Without a lasting structure to bring a semblance of order to the Middle East, the spread of nuclear weapons will become a certainty. This should have been the message sent to all the participants of President Obama’s last Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this week, but it wasn’t. Instead the US president spent the majority of his time crowing about what he believes to be the crowning jewel of his foreign policy legacy, the Iran nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, out on the campaign trail, the renegade anti-establishment candidate, Donald J. Trump, was speaking for countless millions of Americans when he suggested that Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia would eventually get nuclear weapons. “It’s only a question of time,” Mr. Trump said. “they’re going to start having them or we’ll have to get rid of them entirely”. Trump is correct and Obama is dead wrong. The essence of the Iran nuclear deal was its segregation from the regional struggle that has not only engulfed the Middle East, but now involves Russia and the very reliability of the NATO alliance. This compartmentalization was done in error and lacked an understanding of the totality of global strategy.
Obama’s concept flaw (separating the nuclear from the regional balance) was also true for East Asia. Without a nuclear monopoly over the Korean peninsula, US assurances of a conventional defense diminishes in scope. The idea of an inter-continental nuclear umbrella has always had its skeptics. During the Cold War, however, it was never really tested. But now, after the North Korean nuclear deal has collapsed, candidate Trump has taken his skepticism much further down the road toward neo-isolationism. Recently he said, “At some point we have to say, ‘you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off if South Korea is going to start to protect itself'”.
Isn’t Trump’s blunt message similar, but in reverse, to Obama’s somewhat more subtle policy toward Israel and the Sunni Arab states? In other words, you (so-called) allies work out the regional Middle East balance and we’ll help but only by delaying the Iran nuclear program by ten years. But what happens after ten years? Then, Iran will be free to minimize its breakout time to a matter of a few weeks or perhaps even days. And what will be the future of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan? Obama never says. For him, the scope of problems in the Middle East have been reduced to ISIS and the absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Iranian regional hegemony doesn’t even register.
From both the right and the left in the US, this neo-isolationist sentiment has taken over the American electorate. Obama’s own hesitancy over further US entanglement within the Middle East became crystal clear in his now famous series of interviews with the Atlantic Monthly magazine. He even called key American ally (Saudi Arabia) a “free rider” when it came to the amount of money they spend on their own defense. He said the same thing about Europe and also derided the US foreign policy establishment by expressing his desire to “throw out their current playbook”. But the president never proposed an alternative to the current structure of global security, now, seventy years in the making. Unbelievably, this essential message is the same from both US political parties i.e., the idea of a US-led global security structure has lost its currency within the politics of this year’s election cycle.
So after nearly eight years of Obama, where in the world are we? All of America’s allies are asking the same question. From France to Japan, and from Israel and Saudi Arabia, the trillion dollar question remains: Can the US still be counted on as a balance against an alternative regional hegemon? In the Middle East, Russia has now become the central superpower player in the Syrian civil war. Actually, the US absence from Syria has become the main foreign policy legacy of the Obama administration. And because the US has adopted such a hands-off policy, it is to Moscow where Middle East political leaders now must head.
Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to talk behind Kremlin walls in late April. The Israeli leader must determine exactly what the Russian president intends for the nascent Syrian political process. But without any US leverage, what possible Israeli leverage could Bibi use in his talks with President Putin? The key issue for Israel is Iran; its support for Hezbollah and its desire to dominate the Middle East and eventually destroy Israel. Will Russia continue to support its current alliance with Tehran at Jerusalem’s expense? Does Moscow intend for Syria to be federalized with a Kurdish enclave in the north abutting NATO member Turkey? Or is Putin more interested in a temporary “freezing” of the conflict? Putin is great at tactical supremacy. But in order to determine what the next American president might offer in exchange for a genuine Syrian political negotiation, does the Russian president (or anyone else) have an alternative plan for Europe and the Middle East?
