The Unraveling of One of America’s Principal Middle East Interests

For many people the Cold War is a distant memory, but scholars of the Middle East and military strategists remember that one of America’s primary interests was to minimize, if not eliminate, Soviet influence in the region. It took decades of bipartisan effort, and an unflinching commitment to cultivating and protecting our allies, but this goal was accomplished. In less than six years, however, President Obama has succeeded in unraveling what had been one of the most important foreign policy successes of his predecessors.

The Soviet Union is no more, but Russia has never abandoned its desire to expand its influence in the region and to exploit any perceived weaknesses in the U.S. position. Up until the Iranian revolution, the United States was very successful in marginalizing the Soviet Union and later Russia.

One of the principle ideological battlegrounds for decades was Egypt where American efforts to find common ground with President Gamal Abdel Nasser repeatedly failed. Nasser turned to the Soviets and became, along with Syria, Moscow’s principal clients in the region.

Henry Kissinger was determined to show Egypt and the other Arab states that the United States would never allow one of its allies – especially Israel – to be defeated by Soviet weapons. In 1967, Israel did not need any help routing Egypt and the other Arab states when it acted preemptively, but the situation was very different in 1973, when Israel absorbed the first attacks and was in dire need of resupply. The United States came to the rescue with more than $2 billion worth of arms that helped turn the tide of the war and demonstrated the superiority of U.S. weapons (at least in the hands of the Israelis) and America’s unwillingness to allow the Soviets to claim a victory. President Anwar Sadat dramatically shifted Egypt’s allegiance from the Soviet to the American camp and reaped the benefits in the form of financial and military aid, which were enhanced following the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

The shift in the position of the largest, most powerful and most influential Arab nation from enemy to U.S. ally was one of the most important accomplishments in U.S. Middle East policy. What took decades to achieve, however, was undone in a matter of weeks by the bumbling policy of the Obama administration during and after the revolution that brought down our longtime ally and replaced him with a radical Muslim regime opposed to American interests. The perception that Obama had thrown Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak under the bus sent shock waves throughout the region as other longtime American allies from Israel to the Gulf States began to distrust Obama’s commitment to their security.

The willingness of Obama to accept the Muslim Brotherhood’s legitimacy further enraged the Egyptian military and other longtime opponents of the Brotherhood. The situation was exacerbated by Obama’s dithering response to the military coup that ousted the Brotherhood and subsequent decision to hold up U.S. arms deliveries over concerns with the military’s intentions and behavior, and a general befuddlement of America’s interests in Egypt and the region. Angered by Obama’s attitude and actions, Egypt turned to the Russians for weapons for the first time in decades, seriously damaging the most important U.S.-Arab relationship.

Although not yet as serious, a similar catastrophe may be in progress in U.S.-Saudi relations. This would not be the first time that Saudi pique over the perception that America is ignoring their interests. In the 1980s, even as administrations were justifying huge arms sales to the Saudis on the basis of their staunch anti-Communism, the Saudis secretly purchased missiles from China, demonstrating they were not the reliable Cold Warriors we thought they were and that they were willing to show the United States they cannot be pushed around.

While the Saudis were later mollified by billions of dollars of new arms they didn’t need and couldn’t use, their anger returned after observing the Obama administration repeatedly ignore their concerns. They have been apoplectic over Obama’s failure to attack Iran and his apparent willingness to make a deal that will legitimate Iran’s nuclear ambitions; his failure to take action against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and his complete misunderstanding of the concerns of Sunni Muslims with what they see as the existential danger of radical Shiites backed and led by Iran.

Even though Obama sold the Saudis the largest arms package in U.S. history ($60 billion), the kingdom lost faith in the president and, like Egypt, has turned to the Russians. The Saudis reportedly signed a $2 billion deal to buy various modifications of combat helicopters, T-90C tanks, armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missile systems. Saudi Arabia also offered to buy even larger quantities of Russian arms if Russia ended its support for Syria. The Russians declined the offer and later threatened to help Iran attack Saudi Arabia if the U.S. arms Ukraine – a warning clearly aimed more at Obama than the Saudis.

The Russians are also finding interest in Lebanon, another country long supported by the United States. In fact, Obama recently agreed to provide more arms to the Lebanese army, but, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Lebanon has little faith in this administration. Consequently, the Saudis offered to fund Lebanon’s purchase of Russian arms.

