The Man Who Broke The Middle East – Elliott Abrams
There’s always Tunisia. Amid the smoking ruins of the Middle East, there is that one encouraging success story. But unfortunately for the Obama narratives, the president had about as much as to do with Tunisia’s turn toward democracy as he did with the World Cup rankings. Where administration policy has had an impact, the story is one of failure and danger.
The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained.
How did it happen? Begin with hubris: The new president told the world, in his Cairo speech in June 2009, that he had special expertise in understanding the entire world of Islam – knowledge “rooted in my own experience” because “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.” But President Obama wasn’t speaking that day in an imaginary location called “the world of Islam;” he was in Cairo, in the Arab Middle East, in a place where nothing counted more than power. “As a boy,” Obama told his listeners, “I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.” Nice touch, but Arab rulers were more interested in knowing whether as a man he heard the approaching sound of gunfire, saw the growing threat of al Qaeda from the Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula, and understood the ambitions of the ayatollahs as Iran moved closer and closer to a bomb.
Obama began with the view that there was no issue in the Middle East more central than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Five years later he has lost the confidence of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and watched his second secretary of state squander endless efforts in a doomed quest for a comprehensive peace. Obama embittered relations with America’s closest ally in the region and achieved nothing whatsoever in the “peace process.” The end result in the summer of 2014 is to see the Palestinian Authority turn to a deal with Hamas for new elections that – if they are held, which admittedly is unlikely – would usher the terrorist group into a power-sharing deal. This is not progress.
The most populous Arab country is Egypt, where Obama stuck too long with Hosni Mubarak as the Arab Spring arrived, and then with the Army, and then the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, and now is embracing the Army again. Minor failings like the persecution of newspaper editors and leaders of American-backed NGOs, or the jailing of anyone critical of the powers-that-be at a given moment, were glossed over. When the Army removed an elected president, that was not really a “coup” – remember? And as the worm turned, we managed to offend every actor on Egypt’s political stage, from the military to the Islamists to the secular democratic activists. Who trusts us now on the Egyptian political scene? No one.
But these errors are minor when compared to those in Iraq and Syria. When the peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad was brutally crushed, Obama said Assad must go; when Assad used sarin gas, Obama said this was intolerable and crossed a red line. But behind these words there was no American power, and speeches are cheap in the Middle East. Despite the urgings of all his top advisers (using the term loosely; he seems to ignore their advice) – Panetta at CIA and then Defense, Clinton at State, Petraeus at CIA, even Dempsey at the Pentagon – the president refused to give meaningful assistance to the Syrian nationalist rebels. Assistance was announced in June 2013 and then again in June 2014 (in the president’s West Point speech) but it is a minimal effort, far too small to match the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian Quds Force fighters in Syria. Arabs see this as a proxy war with Iran, but in the White House the key desire is to put all those nasty Middle Eastern wars behind us. So in the Middle East American power became a mirage, something no one could find – something enemies did not fear and allies could not count on.
The humanitarian result has been tragic: At least 160,000 killed in Syria, perhaps eight million displaced. More than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (a country of four million people, before Obama added those Syrians), about a million and a quarter Syrian refugees in Jordan (population six million before Obama). Poison gas back on the world scene as a tolerated weapon, with Assad using chlorine gas systematically in “barrel bombs” this year and paying no price whatsoever for this and for his repeated attacks on civilian targets. Both of the key officials handling Syria for Obama – State Department special envoy Fred Hof and Ambassador Robert Ford – resigned in disgust when they could no longer defend Obama’s hands-off policy. Can Samantha Power be far behind, watching the mass killings and seeing her president respond to them with rhetoric?
The result in security terms is even worse: the largest gathering of jihadis we have ever seen, 12,000 now and expanding. They come from all over the world, a jihadi Arab League, a jihadi EU, a jihadi U.N. Two or three thousand are from Europe, and an estimated 70 from the United States. When they go home, some no doubt disillusioned but many committed, experienced and well trained, “home” will be Milwaukee and Manchester and Marseille – and, as we see now on the front pages, to Mosul. When Obama took office there was no such phenomenon; it is his creation, the result of his passivity in Syria while Sunnis were being slaughtered by the Assad regime.
