Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A U.S. Middle East Policy Emerges: Great in Theory, Certain to Fail in Practice

By Barry Rubin

A clear, consistent, and carefully formulated U.S. strategy is emerging in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it’s a badly flawed one that won’t work. Probably, the Obama administration will spend the next six months finding out what I’ve just told you. Hopefully, it will learn and change as a result.

Let’s consider the interrelated U.S. policy regarding Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

1. Obama Strategy on Iran

On Iran, the U.S. plans to build sanctions against Iran, going slowly to keep Europeans on board and to win assent from Moscow.

The other arm of this policy has been a careful effort to avoid friction with Tehran. Some in the administration think that engagement might work but probably more and more view it simply as a way to show the world that America has tried and that Iran is intransigent (something the world should already know).

At any rate, starting in September the administration intends to spring its trap! Everything will be ready: allies coordinated, rationale laid. Tougher sanctions will be raised against Iran; stronger warnings will be made.

Yet if one puts aside all the atmospherics and personalities, doesn't this put the Obama administration in October 2009 about where the Bush administration was regarding Iran in October 2008? In other words, U.S. policy will not be noticeably more likely to affect Iranian behavior now than it was then.

The big difference is supposedly that Obama's popularity and the fact that he tried engagement with Iran will translate into strong European support for sanctions.

But even with their liking Obama, how much more will Europeans do? Moreover, Obama is neither wildly popular nor has he made progress with the two biggest barriers to strong sanctions: Russia and China.

Other countries will not drop their past opposition to getting really tough with Iran just because they like Obama more than former President George Bush or because they will suddenly decide Iran has been given enough chance to repent.

No, their motives for being reluctant to raise sanctions far higher are:

--Economic self-interest. There are big profits to be made from trade and investment.

--Desire to avoid confrontations with Iran, a country that has a lot of money and which kills people who oppose it.

--Belief that a nuclear-armed Iran can be managed.

As for Russia, it views Iran as an asset. Tehran buys its nuclear equipment, weapons, and helps subvert U.S. policies. In China’s case, aside from the profit motive, is fear of setting a precedent with sanctions which some day might be used against itself over human rights, or Taiwan, or Tibet.

True, Obama has a plan for winning over Russia. It just isn’t a good one. His advisor on nuclear issues, an able, decent expert (but not on international politics) named Gary Samore says, "I think the effort to reset the relationship with Russia... can have the effect of making it more likely that Russia will cooperate with us in dealing with Iran."

More likely, "very slightly less likely" rather than "more likely," but it still won't happen in any meaningful way.

Samore continues:

"That strategy of working on a new START treaty in parallel with efforts to improve our coordination on Iran seems to be working and we'll find out later this year whether that ends up being successful."

But is Russia going to trade, as the Obama team hints, a nuclear treaty in exchange for serious cooperation over Iran? No. Reducing America's nuclear arsenal, which is not a desperate need for Russia any way, would already be paid for by Russia's reducing its own arsenal!

[Update: I was right! Russia rejects any increase of sanctions on Iran.

In other words, no matter how charming Obama is, no matter how many concessions he makes to the Europeans and Russia, no matter how much he proves himself willing to be friends with Tehran, it won’t change that much.

Furthermore, just how tough will be the sanctions Obama will request, much less get? They are not likely to be "killers" to start with and then will get watered down further to win broad support. And then after being announced they will be watered down even more in order to ensure adaption. And then after being agreed to they might well not be completely enforced.

In short, Tehran isn't trembling.

But let’s take the best-case outcome. Suppose everyone is ready to agree to tougher sanctions. These would still be far too low to force Iran to give in. Moreover, the new Iranian government is tougher than ever and less inclined not only to compromising away the nuclear weapons’ drive but even to slowing it down. Having crushed demonstrations in Tehran these aren’t leaders to be cowed by finger-wagging from diplomats in suits more expensive than the average Iranian makes in a year.

