Steve Kramer

Realpolitik Rules in the Middle East

This is realpolitik:

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “When you say you agree to a thing in principle you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.” “The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Russia.”

American President Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

The governments of, or operating in, the Middle East have fully adopted pragmatism, with one exception. Each is doing what it believes will further its own goals, be they for domestic consumption or foreign policy. The United States is the exception, unless one suffers from the same delusion as the Obama White House, that the feckless strategy of reducing America’s power will benefit the country and please Americans.

The proof is in the pudding: Russia, Turkey, and Iran, all non-Arab countries, each have gained influence in the region in tandem with America’s loss of influence. This situation developed when incoming President Obama “pivoted” towards Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and away from Israel and other Western-leaning Arab states. The Obama administration has been left behind, befuddled by the collapse of the “old regime.”

Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did push the “Reset” button with Russia (10/2009), but it turned into a fiasco: “You got it wrong,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “This says ‘peregruzka,’ which means overcharged.”

Russia, which just recently was counted out as a weakened country with a poor economy, an outmoded army, and a vain and boorish premier, is now the dominant power in the Middle East as well as the worst nightmare of the FSU (former Soviet Union) Eastern European countries. Israel, which until now dominated the skies of its neighbors, now must contend with Russian war planes operating out of a permanent base on the eastern Mediterranean shore.

The changed situation is increasingly obvious: the British-French borders for the Middle East, drawn in 1916 during WWI by diplomats Sykes and Picot, are no longer relevant. Russia’s Putin recognizes this and takes advantage. So do Turkey’s autocratic ruler Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iran’s Supreme Leader. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu also does, but the EU leaders and President Obama don’t. Will the next US president be a master of realpolitik?

Europe’s zenith was in the 19th century, but WWI proved Europe’s powerlessness, necessitating the entrance of the US to defeat Germany. Britain and France’s agreement to carve up the ME for their benefit was their last projection of power. Within a decade, Germany’s National Socialist movement rose to power, leading to Europe’s relegation to minor league status. The United States was the West’s champion, rivaled globally only by Russia and far-off China.

75 years later, an effete America now stands on the sidelines as Russia (and China – primarily in Africa and Asia), recently joined by Turkey and Iran, both greatly elevated by the Obama administration, fight to divide the spoils left in the wake of America’s hasty retreat from global leadership.

What this means is that in the current regional reality, the Iranians and their allies (Russia, Assad’s “Syrian” government, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen) feel sufficiently emboldened to engage in direct military assaults or attacks by proxy. These occur not only on US allies in the region (i.e. the Saudis in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen), but also on US forces themselves, as exemplified by recent missile attacks on US naval vessels in the Gulf of Oman.

Middle East expert and war correspondent Jonathan Spyer says,”Such attacks [on USN vessels) are an indicator of the extent to which US deterrence has declined in the Middle East. There is a strongly evidenced sense among both friends and foes that any US response to aggression against it will be judicious, restrained, proportionate and brief. A response of this kind hands the initiative to any aggressor able to calculate and absorb it. Renewed deterrence will come only from setting the price higher.” 10/21/16

Turkey, ever mindful of the Russian and Iranian incursion into what was once the Turkish Ottoman Empire (1517-1917), has also been proactive. Under the iron rule of its Islamist premier, Erdoğan, Turkey is striving to keep up with Iran and Russia (all non-Arab) to direct the divided Arabs to benefit itself.

“The end goal of Turkey’s policy is as opaque today as in the past. The idea of establishing a “Sunnistan” in Iraq, or a Sunni autonomous region similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, is not something that anyone seems seriously interested in. So when Ankara [Turkey’s capital] says it wants to influence decisions in northern Iraq, it is clear that what it primarily entails is similar to what the Russians have done in Syria. It is about projecting power beyond borders, while US and EU influence remains tethered to diplomacy and adheres to old policies.” Jerusalem Post columnist and war correspondent Seth Frantzman 10/21/16

The Obama administration, ostensibly the leading Western power, has not fulfilled warnings that it made to Iran and Syria, failing to promote a forceful policy to further Western aims. It has clearly not sidelined Russia (in fact, the opposite) which has cheerfully filled the vacuum America left by its quick retreat from influence in the Middle East. Nor has it carried out Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” diplomacy by negotiating peaceably with other nations while simultaneously displaying military might.

At least Israel has leadership that can understands realpolitik. Hopefully, the US will too, and soon!

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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