And now they have spread back into Iraq in sufficient numbers to threaten the survival of its government. Obama has reacted, sending 300 advisers, a number that may presage further expansion of American military efforts. Perhaps they will find good targets, and be the basis for American air strikes and additional diplomatic pressure. But we had won this game, at great expense, before Obama walked away. The fiery rage of Iraqi Sunnis at the government in Baghdad had been banked by 2009. American diplomatic efforts, whose power was based in the American military role, disappeared under Obama, who just wanted out. It was his main campaign pledge. So we got out, fully, completely, cleanly – unless you ask about the real world of Iraq instead of the imaginary world of campaign speeches. We could no longer play the role we had played in greasing relations between Kurds, Shia and Sunnis, and in constraining Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian excesses. The result was an Iraq spinning downward into the kind of Sunni-Shia confrontation we had paid so dearly to stop in 2007 and 2008, and ISIS – the newest moniker for al Qaeda in Iraq – saw its chance, and took it.
So now we’re back in Iraq – or maybe not. Three hundred isn’t a very large number; it is instead reminiscent of the 600 soldiers Obama sent to Central and Eastern Europe after the Russians grabbed Crimea and started a war in Ukraine. Who is reassured by that number, 600, and who is scared by it? Same question for Iraq: Are the Gulf allies reassured by “up to 300” advisers? Is Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the dark mastermind of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, quaking now?
If there is one achievement of Obama policy in the Middle East (because Tunisia’s genuine success isn’t America’s to claim) it is to advance reconciliation between Israel and the Gulf states. This will not be celebrated by the White House, however, because they are joined mostly in fear and contempt for American policy, but it is an interesting development nonetheless. If there is one thing the Gulf Sunni kingdoms understand, it is power-in this case, the Iranian power they fear (as they once feared Saddam’s power, and were saved from it by America). The king of Jordan incautiously spoke several years ago about a “Shia crescent,” but even he must have thought it would take far longer to develop. A map that starts with Hezbollah in Beirut’s southern suburbs and traces lines through Syria and Iraq into Iran would now not be just a nightmare vision, but an actual accounting of where Iran’s forces and allies and sphere of influence lie.That’s what the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and others see around them, growing year by year while their former protector dithers. They see one other country that “gets it,” sees the dangers the same way, understands Iran’s grasp at hegemony just as they do: Israel. Oh to be a fly on the wall at the secret chats among Sunni Gulf security officials and their Israeli counterparts, which must be taking place in London and Zurich and other safe European capitals. In the world they all inhabit the weak disappear, and the strong survive and rule. They are the ultimate realists, and they do not call what they see in Washington “realpolitik.”
From World War II, or at least from the day the British left Aden, the United States has been the dominant power in the Middle East. Harry Truman backed the Zionists and Israel came into being; we opposed Suez so the British, French and Israelis backed off; we became the key arms supplier for all our friends and kept the Soviets out; we reversed Saddam’s grabbing of Kuwait; we drove him from power; we drew a red line against chemical warfare; we said an Iranian bomb was unacceptable.
But that red line then disappeared in a last-minute reversal by the president that to this day is mentioned in every conversation about security in the Middle East, and no Arab or Israeli leader now trusts that the United States will stop the Iranian bomb. After all, we have passively watched al Qaeda become a major force in the heart of the region, and watched Iran creep closer to a nuclear weapon, and watched Iran send expeditionary forces to Syria – unopposed by any serious American pushback. Today no one in the Middle East knows what the rulebook is and whether the Americans will enforce any rules at all. No one can safely tell you what the borders of Iraq or Syria will be a few years hence. No one can tell you whether American power is to be feared, or can safely be derided.
That’s the net effect of five and a half years of Obama policy. And, to repeat, it is Obama policy: not the collective wisdom of Kerry and Clinton and Panetta and Petraeus and other “advisers,” but the very personal set of decisions by the one true policymaker, the man who came to office thinking he had a special insight into the entire world of Islam. In the Middle East today, the “call of the azaan” is as widely heard as Obama remembered from Indonesia. But when leaders look around they see clever, well-resourced challenges from Shia and Sunni extremists armed to the teeth, with endless ambitions, willing to kill and kill to grasp power – and far more powerful today than the day this president came into office. They do not see an American leader who fully understands those challenges and who realizes that power, not speeches, must be used to defend our friends and allies and interests. So there’s one other thing a lot of Israeli and Arab leaders share, as they shake their heads and compare notes in those secret meetings: an urgent wish that Jan. 20, 2017, were a lot closer.