When Nixon went to China in the early 1970’s, hardliners in both US political parties called his brilliant diplomatic move a cowardly retreat. But Nixon and Kissinger were light-years ahead of their detractors. They understood that the balance of power on the Eurasian land mass was dependent on China much more than Vietnam. The president and his secretary of state maintained that the Soviets and the Chinese were in fact separated by a strong nationalism. Hence, a brand new differentiation between alternative communist states needed to be applied. Nixon’s “retreat” from Vietnam led not to defeat in the Cold War but the permanent strategic containment and eventual defeat of the Soviet Union.
Scroll ahead forty years and see if the “China moment” applies to Obama and his dialog with Iran. Unlike Nixon, President Obama has cast himself as the “peace president”. But Nixon was a geopolitical strategist. Although he paid lip service to the idea of peace (especially during the 1972 election season), peace for peace’s sake was not in the Nixon vocabulary. Obama, on the other hand, is more of a speech and sound-bite president than a deep foreign policy thinker. So far, Obama’s thin diplomatic legacy consists of a Nobel Peace Prize given to him by the Scandinavian committee for no other reason than a campaign promise of disengagement from the Iraq War. But if disengagement was to work, a new structure needed to be set up to replace the old. So far, Obama’s disengagement has not been celebrated as a brilliant diplomatic maneuver. On the contrary, at least three key regional allies have perceived recent US Middle East moves as defeatist and certainly against their own interests. Instead of a “China moment”, Obama’s Middle East policy has worked to weaken the US position throughout the region and alter the balance. The Middle East balance of power has been severely undercut by the US’s retreat and the realization that in the aftermath of the war, Iran’s position has been dramatically strengthened.
Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt have been the pillars of US Middle East policy for at least twenty-five years. Along with the other small Sunni monarchies, these three countries have maintained a tacit alliance against a hegemonic Iranian potential since the late 1980’s. Previous to this time period, Saddam’s Iraq had played the role of the crucial balance of power state, and as the Iran-Iraq War showed a rough balance was indeed created. A decade earlier, Iran under the Shah had been a US strategic ally. During that time period, competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia was negligible. The balance-of-power issue became dominate as the American people began to tire of the Iraq War toward the end of the administration of George W. Bush.
For President Obama, the end of the US occupation in Iraq has appeared to have colored all administration thinking. Like most on the Left, the peace paradigm had been crucial to Democratic Party success for the last two presidential cycles. Leaving Iraq, with the Shiites in charge, was an Obama election priority. However in the Middle East, over the last decade, it has been the overthrow of a Sunni controlled Iraq which has so colored the regional perceptions. For the Sunni states and Israel, the American withdrawal has altered the regional balance of power and left them vulnerable to an Iranian hegemony that by all accounts has become intolerable.
Enter the so-called Arab spring and the Sunni revolt in Syria. To re-balance the Middle East, the Sunni Arab states saw it in their interest to overthrow Assad (a key ally of Iran) and replace him with a new Sunni government oriented toward Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Obama hesitated. The US president did not want to become involved in a new war in the Middle East. The elections were near and the peace paradigm went against even the most meager of military commitments. As the Syrian war dragged on and eventually stalemated, US policy appeared out of sync with Sunni Arab concerns and desires. Meanwhile the issue of the Iranian nuclear program was nearing a dangerous end game. Secret meetings between US and Iranian interlocutors were held in Oman. These meetings (once exposed) were extensive and not just with the new reformist Iranian government. The US had been talking to the hardliners inside the previous regime. This shocking revelation enraged both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
For the Saudis, nuclear talks without a US understanding of the necessity for a regional balance of power has moved the monarchy toward a position of near total war. Recent events in Lebanon and Iraq have direct Saudi finger prints.The escalating violence has so polarized the Shia and Sunni communities that the spill-over from Syria now risks expanding across the entirety of the Levant. The Saudi government has pledged three billion dollars in direct military assistance to the Lebanese Army. This assistance has most likely been earmarked against Hezbollah. Hence, a split within the Lebanese military has become a distinct possibility. This could lead automatically to a second civil war.
Meanwhile the security situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. In 2013, over 8800 people have been killed in Shia-Sunni violence. As of this writing, large swaths of the Sunni triangle in western Iraq have come under the control of al Qaeda. The very idea of a US-Iran detente through a successful nuclear negotiation has become perceived as completely destabilizing to the region. Recently the Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia have shown a determination to fight this detente and the possible lifting of sanctions on Iran, tooth and nail. Now the nuclear issue and the regional balance-of-power future cannot become disentangled. As much as the US “peace president” would like a clean break between the Iranian negotiations and the messy rest of the Middle East, for the Sunni Arabs this is impossible.
For Israel, the nuclear issue holds more weight, but the the regional balance is not without serious consequence. An Iranian victory in Syria and beyond would be a disaster. A successful nuclear negotiation leading to an Iranian threshold state and the lifting of sanctions would require some kind of response. So far, Israel has wisely not entered the regional fray. But the direction the Obama administration continues towards is as disconcerting to the Israelis as it is to the Saudis. Either the threshold state of Iran itself will need to be rolled back or its proxy position in Syria and Lebanon weakened to the point of dysfunction. The possibility of a US nuclear negotiation leading to an Iranian threshold state on the cusp of regional victory over the Sunni states is a potential scenario which would certainly cause Israel to react in a powerful way.
As of this writing, it appears as if the “peace president” is in full retreat.
Forget what his defense secretary recently said about the US commitment to Persian Gulf security (“we are not retreating from anywhere”); the real issue is proxy war and boots on the ground. From a regional perspective, there is nothing strategic about the dialog with Iran. The US wants out of the Middle East. This is true of the Left and the libertarian Right. US red-lines have been crossed, and the administration has not acted. The Saudis don’t trust US intentions. Israel is wary. The Turks are shopping around for Chinese weapon systems. The Egyptians are in discussions with Russians. Paris hopes to fill a large part of the void. These are not just images in passing but they portend real geopolitical change. Iran wants the nuclear negotiations separated from the regional balance. The Sunni Arabs do not. The White House wants a real legacy. It knows how to spin.
Meanwhile Iran holds it breath. They are so very, very close to a nuclear breakout. If only Obama can hold off those pesky pro-Israel Senate Democrats, the “deal of the century” might become part of history. The Italians are ready for a big time trade deal with Iran. So are Israel’s good friends, the Germans. Iran is on the cusp of regional supremacy. The Ayatollah is no fool. Let the Rouhani’s reformers work their magic on the “peace president”. Let Obama think he’s Nixon going to China. If Mao can adopt capitalism, surely Ali Khameini can accept “cooperation with the West”. Call it strategic containment through rapprochement, retreat is such an ugly word. America and the Islamic Republic can be best friends, all the liberal think tanks say so. Didn’t the Iranian president tweet a “Happy New Year” to the Jews? See, people do change after all. Forget all that Zionism equals cancer talk.
Wait a second. Better get a second opinion. I know: Let’s ask Henry Kissinger if this is Obama’s “China moment”? If any one can tell us what’s going on in the Middle East, it surely must be Henry. Let the truth win out. Is it Nixonian strategic containment — or a good old-fashioned Munich retreat?