The startlingly open breach of recent days between the United States and its once-solid allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Middle East reflects region-wide concerns not only about President Obama’s current policy path but, more broadly, about what they regard as his sinking credibility and rising naivety.
The breach is rooted less in a dramatic turn of events and more in a festering series of concerns in Jerusalem, Riyadh, and other capitals about how Obama has viewed the region and its conflicts and whether he’s committed to a reliable U.S. presence there to protect its allies and confront its adversaries.
We’re left to wonder whether, in light of the controversies that his policies are fueling, Obama will maintain his current course – which includes a new push for a negotiated settlement with Iran over its nuclear program, a global conference to end Bashar al-Assad’s rein in Damascus, and a diplomatic settlement to Syria’s civil war and the horrific slaughter that it continues to generate.
Because Obama isn’t signaling any “course correction,” we’re left to ponder a bigger question: what will the next three years of his foreign policy mean for America’s role in the region, and for the region itself?
Israel’s concerns about Obama’s regional policy are hardly new. Early on, Obama clashed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israeli-Palestinian peace, and the two often interacted frostily with one another.
But, their more recent clash, and the concern that Israel shares with Saudi Arabia, is over Obama’s push to capitalize on the election of “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by exploring the possibility of a new U.S.-Iran relationship, capped off by a deal over Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and similarly-minded Arab states that prefer to express their unhappiness privately worry that Washington will cut a deal that allows Iran to retain some of its enriched uranium, or to continue some enriching, or to escape an iron-clad inspection regime that would prevent cheating.
Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other U.S. officials may see a potential partner in Rouhani, but Netanyahu, Saudi officials, and other Arab leaders see only the latest personification of an aggressive and dangerous regime that continually threatens them. “The prospect that Obama is taking [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei’s supposed fatwa against nuclear weapons seriously,” the Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith writes, “is patently absurd to Iran’s Arab neighbors.”
Allied concerns are magnified by recent U.S. (in)action in Syria, where Obama sidestepped his red-line-related threats about al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, drew back from what seemed a certain U.S. military strike against al-Assad’s interests, and signed on to a Russian-engineered deal under which Syria’s dictator is supposed to relinquish his chemical weapons and face no further threats of U.S. action. (That al-Assad says firmly that he won’t relinquish power, and that the United States can’t force him out if it won’t use military force to do so, doesn’t deter U.S. officials who continue to promote an international conference that supposedly would lead to his departure.)
If, U.S. allies ask, Obama wouldn’t enforce his red line on Syria’s chemicals, why should anyone think he’s serious when he says that he’ll do whatever it takes (including use military force) to ensure that the terror-sponsoring, hegemony-seeking regime in Tehran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons?
Most troubling, for both the United States and its allies, are the plans that those allies seem to be making for a post-America region that, if it takes shape, will serve neither America nor those allies over the long run.
Netanyahu told the United Nations two weeks ago that Israel will act alone if need be to prevent a nuclear Iran, and Netanyahu warned Kerry this week that any deal that allows Iran any enrichment capability is a bad one.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia rejected a seat on the United Nations Security Council to express its dismay with Washington, and the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, told European diplomats that the kingdom will make a “major shift” away from Washington. That will mean less Saudi cooperation with Washington over Syria and fewer contracts for U.S. defense firms.
“Saudi,” a well-placed source told Reuters, “doesn’t want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent.”
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, publicly mocked Obama’s Syria policy, saying, “the current charade of international control over [al-Assad’s] chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. And designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down (from military threats), but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”
Washington may think a lower U.S. profile in the Middle East will make the world a better place, but its allies in the region know better.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”