US President Barack Obama’s legacy problem in foreign affairs will depend on two factors: The Ukraine issue in Europe, and the Iranian nuclear question in conjunction with the Middle East as a whole. Obama will have his work cut out for him, because to solve one problem could mean to ignore the other. This dichotomy could be very dangerous for Russia, China, Israel and the Sunni Arabs.
The Ukraine conflict is a continuation of the Bush administration’s NATO expansion policy, yet many Republicans blame the current president for not being robust enough in his implementation. They call Obama’s foreign policy feckless. His detractors insinuate that Obama’s hesitancy to involve the US in the Levant’s Syrian civil war was an open door for Russian aggression in Crimea. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, over the course of the last few weeks, the true nature and logic of the Obama foreign policy has increasingly come into focus. This US president is a Cold Warrior.
The first hint of a “new cold war” came with Obama’s so-called “pivot to Asia”. Containment of China smacks of a kind of pre-Kissinger, LBJ-type Vietnam approach. But the economics of geopolitics has changed so much in the last fifty years. The world has been transformed from communist-capitalist hostility to the now globalized world, where the Chinese (communists?) play an extremely important role. Cold War containment and non-military profit growth don’t necessarily make for a good fit. But the US president had begun to play his hand, and this type of “new cold war” was not directed at global powers like the Soviet Union or the international communist movement, but instead against two regional powers–China and Russia. In this “new cold war”, the US didn’t fear that either Russia or China (or any power, for that matter) could or would disrupt the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Hence Obama felt he was free to pivot the bulk of his military assets to Asia. The same lack of fear was true in Eastern Europe, where NATO was now ensconced in the ex-Warsaw Pact countries.
But the “pivot to Asia” wasn’t to be established in a Middle East or European vacuum either. For instance in the Middle East, the US had spent the last ten years altering the balance of power against its old allies in the Sunni Arab world. These allies started to complain, and to complain bitterly. Even though their superpower protector, the US, was responsible for the “Shiite Crescent” (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah), the Sunni Arabs weren’t happy with the situation or about to play dead. On the contrary, their complaints had turned into action. With the advent of the “Arab Spring”, the Sunni community of Syria rose up, and the initial democratic revolution quickly morphed into a near-regional sectarian war. Soon the sectarian nature of the civil war had both regional and global implications. First as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also with time as a kind of cold war stand-off between Russia and the US.
Russia supported Assad in Syria because it feared the pipeline implications of a Sunni victory to topple the Alawi regime. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan had worked out two or three different schemes to supply natural gas through to Turkey and on to Europe. These pipelines were intended to bypass Russia and become an alternative to the Russian near monopoly of European gas supplies. Equally frightening for the Russians would have been the so-called Islamic Pipeline from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. However, this would have required an Assad victory in the Syrian civil war. The Russians preferred the status quo, a stalemate in the war and zero competition from the huge South Pars-North Dome gas field shared by both Qatar and Iran.
Obama’s political constituency forced his hand against any meaningful military involvement in Syria. Yet the American president did have one red line, Syria’s use of chemical weapons. In August and September of 2013 Obama’s “line in the sand” was crossed. Assad had foolishly and cruelly murdered hundreds of innocent civilians using chemical weapons. For Obama the question of a response was tortuous. But for the Russians, any military strike by the US could have begun to tilt the balance against the Syrian regime. Putin used Obama’s hesitation to propose an alternative. He literally forced Assad to relinquish his entire stock of chemical weapons in exchange for an administration promise not to intervene. The gambit worked, and the Syrian civil war stalemate continued.
In Europe, the new cold war did not begin to appear until Obama’s second term. With re-election accomplished, a NATO push eastward would prove to President Putin that his lack of cooperation in removing Assad could have consequences. Also, the administration feared the direction of the new “unity government” in Germany. With the Social Democrats in charge of the German Foreign Ministry, a new European “Ostpolitik” could once again re-invigorate the de Gaulle and Brandt formula for a “Middle Europe” inclusive of Russia and without a North Atlantic component. The place to decide these issues was in the strategically vital Ukraine. This is where the situation becomes murky. In other words, who took the lead on the EU’s invitation for an association with Kiev? Was it Washington or Brussels, and what was the role (if any) of France and Germany?
