Obama’s Washington Is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Region
by Robert Dreyfuss
Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America’s awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.
Twelve years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq — both designed to consolidate and expand America’s regional clout by removing adversaries — Washington’s actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by
calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney
Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the
United States, but no one really fears it, either — and increasingly,
no one pays it any mind at all.
There are plenty of reasons why America’s previously unchallenged
hegemony in the Middle East is in free fall. The disastrous invasions of
Afghanistan and Iraq generated anti-American fervor in the streets and
in the elites. America’s economic crisis since 2008 has convinced many
that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to sustain an
imperial presence. The Arab Spring, for all its ups and downs, has
challenged the status quo everywhere, leading to enormous uncertainty
while empowering political forces unwilling to march in lockstep with
Washington. In addition, oil-consuming nations like China and India have
become more engaged with their suppliers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran,
and Iraq. The result: throughout the region, things are fast becoming
unglued for the United States.
Its two closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are sullenly
hostile, routinely ignore Obama’s advice, and openly oppose American
policies. Iraq and Afghanistan, one formerly occupied and one about to
be evacuated, are led, respectively, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,
an inflexible sectarian Shiite closely tied to Iran, and President Hamid
Karzai, a corrupt, mercurial leader who periodically threatens to join
the Taliban. In Egypt, three successive regimes — those of President
Hosni Mubarak, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the
chieftains of the July 2013 military coup — have insouciantly flouted
Turkey, ostensibly a NATO ally but led by a quirky Islamist, is miffed over Obama’s back-and-forth policy in Syria and has shocked
the U.S. by deciding to buy a non-NATO-compatible missile defense
system from China. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have little or no
government at all. They have essentially devolved into a mosaic of armed
gangs, many implacably opposed to the United States.
This downward spiral has hardly escaped attention. In a recent address
to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Chas Freeman, the
former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described it in some detail.
“We have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many
situations unfolding there,” said Freeman, whose nomination by Obama in
2009 to serve as head of the National Intelligence Council was shot down
by the Israel Lobby. “We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer
have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region.”
In an editorial on October 29th, the New York Times
ruefully concluded: “It is not every day that America finds itself
facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening
with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel.” And in a front-page story on the administration’s internal deliberations, the Times’s
Mark Landler reported that, over the summer, the White House had
decided to scale back its role in the Middle East because many
objectives “lie outside [its] reach,” and henceforth would adopt a “more
modest strategy” in the region.
Perhaps the most profound irony embedded in Washington’s current
predicament is this: Iran, for decades the supposed epicenter of
anti-Americanism in the region, is the country where the United States
has perhaps its last opportunity to salvage its position. If Washington
and Tehran can negotiate a détente — and it’s a big if, given the
domestic political power of hawks in both countries — that accord might
go a long way toward stabilizing Washington’s regional credibility.
Debacle in Syria
Let’s begin our survey of America’s Greater Middle Eastern
fecklessness with Exhibit A: Syria. It is there, where a movement to
oust President Bashar al-Assad devolved into a civil war, that the
United States has demonstrated its utter inability to guide events. Back
in the summer of 2011 — at the very dawn of the conflict — Obama demanded
that Assad step down. There was only one problem: short of an
Iraq-style invasion of Syria, he had no power to make that happen. Assad
promptly called his bluff, escalated the conflict, and rallied support
from Russia and Iran. Obama’s clarion call for his resignation only made
things worse by convincing Syrian rebels that the United States would
come to their aid.
A year later, Obama drew
a “red line” in the sand, suggesting that any use of chemical weapons
by Syrian forces would precipitate a U.S. military response. Again Assad
ignored him, and many hundreds of civilians were gassed to death in
multiple uses of the dreaded weapons.
The crowning catastrophe of Obama’s Syria policy came when he threatened a
devastating strike on Assad’s military facilities using Tomahawk cruise
missiles and other weaponry. Instead of finding himself leading a
George W. Bush-style “coalition of the willing” with domestic support,
Obama watched as allies scattered, including the usually reliable British and the Arab League.
At home, political support was nearly nil and evaporated from there.
Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed to a war with or attack on
When, in desperation, the president appealed to Congress
for a resolution to authorize the use of military force against that
country, the White House found (to its surprise) that Congress, which
normally rubber-stamps such proposals, would have none of it.