During the days of the Shah, Iran was a staunch opponent of the Soviets. After the Iranian revolution, however, Iran adopted the position that America is the “Great Satan” and it began to look to the Soviets for support. The irony was that the militantly anti-Communist Muslim clerics were happy to indulge the USSR as a result of their pathological anti-Americanism. For example, Shahram Chubin noted in Foreign Policy that the first ambassador received by Ayatollah Khomeini was the representative of the USSR, and “when foreign banks were nationalized, the Russo-Iran bank, the only bank exclusively foreign-owned, was exempted.”

Initially, the Iranians were unwilling to accept Soviet offers of arms during the war with Iraq, though Moscow did supply jet fuel and provided tactical information. By 1981, however, Iran signed a military agreement with the USSR for training, technical assistance and advisers. Relations continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the highlight coming in 1995 when Russia agreed to complete construction of Iran’s first nuclear power plant.

These early developments cannot be blamed on Obama, however, the situation has grown worse on his watch. The Bushehr nuclear plant was delayed for many years but came on line in 2011. Russia has subsequently agreed to build at least two more plants at the same time the P5+1, which includes Russia, is supposed to be negotiating an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It was also the Russians who consistently impeded the imposition of draconian sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council. The relationship is mutually beneficial as Russia receives an economic boost while Iran has gained access to nuclear materials it hopes to convert to weapons.

More recently, and ominously, Russia has offered to sell Iran an advanced air-defense system that will give the Iranians a greater capability to protect themselves from any possible military strike on their nuclear facilities.

The only Middle Eastern nation that retained close ties to the Russians when they were being pushed out of the region is Syria, which desperately needs military and economic support and cannot get it anywhere else (except Iran) because Bashar Assad’s regime has remained hostile toward Israel and the West and, increasingly, belligerent toward its Arab neighbors, egged on by Iran.

When the civil war in Syria began, many analysts saw the replacement of the Assad regime as a potentially critical turning point in the regional balance of power. At the time, Iran’s only Arab ally was Syria and defeating Assad was viewed as a way of beating the Iranians as well and stifling their hegemonic designs. Besides the benefit of handing Iran a major setback, the defeat of Assad offered the chance to undermine Iran’s terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, which would have the twin effect of eliminating Hezbollah’s threat to Israel and freeing Lebanon from its grip. Assad’s demise also had the potential of ending the Russian presence in Syria.

Once again, however, Obama’s indecision wasted the opportunity to achieve these positive objectives. Initially, he seemed to understand the importance of eliminating the Assad regime, but he subsequently backtracked from supporting regime change and found himself mired in confusion over what opposition group, if any, to support, a predicament made worse by the rise of ISIS. He also squandered the goodwill of the Syrian people by failing to impose a no-fly zone or take any other action to protect the civilian population. Worst of all, after drawing a red line and declaring his intention to use military force in response to any use of chemical weapons by Assad, he accepted a Russian deal to remove the chemical weapons from Syria and destroy them. Though most of the weapons have supposedly been destroyed, there have been reports of additional chemical weapons attacks. The agreement helped strengthen Assad at a time when he was especially weak and gave legitimacy to Russia’s incorporation of Syria in its sphere of influence.

Moreover, by failing to carry out his threat to punish Assad, Obama reinforced his image as a weak and indecisive president in the capitals of the other Middle East states. This was perhaps most dangerous in the case of Iran, where Obama’s reluctance to use force must have reassured the mullahs that he would also make any concessions necessary in negotiations to avoid using military force.

Is it too late to reverse the damage to U.S. interests caused by Obama’s policies? In theory, no. Obama could demonstrate a commitment to supporting Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and our other allies in the region; take action to ensure the defeat and replacement of the Assad regime, and hold fast to the requirement that Iran’s nuclear program be dismantled and use military force if Iran does not capitulate to that demand. This would reduce, if not cripple, Iran’s influence in the region and once again force the Russians out of the region and minimize their ability to undermine our interests.

Unfortunately, in practice, it is difficult to imagine a president so determined to avoid the exercise of American power, or to support our allies, suddenly changing his policies. The only question is whether the damage will be irreversible for the next president.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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