Obama’s status quo dilemmas

Everywhere you look in the Middle East today, US status quo policy has been overtaken by events. The Oslo process, long portrayed as the seminal event in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, has proven itself to be bereft of substance in a two-decade search to achieve fruition. The US-Saudi-Egyptian alliance has fractured over White House support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The aftermath of the war in Iraq has tilted the regional balance of power toward Iran (hitherto an enemy) and against the interests of all of America’s allies in the area. Continued support for anti-democratic forces in both Syria and Iraq have further soured Arab perceptions of the so-called “exceptional nature” of US intentions toward the Levant, and these forces have caused a chaotic vacuum at the center of both countries. Even in Bahrain (home of the US Fifth Fleet), the overt status quo policy has only worked to militarize what was a peaceful non-violent struggle for political rights and human dignity.

The Middle East is in the midst of a political eruption unforeseen by nearly the entire Washington establishment. But this same establishment is without a clue as to the policy prescriptions for a more durable future for the troubled region. Some advocate for a compromise nuclear deal with Iran. But this camp misunderstands the dynamic whole by which a nuclear compromise would be achieved. Any deal with Iran whereby the sanction regime would inevitably become fractured, and thereby rendered impotent, would only work to intensify the regional ambitions of Iran. This outcome could further destabilize the core countries of the Levant, or more likely lead to an outright Iranian victory in Syria. Either scenario would be unacceptable to Israel. The last thing Israel wants is the prospect of an Iranian hegemony leading to an Iranian-Iraqi-Hezbollah-Muslim Brotherhood alliance to its north, northeast and east. A prosperous Iran would certainly enhance not only the survival of the Assad regime but also Tehran’s links to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas on the East Bank of the Jordan River. The King of Jordan hopes that the successful outcome of the Oslo process will work to cement an Israeli-Palestinian-Monarchist bloc to balance Iran. But the Palestinians won’t play ball. They would rather see an Iranian hegemony than suffer the humiliation (as they see it) of a neutered mini-state without a border leading to any Arab neighbor.

The nuclear deal would have to be extremely attractive to Israel and the Sunnis for it to be accepted without repercussions. However, even with a deal, the regional balance of power would still be in doubt. On the other hand, the absence of a nuclear deal by the Obama administration would probably lead to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This war, whose outcome is uncertain, might very easily draw the US into the fray. It could also involve Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and probably Syria. It could very easily raise tensions in Europe between NATO and the Russians to a fever pitch. How Russia perceives an Israeli attack on Iran and the ensuing chaos is anybody’s guess.

In other words, the Obama administration can’t stand pat. It knows it must act; but either way, it could lose. At this stage of history, an Iranian detente policy is both anti-Israeli and anti-Saudi. That’s how it will be perceived in Jerusalem and Riyadh. However, the corollary is true as well. The traditional approach to Iran (of continued hostility) is as unworkable now as it was during the time of Khatami from 1997-2005.

The political balance of power within Iran depends solely on the current government’s achievement of a nuclear deal. The Iranian political scale could tilt in either direction. For the US and Obama, this is both an opportunity and a severe risk. A nuclear deal will need to be really tough on Iran or the political consequences for Obama and his Democratic Party will be dire. The timing couldn’t be worse. Some time before the fall election, Obama’s moment of truth will transpire. By September, there will either be a nuclear deal or the entire process will become political, one way or another. The different scenarios are well understood.

The liberal interventionists and the neocons have already portrayed this president as soft on America’s enemies (Russia, Iran, North Korea and China). If the nuclear deal is framed by Netanyahu as a sell-out, the storm clouds will turn ominous. President Obama is already walking a tightrope. But so is President Rouhani of Iran. In fact, the entire region appears to be on a tightrope. Everyone is locked into their rigid perspectives, and room for compromise seems non-existent. Within this context war appears to be inevitable. All countries in the region fear they are being encircled by their enemies. For the Sunnis, it is fear of the “Shiite crescent”. First coined in 2003 by King Abdullah II of Jordan, this perception was caused by the overturning of the Sunni power structure in Baghdad and the complete withdrawal of American troops nearly a decade later. For Iran and the Shiites, the fear is of the Saudi-Pakistani-Taliban axis. If pro-Saudi forces were to take Damascus, certainly Baghdad could be the next domino to fall. With the US exit from Afghanistan, Iran fears regional isolation. Tehran describes the situation as the global Sunni push-back. Remember–on the world stage– Sunnis are also the vast majority, and Persians are a mere fraction of the earth’s total Muslim population. A global jihad against Iran is a real possibility.

Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting for many, many centuries. Israel had been surrounded by its many enemies until its peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. From 1949 until June of 1967, the Jewish State was a mere nine miles wide and surrounded on all sides. Only a tacit understanding with Jordan and a defensive preemptive strike saved it from annihilation in the June 1967 War. It would be political and demographic suicide for Israel to return to those old armistice lines. At least a quarter of the country’s population would leave, for fear that Israel was simply indefensible. The Palestinians understand this. It’s all a part of their long-term strategy. That’s why the Abbas leadership clings to its demand for complete control of the Jordan River Valley. They understand that the ultra-orthodox Jewish population of Israel can’t defend themselves or anyone else, for that matter. The very back of the IDF could be broken if the PLO and the far-left have their way. Meanwhile, Israel’s European enemies (both left and right) are the same elements that watched unmoved as the Holocaust proceeded without protest by the continent’s secular and religious institutions.

Israel fears both Sunni and Shiite hegemony. Its policy has been to cling to a regional nuclear strategy as a deterrent against encirclement. This policy worked in 1973 and was instrumental in the achievement of the peace treaty with Egypt. However, this nuclear policy is strong only when it remains a monopoly. The nuclear proliferation of the region has become a mortal danger for Israel. Who wants to live in a country surrounded by neighbors (who hate you) and in possession of nuclear weapons? From a Zionist point of view, this prospect is hardly what one could call Jewish normalization. But on the other hand, who wants to be encircled by a populous enemy with a religious vendetta against you? This could very easily become the scenario if the Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic tilt the balance of power against Jordan and the Saudis. Add nuclear weapons to the mix, and Allah help us all.

So, both short-term and long-term prospects for the region are bad, very bad. Without a regional solution to the nuclear issue, conventional war or the spread of these weapons of mass destruction could be catastrophic. But without a regional solution to the balance of power, the potential spread of nuclear weapons could happen anyway. In that case, the proliferation of regional nuclear weapons would become a “Sword of Damocles” held hostage to everyone’s perceptions of their own conventional vulnerabilities. Who is to provide the leadership to take us out of this catch-22 crisis? At the moment, the major powers and the UN Security Council have separated from each other, and their relationships have become dysfunctional. This fact only intensifies the present danger. Hence, what was once a multilevel regional conflict has now taken on global proportions. This situation should give us all pause. But instead of caution and rational dialogue, the nationalist rhetoric of all the major powers has been ratcheted-up a few more notches. Almost like a bad dream, the establishment think tanks and their old Cold War paradigms move us closer and closer to the precipice.

It is time for Obama to start thinking outside the box. The “American Century” is over because the global economic consequences of the century have rendered the US economy stagnant. This wage and jobs stagnation is now nearly three decades in the making. Every working-class citizen of the republic understands the situation and wonders what (if anything) the powers that be (Wall St. or the Washington politicians) are going to do about it. Obama has led from behind on world affairs and instead concentrated on his domestic agenda. The results of his foreign policy have been disastrous. Now, he must engage Russia and China on all three fronts — Europe, East Asia and the Middle East. He must do this with the utmost of creativity and not get sucked into the establishment mode of thinking. Everything must be put on the table: The future of NATO and a new security system for Europe, the roll-back of the Russian invasion of the Crimea, the Israeli monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, the future of global anti-hegemonic structures for the Middle East and all regions, major-power nuclear disarmament and defensive missile systems, state-sponsored terrorism, and the prospect of building an idealistic and cooperative foundation to international relations. This last category should address, over the long term, the vital issue of sovereignty vs. self-determination in global and national affairs. All other agenda items must be outlined for compromise, as soon as possible.

Bottom line — the status quo simply won’t hold. That is Obama’s overriding dilemma. Time is running short as, unbelievably, the whiff of world war is once again in the air. The nation expected big things from this president. So far, he’s been unable to deliver. But if G-d wills it, big things could still happen. The ball is still in this man’s court. Prepare for that all-important summer summit in Berlin. Yes we can, President Obama, yes we can!!

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).
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