Obama's Middle East Policy Naive & Dangerous

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As a candidate, President Obama maintained that were he elected he would pursue engagement rather than confrontation with America’s adversaries, and effectively defended his position against accusations of naiveté. Even his harshest critics must concede the president has kept his promise. Would that it were otherwise.

Within weeks of his inauguration, he announced his doomed initiative to reset relations with Russia, and persisted in that policy long after it became clear that Vladimir Putin was intent on defining Russia’s role in the world in opposition to U.S. interests. The failed reset included the administration’s capitulation on maintaining missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, which the governments of those two allies spent considerable political capital persuading their publics to accept.

Today, Putin threatens Danish ships with nuclear missiles, seizes Crimea and invades Eastern Ukraine while other NATO member states worry the U.S. commitment to their security will not withstand further Russian expansionism. And the president still can’t bring himself to provide defensive weapons to the Ukrainian government.

One could see a policy of rapprochement with Iran taking shape in Obama’s first year in office, when he appeared reluctant to offer strong rhetorical support to the Iranian protest movement that erupted after stolen presidential elections there. His initial muted response gave way to more vigorous objection as television broadcast images of Iranian kids being murdered by Revolutionary Guards. But once the Green Movement was finally suppressed, the administration quickly seemed to forget the unpleasant episode.

The negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions are the administration’s priority in its relations with Iran, and, it seems, in its approach to the Middle East generally. As of this writing, a deal is either imminent or about to collapse. Given the administration’s increasingly frantic effort and the many concessions made to Iran to get a deal, I’m assuming the former.

Obama had insisted that the objective of negotiations was to deny Iran the means to produce nuclear weapons. If reports of the current negotiations are to be believed, Iran will continue to possess the means, and would be unable to produce a nuclear warhead in less than a year’s time. Even that minimal imposition will depend on intrusive inspections and disclosures of its progress in developing nuclear weapons that Iran has so far refused to make despite U.N. Security Council and IAEA demands that it do so. The Obama administration is prepared to overlook Iran’s current state of noncompliance in the hope that Iran will be more compliant in the future, after some of the sanctions have been lifted. That seems a sucker’s bet, and even the French appeared to balk at it last week.

To get to this point, the administration avoided taking a prominent role in resisting the principal threat to peace in the Middle East -- a hegemonic Iran -- as perceived by our traditional allies in the region: Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and the other Gulf States. They see in the ever lengthening list of Shia-against-Sunni conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and now Yemen, an Iran intent on paying any price to become the dominant power in the Middle East, and make its branch of Islam the dominant religion.

Given Obama’s public opprobrium for the prime minister of Israel, you might think the Sunni Arab states have been bombarding the administration with complaints that the lack of progress toward a two-state solution is destabilizing the Middle East. They haven’t. Rather, they find themselves in tacit alliance with Israel in their dread of an expansionist, nuclear Iran.

These leaders have watched with growing alarm the administration do practically nothing to check Iran as it projects power throughout the region. The breaking point appears to have been when the president, having publically promised to respond militarily to the use of chemical weapons by Iran’s ally, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, changed his mind and punted the decision to a surprised and unwilling Congress. 

No one, except perhaps the Palestinians, is complaining to Washington that Netanyahu’s campaign promises are their principle concern. Instead, and for some time, the Sunni states have been making clear to the administration, to members of Congress, to reporters, and to their other American contacts they view Iran’s spreading influence and the proposed nuclear deal the same way Israel does: as an existential threat.

They are also making clear in private and in anonymous quotes in the press that they accept they cannot rely on the U.S. to lead the effort contain Iran. That is how it came to pass that Saudi Arabia leads a coalition of 10 nations in airstrikes and a coming ground offensive in Yemen to prevent Iran’s Shia allies from taking over the country.

There is something pitiful about the Obama administration’s assurances that it had been apprised in advance of the Saudi-led airstrikes and had provided critical intelligence for them. Lame, too, is the administration’s boast that U.S. airstrikes against ISIS positions in Tikrit have weakened Iran’s influence in Iraq and denied Shia militias credit for taking the city.

Administration officials will argue that getting regional allies to take the lead in combating regional threats was the object of their policies all along. Congratulations are in order then. Allies from the Baltics to the Persian Gulf are getting the message they cannot rely on U.S. leadership.

What kind of world results from that success is a worry though, isn’t it? Some months down road, say a year or so after the nuclear agreement is completed, and the U.N. Security Council has lifted its sanctions against Iran, will we congratulate the Saudis for taking the initiative when we learn they have acquired nuclear warheads from Pakistan.

That is the world this president is helping create with his immense and blind conceit that his policies have been astute and productive in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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