In other words, Putin’s tactical means must be followed by a strategic end in order for his policy to be meaningful. He will need a grand plan which would allow for the end of the Syrian civil war, while simultaneously bringing order and structure to both the Middle East and Europe. Isn’t Moscow’s intrusion into Syria a product of NATO expansion and its potential military encroachment toward territories adjacent to the Russian Federation? And wouldn’t an end to the Syrian civil war require a completely new regional security architecture to institute a lasting structure without any form of hegemony, either nuclear, conventional or from powers outside the region? Will Netanyahu be addressing these issues when he visits the Kremlin on April 21st? Because these are the only issues worth talking about.
It is in Israel’s strategic interest to live in a Middle East where Iran and its geopolitical ambitions are contained through a treaty involving all the current Sunni states and the permanent members of the UN Security Council. It is also in Israel’s interest for a democratic constitution within a unified Syrian state — as desired by the moderate civil opposition in Syria and without Assad — to be established. It is not, however, in Israel’s interest for that same UN Security Council to dictate to Israel the nature and parameters of a future peace treaty with the Palestinian people. But it is this last proposition, and not Syria or the region, which most concerns President Obama. And it is precisely a pro-Palestinian resolution that this arrogant and antagonistic US President has in store for the Jewish state (within the UN Security Council) sometime before he leaves office.
Against this prospect (probably to happen after the US election) Israel’s only leverage would be to propose its own regional “Grand Bargain”. A wide-ranging proposal which would trade Israel’s Middle East nuclear hegemony in exchange for the end of all hegemony within the region and a totally free-hand (complete freedom) with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. In other words, offer President Putin, Israel, as a political ally with regard to regional nuclear disarmament. Also the offer could entail an alternative a non-hegemonic conventional structure with regard to states within and from outside the region. Israel could also suggest its acceptance for future concrete political backing on the eventual replacement of NATO. Yes, you heard me correctly — the eventual replacement of NATO with an all-European security umbrella (inclusive of Russia) which could be supported by not only Israel, but with the guidance and independent political agreement of the UK, France, Germany and all of eastern Europe.
First, however, the Middle East needs urgently to be structured in such a way that peace and cooperation between the US and Russia, and also Israel and the Sunni states could develop and flourish. This should be the nature of Israel’s Middle East “Grand Bargain”. Let’s face facts, the US can no longer afford to be “policeman to the world” and a vast majority of its voters refuse to become encumbered in the ever-shifting Middle East balance-of-power. A new structure is needed in the aftermath of the US experience in Iraq. The Syrian civil war is a direct by-product of the vacuum created by Washington’s near complete withdrawal from the area. Without an internationally sanctioned permanent balance, Syria and Iraq cannot be rebuilt and the rest of the region will remain vulnerable to all manner of war, including nuclear.
Yet Obama still feels he can dictate the nature of Israeli security with regard to the future of the territory east of greater Tel Aviv. He feels he knows better than Israel itself, the nature of its own security interests. But he doesn’t know what is best for Israel, and he certainly has a very limited understanding of Russian history. Prime Minister Netanyahu has never gotten on well with Obama. But neither has President Putin. Netanyahu needs Putin and the Russian veto on the UN Security Council to trump Obama once and for all.
But in order to do that, Bibi must begin to play the balancing act between Washington and Moscow. He needs to use his own nuclear arsenal as a negotiating instrument in pursuit of both regional and global peace. Under this political umbrella (and with a free-hand), Israel can begin to offer the Palestinians a peace proposal that establishes the Jordan River Valley as Israel’s permanent conventional security boundary, while at the same time, linking the global Palestinian demand for civil rights toward a Jordanian democracy, within a one-state, bi-national (Arab) structure. It is with this prospective democratic Arab nation-state (Palestine-Jordan) that Israel must negotiate the future of Jerusalem and the disputed territories.
Simply talking tactics in Moscow with Putin is a dead-end. It’s high time for Netanyahu to start to think out-of-the-box. If he doesn’t, Israel could find itself, at the end of the Obama administration, isolated in the face of a new American president (Clinton). With the coming fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 War, early within the next administration, why not offer President Putin a deal that certainly might address his security interests, while doing the same for Israel and its neighbors. If the Americans want to change their global “playbook” all of their allies must adjust. This is the nature of geopolitics. With global goodwill and cooperation, we all might just achieve peace.