from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

U.S. Policy, Viewed From the Middle East

October 31, 2014

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It’s natural that in the United States we see the Middle East from our own perspective, but very useful to step away from that perspective for a moment to try and see the region as our closest allies there do. By closest allies I refer to Israel and to Arab states such as the UAE, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

In some recent travel to the region and conversations in Washington and New York with Arab and Israeli officials, I’ve heard a view that is remarkable, first, for its uniformity: Arab and Israeli leaders stating the same views, almost interchangeably at times. The flippant remark that “the Obama administration has achieved just one thing in the Middle East: to draw Israel and the Arabs closer together” turns out to carry a great deal of truth.

As the officials with whom I spoke described the regional situation, they face two enormous challenges: Islamist extremism of the Al Qaeda and Islamic State variety, and the rise of Iran. As to the latter, they all perceive the U.S. government as not only conceding Iranian hegemony in the region but even promoting it as a positive good. A recent Wall Street Journal story started this way:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.

The shift could drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and risks alienating key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are central to the coalition fighting Islamic State.

The story has one inaccuracy: it says this shift “risks” alienating key allies, when in fact it has already done so, and done so badly. For Israelis facing the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the United States appears not only resigned but anxious to do a deal that allows Iran to enrich uranium and won’t require it to destroy one single centrifuge. Whatever diplomats say about the package they assemble, everyone in the Middle East will see it as a huge Iranian victory that allows Iran to get even closer to the bomb. Washington is moving to containment while Obama administration officials tell themselves and all who will listen that they are not doing that.

For the Arabs, what the King of Jordan once called a “Shia crescent” is forming before their eyes: Iranian hegemony from Yemen through Iran to Iraq and Syria and Lebanon. And their former protector, the United States, seems happy with this development because it sees Iran as a potential partner. If a nuclear deal means that sanctions on Iran begin to crumble, Iran will have more resources with which to project force through war and subversion.

For our allies in the region, the sharp drop in oil prices means this is an excellent moment to step up the pressure on Iran, increasing sanctions until they agree to real compromises on their nuclear weapons program. Instead, the Obama administration and not Iran seems desperate for a deal. In my conversations, I also heard the idea that once the President loses the Senate (if that does happen) he will be left only with foreign policy as a playing field. And he will want to do something fast after November 4th that asserts that he is a not a lame duck and is still in charge. What better than an Iran deal?

Our allies also wonder about our Iraq/Syria policy, for many reasons. For one thing, no one has explained to them how the policy can work, or why American officials think it is working: Jihadis continue to flow into the extremist groups; ISIS is not notably weaker; and above all the United States has no coherent Syria policy. There isn’t even much of a theory as to who, on the ground, will seriously fight ISIS, nor is there an explanation of how we will get rid of Assad. Or is he another potential partner, like Iran? More détente?

For another thing, from the Sunni Arab viewpoint American policy is suspiciously indifferent to Sunni deaths and soft on Shia killers. From their perspective, it’s noteworthy that the United States acted fast to save the Yazidis and is bombing more and more to save the Kurds in Kobane. That’s nice, one Arab diplomat said to me, but who in the United States had ever heard of the Yazidis a couple of weeks earlier? Meanwhile, he went on, you did nothing to save 200,000 Sunnis in Syria. You humored Maliki as he drove the Sunnis of Iraq into desperation. You have no policy on how to get rid of Assad, the butcher of Sunnis. That’s all another reason why, he said, there’s so much suspicion of U.S. policy, which seems to us pro-Shia.

So the view of U.S. policy has a double-barreled quality: they argue that we are weak, and that we seek deals with enemies rather than victory and security for allies and friends. Détente with Iran, not stopping Iran. Attacks on ISIS, but hands off Assad while he butchers more Sunnis. This is obviously not how people in the White House see the world and their own policies, but they have failed to persuade our allies in the region that they have a coherent, cogent policy. From Arabs and Israelis the refrain I heard over and over again was “how will we get through the next two years?”

A final note, this one entirely from me and not based on any conversations with people from the region. Against the background described above, I think the damage done by administration officials who savaged Prime Minister Netanyahu is deep, including among Arab leaders. Those remarks made a bad situation among our allies far worse. That’s not because they like Netanyahu, but because it suggests that administration officials are callow, undisciplined, and untrustworthy. After all, those remarks were made with the intention that they be published; they were not off the record. The speakers (and there was more than one) obviously thought that in the Obama administration, trashing allied leaders in the press is fine and people above you will just chuckle; anyway, you are reflecting their views. Those remarks were not acts of rebellion nor leaks against administration policy. The officials who made those remarks did serious damage to U.S. credibility, and not just in Israel. That no one was punished, that no one was fired, is a signal that the whole situation is not being taken seriously. Which is one reason why, more and more, and very dangerously, American foreign policy is not being taken seriously.