Paralyzed, reluctant to choose between backing down and striking Syria
by presidential fiat, Obama was rescued in humiliating fashion by a
proposal from Syria’s chief ally, Russia, to dismantle and destroy that
country’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Adding insult to injury, as Secretary of State John Kerry scrambles
to organize a long-postponed peace conference in Geneva aimed at
reaching a political settlement of the civil war, he is faced with a sad
paradox: while the Syrian government has agreed to attend the Geneva
meeting, also sponsored by Russia, America’s allies, the anti-Assad
rebels, have flatly refused to go.
Laughingstock in Egypt
Don’t think for a second that Washington’s ineffectiveness stops with the ongoing Syrian fiasco.
Next door, in a country whose government was installed by the United States after the 2003 invasion, the Obama administration notoriously failed
to convince the Iraqis to allow even a small contingent of American
troops to remain there past 2011. Since then, that country has moved
ever more firmly into Iran’s orbit and has virtually broken with
Washington over Syria.
the start of the civil war in Syria, Shiite-led Iraq has joined Shiite
Iran in supporting Assad, whose ruling minority Alawite sect is an
offshoot of Shiism. There have been widespread reports
that pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite militias are traveling to Syria, presumably
with the support or at least acquiescence of the government. Ignoring Washington’s entreaties, it has also allowed
Iran to conduct a virtual Berlin Airlift-style aerial resupply effort
for Syria’s armed forces through Iraqi air space. Last month, in an
appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York during
the United Nations General Assembly session, Iraqi Foreign Minister
Hoshyar Zebari undiplomatically warned
Obama that his government stands against the U.S. decision — taken in a
secret presidential finding in April and only made public last summer
— to provide arms to Syria’s rebels. (“We oppose providing military
assistance to any [Syrian] rebel groups.”)
Meanwhile, Washington is also flailing in its policy toward Egypt,
where the Obama administration has been singularly hapless. In a rare
feat, it has managed to anger and alienate every conceivable faction in
that politically divided country. In July, when Egypt’s military ousted
President Mohammad Morsi and violently clamped down on the Muslim
Brotherhood, the Obama administration made itself look ridiculous to
Egyptians (and to the rest of the Middle East) by refusing to call what
happened a coup d’état, since under U.S. law that would have meant suspending aid to the Egyptian military.
As it happened, however, American aid figured little in the
calculations of Egypt’s new military leaders. The reason was simple
enough: Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, bitter
opponents of the Morsi government, applauded the coup and poured at least $12 billion in cash
into the country’s near-empty coffers. In the end, making no one
happy, the administration tried to split the difference: Obama declared
that he would suspend the delivery of some big-ticket military items
like Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts, and
F-16 fighter planes, but let other aid to the military continue,
including counterterrorism assistance and the sale of border security
items. Such a split decision only served to underscore the
administration’s lack of leverage in Cairo. Meanwhile, there are reports that Egypt’s new rulers may turn to Russia for arms in open defiance of a horrified Washington’s wishes.
Saudi and Israeli Punching Bag
The most surprising defection from the pro-American coalition in the
Middle East is, however, Saudi Arabia. In part, that kingdom’s erratic
behavior may result from a growing awareness among its
ultraconservative, kleptocratic princelings that they face an
increasingly uncertain future. Christopher Davidson’s new book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, outlines the many pressures building on the country.
One significant cause of instability, claims Davidson,
is the “existence of substantial Western military bases on the Arabian
Peninsula, [which are considered] an affront to Islam and to national
sovereignty.” For decades, such an American military presence in the
region provided a security blanket for the Saudi royals, making the
country a virtual U.S. protectorate. Now, amid the turmoil that has
followed the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the rise of an assertive
Iran, Saudi Arabia isn’t sure which way to turn, or whether the United
States is friend or foe.
Since 2003, the Saudi rulers have found themselves increasingly
unhappy with American policy. Riyadh, the area’s chief Sunni power, was
apoplectic when the United States toppled Iraq’s Sunni leader Saddam
Hussein and allowed Iran to vastly increase its influence in Baghdad. In
2011, the Saudi royal family blamed Washington for not doing more to
prevent the collapse of the conservative and pro-Saudi Mubarak
government in Egypt.
Now, the Saudis are on the verge of a complete break over
Washington’s policies toward Syria and Iran. As the chief backers of the
rebels in Syria, they were dismayed when Obama chose not to bomb
military sites around Damascus. Because it views Iran through the lens
of a regional Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance, it is no less
dismayed by the possible emergence of a U.S.-Iran accord from renewed
negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.
