The growing concerns of Arab nations over an emerging Iran nuclear deal and their reported desire for U.S. weapons to protect themselves are the unfortunate outgrowths of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy realism.
To oversimplify a bit, U.S. foreign policy in the post-World War II period has revolved around the competing doctrines of idealism and realism. Idealists believe the United States can and should promote freedom and democracy around the world both because it’s right and because, by doing so, America will help make the world safer and more secure for itself. By contrast, realists believe America should avoid the temptations of idealism and focus solely on clear national security interests.
In perhaps the clearest statement of realist doctrine, political scientist Hans Morgenthau wrote in 1951: “Forget the crusading notion that any nation, however virtuous and powerful, can have the mission to make the world over in its own image.”
Realists, who have included Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and now Obama, tend to support balance-of-power arrangements in hopes that they’ll strengthen regional stability; discourage U.S. intervention to stop humanitarian horror unless vital U.S. interests are threatened; and downplay differences between countries based on their adherence to shared values with the United States.
Obama is a proud realist, as he announced when running for president in 2008, and he’s ruled as one. From the start, he downplayed human rights concerns as he sought outreach with the autocrats in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, Caracas and Havana. Four months into Obama’s first term, leading realist Richard Haass gushed that Obamaism was a return to the realism of the first President Bush.
In the Middle East, however, the downsides of Obama’s foreign policy realism are growing ever-more apparent.
Buying the long-standing realist notion that Israeli-Palestinian conflict drives much regional turmoil, Obama pressured Israel for a settlement freeze as a necessary concession for peace and downplayed Palestinian terror, anti-Israel incitement and the terror group Hamas’ role in Palestinian government as impediments to it.
Frustrated with Jerusalem, Obama administration officials have hinted that the United States may abandon Israel when resolutions to impose Israeli-Palestinian peace or create Palestinian statehood come before the United Nations. Frictions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the emerging Iran nuclear deal that Israel fears would pave the way for Iranian nuclear weaponry have left relations between Washington and Jerusalem – long America’s closest ally in the region – at perhaps their lowest point ever.
Welcoming Iran, a Shiite state, as a rising power and potential regional stabilizing force – and hoping to nourish a warmer relationship with the Islamic Republic – Obama sidestepped criticism of Iran’s fraudulent presidential election of 2009 and has de-linked Iran’s nuclear aspirations from its terror sponsorship, ballistic missile program, regional mischief and human rights record.
Obama also was slow to support moderate forces hoping to topple Syria’s President Bashar Assad. And, though Assad crossed his “red line” on using chemical weapons, Obama reversed course on military action and backed a Russia-driven deal on chemical weapons that, alas, has left the strongman free to use other chemical weapons since then. That Syria is Iran’s closest regional ally figured high in Obama’s approach, for he didn’t want to threaten an Iran nuclear deal by confronting Assad too forcefully.
Now that Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni states fear Iran will eventually develop nuclear weaponry under the emerging U.S.-led deal with Tehran, Washington is scrambling not to strengthen the deal but, instead, to work around it by reassuring the Arabs that the United States will protect them from Iran.
While Obama will seek to assure the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, when its leaders meet with him this month in Washington, they’ll reportedly be seeking U.S. fighter jets, missile batteries and surveillance equipment along with formal defense agreements. But those weapons, which could even include the advanced F-35 fighter jet for the United Arab Emirates, has Jerusalem worried. Such weapons could threaten Israel’s long-standing military edge over its Arab adversaries – and that, in turn, could energize Israel’s congressional supporters to derail the weapons sales.
All told, then, Obama’s realism toward the region has left U.S.-Israeli relations at a historic low, a brutal strongman still presiding over a humanitarian horror show in Syria, Iran feeling emboldened enough to harass commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and Arab states clamoring for U.S. weapons.
How’s that for regional stability?
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.