Meanwhile, Obama’s general rhetoric and overall approach to international affairs convinces Tehran that the West is weak. Ignore it, say the mullahs. Full speed ahead! Then when we have nukes, who cares what the West says, If it even dares complain.

So this Iran policy, though it seems brilliant to its creators, is hopeless.


Now, let’s turn to Arab-Israeli conflict policy. Alexander Pope wrote: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again."

In other words, the Obama administration has learned part of the truth but this has made its policy worse rather than better.

What it understands correctly is that most Arab regimes (excluding Iran’s little buddy, Syria) are more worried about Iran and radical Islamist groups than about Israel.

In light of this correct insight, the administration has devised a brilliant—in its own mind—plan.

This policy is not a repeat of the old panacea--bash Israel and get peace. It is a more updated, softer (but not necessarily more sophisticated) strategy which can be summarized as: get Israel to make one concession and everything will fall into place.

Here's the grand plan: The United States will force Israel to freeze construction on Jewish settlements on the West Bank, then using this proof of evenhandedness, will go to Arab regimes and say: You see we’re ready to push Israel, now your job is to push the Palestinians toward compromise, convince Israel of your own readiness for peace, and stand with us more vigorously in containing Iran.

Arab rulers will reply—indeed, the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians have already done so—“not by the hairs on your chinny-chin-chin,” as the three pink mammals, whose species cannot be mentioned in these Politically Correct times, put it in the nursery rhyme. Or in more scientific language, “You get bupkis!”

They'd probably say this any way but can do so more easily knowing that Obama is not going to huff, and puff, and blow their houses down. On the contrary, they know that the Iranian regime and their own people are far scarier than Barack Obama.

And so this strategy, too, will fail.

I certainly agree that forming an alliance of the West, Israel, and most Arab states is the central task in the Middle East today, but Obama and his colleagues hugely underestimate the difficulty in doing so.

It wasn’t just mean old George Bush that prevented the Arab-Israeli conflict from being solved but Palestinian and Syrian intransigence plus Arab state passivity.

It wasn’t just mean old unpopular George Bush that prevented Arab states from doing more to help U.S. policy to stabilize Iraq and contain Iran. It was the self-interest of those regimes that did so.

At best, while most Arab regimes agree that the main danger is Iran and radical Islamism, they aren't going to stick their necks out, especially now that the United States seems weak and uncertain about providing real leadership. And they are still content to let America do all the work.

If this analysis were a cartoon, then, the caption would be: "Smithers, it is a carefully composed, comprehensive, detailed, and internally logical plan. Congratulations. Unfortunately, it is a very bad plan and it won't work."

Think of how an alternative might look. Last May 27 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

"With respect to settlements, the President was very clear....He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions....That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly...And we intend to press that point."

What would this approach would sound like if applied to Iran’s regime:

"With respect to nuclear weapons and sponsorship of terrorism, the President was very clear....He wants to see a stop to nuclear weapons--not some nuclear weapons, not just the warheads, not just the missiles....That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly....And we intend to press that point."

Or how about Syria’s regime?

"With respect to Syrian sponsorship of terrorism, the President was very clear....He wants to see a stop to Syrian sponsorship of terrorism–not just training terrorists, not just financing terrorists, not just ordering them to attack, not just giving them safe passage across the border, not just against Lebanon, not just against Syria, not just against Israel....That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly....And we intend to press that point."

But of course such a policy would require some real toughness against enemies on real big issues, not just gigantic posturing against an ally on a really small issue. U.S. policy neither intends nor in the end will sell out Israel. The problem is much worse from an American standpoint: it is dangerously subverting its own interests.

There's a problem when any serious and well-informed observer should be able to see six months ahead of time that U.S. policy isn't going to work.

There’s an even bigger problem when administration officials and the media are so busy congratulating the genius of the current administration that no one notices the train is speeding toward a chasm without a bridge.

So, Mr. President, save this column and read it again in six months. It will make more sense to you.

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