Obama’s Pyrrhic Victory

Okay, so an imperial president maneuvered his way around the US Congress, and with the help of a friendly media and the worst partisan politics since just before the American Civil War, he created for himself a so-called victory. But Obama’s true legacy will be determined by whether or not Iran ever gets a nuclear weapon and the future of Syria and the Levant. Because in order to secure his Pyrrhic victory, Obama and the Democratic Party now own Syria and the Levant, as well as any nuclear proliferation throughout the region of the Middle East. That’s quite a legacy to fall to the next president. This means that US involvement as the world’s sole policemen will not end with Barack H. Obama. On the contrary, US policy was merely suspended in the Levant until such time as a limited sunset nuclear deal could be negotiated.

In other words, a seven-year negotiation to achieve a decade-long hiatus from advanced Iranian nuclear centrifuge production. In the meantime, the Obama administration bent over backwards in order not to confront the ayatollahs or the Russians in their quest to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. This vacuum of American policy might have helped Obama with his dubious nuclear negotiations, but it has now led to total chaos across Syria, spawning widespread terrorism throughout the region and an untold refugee crisis in Europe. How many ISIS sleeper cells will end up holding European passports (a plane ride away from New York City) is another nightmare scenario caused by the absence of US leadership. This too is a part of the Pyrrhic victory legacy of the Obama administration.

What about Washington’s Middle East allies; what is their perception of Obama’s policies? In this respect, Obama’s nuclear negotiation has painted his administration into a deep conventional corner. He and his political party must now prove to the entire region that they possess a deterrent capacity with regard to Iranian hegemony. By freeing up countless billions of dollars in sanctions relief and unfrozen funds, Obama has negotiated that Iran will have even greater capacity to enhance the firepower of its own sub-state proxy allies, including Hezbollah, Hamas and especially Assad of Syria. In this respect, the Iranian supreme leader has made it abundantly clear that the nuclear deal will in no way affect Iranian foreign policy throughout the Arab Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel now expect a strong American rollback of Iranian power. But will it come?

From the very start of the Syrian civil war, there was always a great power international component. Russia’s support for the Assad regime was always a convenient excuse for the Obama administration’s inaction. A direct US-Russia confrontation was meticulously avoided, to the extreme detriment of the early, more moderate pro-US opposition to Assad. Potential Syrian pluralism and democracy was abandoned by Washington, both in an effort to secure a nuclear deal with Iran and to avoid a direct Russian response. The great irony for the Obama administration was that a successful election in Iraq (2010) spurred the entire Arab world into a positive reaction against authoritarianism, the Arab Spring. Obama knew that he couldn’t have a nuclear deal with Iran and support Arab democracy in Syria at the same time. So he chose Iran.

Now, the US president must either undo the consequences of his nuclear compartmentalization and establish a new American regional Middle East policy, or stand down and allow Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad to control events. Russia and Iran appear to be on the same military page in Syria. Within the last two weeks, they have upped the ante considerably. Israeli intelligence is monitoring recent moves by Moscow and Tehran with great interest. Russia and Iran are boosting force capacity with new air assets and direct ground troops. This is an open challenge to the Obama administration. Ayatollah Khamenei has decided that President Rouhani’s move toward rapprochement with the Saudi Arabian king will be an ongoing diplomatic façade. The real story is that the Revolutionary Guard Force has dramatically increased its role in propping up Assad in Syria. This is meant to intimidate both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Jerusalem must be watching Obama very closely. How will he respond to Russia and Iran? The same is true for the Saudis. Will they be forced to establish some kind of “understanding” with the Iranians in the absence of US leadership and initiative? And how will the Americans deal with Putin in Syria? Does Obama have a strategy? Or will he back down on his red line that Assad must go? Are we all back to square number one in Syria, with an American president sitting on the fence, not knowing in which direction to move? That could be the worst scenario of all. It would leave the field open to a Russian-Iranian Middle East.

What the Middle East needs is a Grand Bargain, not an Obama Pyrrhic victory. The president’s greatest mistake was to separate Iran’s regional behavior from its nuclear program. Now the president must act. Either he must have a bold new diplomatic initiative (inclusive of a permanent nuclear dimension and a conventional regional one as well) or he must challenge Iran on the Syrian battlefield. If he does the latter, he risks his “legacy-making” current sunset nuclear deal. If he does the former, then he admits that his seven-year Iran policy was flawed from the beginning. But what if he does nothing? Then he concedes everything to Iran. Is it any wonder that Obama’s recent victory is Pyrrhic?

Obama needs to create a diplomatic solution whereby he can isolate the Russians from the Iranians. The US and the Russia need to work together over Syria and the region. But this will require a new US approach to Europe in order to engage President Putin to abandon Assad and the ayatollahs. Obama’s true legacy in the Middle East has yet to be written. But whether the Americans realize it or not, they simply cannot afford to be policemen to the world without creating a new cold war. Nor can they retreat from the world, leaving all their allies in the lurch. This is the American dilemma. It involves both political parties and speaks directly to US partisan paralysis.

But Israel has a dilemma as well. Jerusalem’s monopoly on nuclear weapons means that others in the region (currently Iran) aspire to achieve the same capacity. Even though President Obama has promised the world that Iran will “never have a nuclear weapon”, such a promise is hollow in the face of a potential breakout time (actually a sneak-out time within a decade or so) of less than a month. Obama has admitted that himself. Therefore, Israel must decide whether containment of other nuclear powers is a greater or lesser risk than nuclear disarmament in the face of a hostile Muslim world. That is, a hostile Muslim world hell-bent on Israel’s conventional destruction. In such a situation, surrounded by such a hostile Muslim world, Israel should keep her nuclear weapons.

But what if the Muslim world was not hostile? Could a Grand Bargain involving a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East be established then? This could be especially true if a peaceful Middle East was endorsed by the full force of the UN Security Council. Maybe Obama and Putin should sit down with Netanyahu and discuss the matter rationally. Perhaps the King of Saudi Arabia would like to be in on the meeting. Why not hold it in Cairo, sometime in the new year? President Sisi of Egypt could be the host.

I would like to wish all my Jewish readers a peaceful New Year (5776) and all the people of the world the blessings of a year filled with friendship and understanding. Let this be G-d’s Will. My blog will return after the holidays in a few weeks. Shana Tova!

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).