue must be solved within a fairly short time frame. But the interim deal could stretch on into a number of roll-overs. While this could also have the negative effect of placing the sanctions regime in jeopardy, its really serious impact will be in bomb-making and guided missiles. Obama and Kerry have said that their interim deal has been a breakthrough in the sense that it has put a “freeze on Iran’s future nuclear development”. This is only partially true with regard to enrichment levels. When it comes to military application and advanced centrifuge development, the program continues unabated.
But what if a miracle happened? For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Iran and the US came to a comprehensive nuclear agreement that Israel and Saudi Arabia could live with (remember this is merely a thought experiment, and its real life chances are practically nil). What about the war raging in the Middle East? What would be the effect on the region of an Iran with a robust economy? Has anyone in the administration thought this scenario through? I doubt it, because if they had, they would clearly see that it is impossible to disconnect the dots and hope for a rational outcome. To repeat: Without a Syrian policy, you can’t have an Iranian policy that makes any sense. And without an Iranian policy that makes any sense, any kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace process is impossible.
The reality in the Middle East has all along been about hegemony. For the last twenty-four years it has been the sole superpower hegemony of the US. Before that, from WWII onward, it was the bi-polar world of US-Soviet competition. Now the bi-polar and sole superpower world have evaporated. The US refuses to exercise power. Its economy has diminished and with it, its global reach. For better or worse, the US has become a neo-isolationist state. Obama and Kerry have been pushed by their constituents to prioritize. The “pivot to Asia” has now become the cornerstone of policy. The US has not thought through the Middle East at all. Hence, Kerry’s chaos appears in the region to be a tilt toward Iran. I don’t believe that it is a conscious decision. But the new underpinnings of US foreign policy have placed the region into a strategic conundrum: What will be the nature of the new Middle East balance of power?
Israel and the Sunni Arabs cannot afford a hegemonic Iran. Even with US warships in the Gulf, the writing is on the wall — the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have exhausted the US public. Far too much blood and treasure have been lost. It is also too simplistic to believe that Iran would ever let Assad go, without firm guarantees as to its own balance of power needs (does Kerry really believe they would?). The great likelihood is that Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan will further destabilize leading to even greater chaos. This cannot help any of the nations of the region or the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Both the current US and Russian policies in the Middle East are self-defeating and irrational. Kerry’s chaos is Putin’s vacuum. In the end, both countries will lose out, as chaos breeds the worse kind of Islamic terrorism.
One thing should be extremely clear to all Arabs and Israelis: The center of gravity in the Middle East is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any attempt to solve this problem now will only breed more chaos, because of the absence of a sustainable regional dimension.