To express its pique, its foreign minister abruptly canceled his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, shocking U.N. members. Then, adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia turned down
a prestigious seat on the Security Council, a post for which it had
long campaigned. “Upset at President Barack Obama’s policies on Iran and
Syria,” reported Reuters,
“members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are threatening a rift with
the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and
the kingdom to its lowest point in years.”
That news service quoted Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince
Bandar bin Sultan, as saying that his country was on the verge of a
“major shift” in its relations with the U.S. Former head of Saudi
intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal lambasted America’s Syria policy
this way: “The current charade of international control over Bashar’s
chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious.
[It is] designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down
[from military strikes], but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”
This is shocking stuff from America’s second most reliable ally in
the region. As for reliable ally number one, Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu has visibly decided to be anything but a cooperative
partner in the region, making Obama’s job more difficult at every turn.
Since 2009, he has gleefully defied the American president, starting
with his refusal to impose a freeze on illegal settlements in the
occupied West Bank when specifically asked to do so by the president at
the start of his first term. Meanwhile, most of the world has spent the
past half-decade on tenterhooks over the possibility that his country
might actually launch a much-threatened military strike on Iran’s
Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran and indicated his
interest in reorienting policy to make a deal with the Western powers
over its nuclear program, Israeli statements have become ever more
shrill. In a September speech
to the U.N. General Assembly, for instance, Netanyahu rolled out
extreme rhetoric, claiming that Israel is “challenged by a nuclear-armed
Iran that seeks our destruction.” This despite the fact that Iran
possesses no nuclear weapons, has enriched not an ounce of uranium to
weapons-grade level, and has probably not mastered the technology to
manufacture a bomb. According to American intelligence reports, it has not yet even militarized its nuclear research.
Netanyahu’s speech was so full of hyperbole that observers concluded
Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world. “He was so
anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually
pushed the limits of credibility,” said Gary Sick, a former senior official in the Carter administration and an Iran expert. “He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”
Iran: Obama’s Ironic Beacon of Hope
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are fearful that the Middle Eastern
balance of power could be tipped against them if the United States and
Iran are able to strike a deal. Seeking to throw the proverbial monkey
wrench into the talks between Iran, the U.S., and the P5+1 powers (the
permanent members of the U.N. security Council plus Germany), Israel has
put forward a series of demands that go far beyond anything Iran would
accept, or that the other countries would go along with. Before
supporting the removal of international economic sanctions against Iran,
that country to suspend all enrichment of uranium, shut down its
nuclear facilities, not be allowed any centrifuges to enrich uranium,
abandon the heavy-water plant it is constructing to produce plutonium,
permanently close its fortified underground installation at Fordo, and
ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country.
In contrast, it’s widely believed that the United States is ready to
allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, maintain some of its existing
facilities, and retain a partial stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel
under stricter and more intrusive inspection by the International Atomic
Ironically, a U.S.-Iran détente is the one thing that could slow down
or reverse the death spiral of American influence in the region. Iran,
for instance, could be helpful in convincing President Assad of Syria to
leave office in 2014, in advance of elections there, if radical Sunni
Islamic organizations, including allies of al-Qaeda, are suppressed.
Enormously influential in Afghanistan, Iran could also help stabilize
that country after the departure of U.S. combat forces in 2014. And it
could be enlisted to work alongside the United States and regional
powers to stabilize Iraq.
More broadly, a U.S.-Iran entente might lead to a gradual
de-escalation of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf,
including its huge naval forces, bases, and other facilities in Qatar,
Bahrain, and Kuwait. It’s even conceivable that Iran could be persuaded
to join other regional and global powers in seeking a just and lasting
negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States
and Iran have a number of common interests, including opposing
al-Qaeda-style terrorism and cracking down on drug smuggling.
Of course, such a deal will be exceedingly difficult to nail down, if
for no other reason than that the hardliners in both countries are
determined to prevent it.
Right now, imagine the Obama administration as one of those
vaudeville acts that keep a dozen plates spinning atop vibrating poles.
At just this moment in the Middle East, those “plates” are tipping in
every direction. There’s still time to prevent them all from crashing to
the ground, but it would take a masterful effort from the White House
— and it’s far from clear that anyone there is up to the task.
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist based in
Cape May, New Jersey, specializing in politics and national security. He
is a contributing editor at the Nation, and his blog appears daily at TheNation.com. In the past, he has written extensively for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.
Copyright 2013 Bob Dreyfuss