It has been reported in Asia and other places, that the US had spent up to five billion dollars through direct State Department gifting of NGO and Ukraine political parties (including the far-right). Other on-the-scene reports suggested negligible US government involvement and pointed directly at eastern members of the EU. I can’t say because I don’t know.
But doesn’t the EU have enough troubles without bringing into its orbit a country with a GDP that amounts to less than five thousand dollars per person? How does that help Greece or Spain? And doesn’t it go against the grain of Germany, considering they have an economy that does hundreds of billions of dollars in business with Russia? It just doesn’t make much sense. Wasn’t Mrs. Merkel the European leader who essentially vetoed the NATO expansion into Georgia? After all, the EU’s association with the Ukraine did have a NATO component. Everyone in the world knew that Putin’s reaction could only be hostile. Perhaps that’s what the Obama administration was counting on: the ostracism of Putin’s Russia (the bad Russia) and the rehabilitation of the Rouhani Iran (the good Iran).
Iran? How does Iran fit in? Just follow the gas and oil. Obama wants a nuclear deal with Iran. He can’t go to war over the issue. He has already compromised on enrichment. He knows Israel will never be satisfied with any deal that leaves huge chunks of Iran’s nuclear program in place. But he needs a deal, and he is willing to allow Iran a certain amount of nuclear capacity. By going “new cold war” with Russia, he can persuade the American people that the quickest (by far) and best answers to Russian “expansionism” in the Crimea are new Iranian-Turkish gas and oil pipelines to Europe. US-Iran rapprochement establishes Obama with a tremendous legacy. Not only does he end the long hostility with Iran, but he also defeats Russia at the same time. Up against the wall, Mr. Putin! Animosity toward Russia has never waned in the US. Obama has good relations with Erdogan of Turkey (another NATO country in search of gas and transit fees), and the US president is a great communicator. If anyone could make an Iran deal sound good, it is Barack Obama.
As I said earlier, this dichotomy could be very dangerous for Israel and the Sunni Arab states. In this scenario, Iran becomes the near hegemonic power in the Middle East (US troops will still be stationed in the Gulf, but at a much reduced number). China loses as the US pivots to Asia. Of course, Russia crumbles into the twilight zone of lost economy and military encirclement.
So what could Israel, China, the Sunni Arab states and Russia propose as an alternative? First, Russia needs to end its support for Assad in the Syrian civil war. This could be accomplished by agreement that no gas pipelines from the GCC or Jordan would ever reach Syria or Turkey. Second, the GCC states must promise that all terrorist support for the region of southern Russia and western China will stop completely. Third, Israel must put on the table the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free, plutonium-free, non-hegemonic, zero-enrichment Zone of Peace in the Middle East. This would also include a pledge of non-aggression, and diplomatic relations among all states of the region. Finally, Israel must use its moral leverage with Germany and its many friends in the US to stop the slide toward the “new cold war” in Europe. Russia needs to be brought into a new European security tent that allows for an expanded Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean while limiting all European ground capacity and integrating everyone’s air force systems. The US role in the new European security tent must only be as a visiting naval force.
Other than the Iranian oil option, the US has limited resources to punish Russia economically. The entire global financial system would be at risk with sanctions and isolation. An economic war with Russia will be, as President Putin says, “in neither side’s interest”. Let cooler heads prevail, because the essence of the problem is the simple fact that NATO’s 1989 victory has caused instability in Europe. The answer lies in the replacement of NATO. The continent will either be whole, or the current instability will spread and intensify.
Israel must warn the US that a “new cold war” against Russia must not be fought by using the Iranian oil option. The US cannot have two strategic partners in the Middle East. If Obama chooses Iran as its tacit economic lever through the weapon of oil, it will jeopardize both Russia’s and Israel’s security. Obama’s legacy cannot be Iran’s oil. Little Israel will not allow it. She will yell bloody murder!