Monday, May 17, 2010

The Obama Administration's Middle East Disaster: A Brief Summary

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By Barry Rubin

Every day I wake up hoping to have good news to report about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. There are some positive things—regarding U.S.-Israel bilateral relations—but other than that it is hard to find anything but failure and incompetence.

We are now one-third of the way through the Obama Administration and, regrettably, it has not learned very much at all about understanding the world situation and correcting its mistakes. The time for wishful thinking is over: if it hasn't made major corrections by now, the Obama Administration is very unlikely to get any better during the rest of its term.

I hope you, dear readers, don’t get tired of this theme because this is indeed both the most important thing that’s happening and it’s happening on many fronts. The Israel-Palestinian one is the least problematic compared to the others.

Here are nine huge problems going on right now that are not being addressed by the U.S. government and are barely comprehended by the U.S. debate and large portions of the mass media. I defy anyone to show that any of these points is inaccurate. You can claim they are exaggerated, but not by much. You can claim that the U.S. government lacks options, but it is not even trying to find or develop them, nor is it telling the public the truth about these issues.

1. Iran again outmaneuvers the United States, undercutting sanctions. It’s now the second half of May, do you know where your sanctions are? The problem isn’t just that Tehran now has a new plan to ship out half its enriched uranium (only leaving it with the other 50 percent for building bombs!) but that this scheme was engineered by two countries the Obama Administration has extolled as friends: Turkey and Brazil. Despite constant assurances to the public (illusions it also believed and which misled its policy), the Obama Administration cannot depend on Russia or China to support sanctions.

What is going on is a diplomatic battle between Iran and the United States to see which can have more influence on the positions taken by other countries on the Iran nuclear issue. Here's what's really amazing: Outside of Western and Central Europe, Iran is winning this competition. Despite Obama's vaunted claims of popularity, his government didn't build real alliances in the Third World or persuade people of the extent of the Iranian threat so the United States doesn't get their support. In addition, they view Obama as weak and not a reliable friend, so why should they go out on a limb for him? There could be no better proof that respect and credibility is more important in international affairs than shallow popularity and flattery.

2. Russia has just signed a major arms’ deal with Syria and is moving toward being diplomatic patron and arms’ supplier of an Iran-Syria-Turkey-Hamas-Hizballah alliance. While the United States has tremendous potential leverage over Russia, it isn’t being used and the administration continues to pretend Moscow will support serious sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, Russia is rebuilding its hegemony over former Soviet territories and neighbors. And the Obama Administration is blind toward Turkey’s defection to the other side and the growing Islamism within Turkey itself.

3. The Administration is simply not dealing with nor even informing the public of Iranian cooperation with al-Qaida as well as Tehran’s covert war on the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is still entangled with illusions of engaging Iran, which thus open the door to the kind of problems discussed in points 1 and 2 above.

4. The government has no real understanding of Iranian strategy or the kind of containment that would be needed once Tehran has nuclear weapons. It thinks—and this is no exaggeration—that the Middle East would not change very much with a nuclear-armed Iran and that U.S. credibility and deterrence would not be substantially damaged.

5. The Obama Administration continues to engage Syria despite that regime's continued war against America in Iraq, takeover efforts in Lebanon, support for revolutionary Islamist groups and sabotage against any progress in peacemaking. A new development is the announcement by the UN-sponsored international tribunal that it will issue indictments in September. If it is honest at all, Syrian leaders will be openly declared as responsible for terrorism and assassinations in Lebanon.

6. The Obama Administration continues to pour money and support into Pakistan even while aware that the Pakistani government is not helping very much against al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, not to mention its sponsoring a war of terrorism on its neighbor India. Incidentally, some similar things--on a much smaller scale--apply to Yemen which has been really unhelpful to U.S. counterterrorist efforts lately. Might some pressure and even quiet threats be useful?

7. The U.S. government and mass media cannot even speak honestly most of the time about the nature of the revolutionary Islamist threat.

8. The Obama Administration's policy of winning Arab state support for its policies by flattery and distancing itself from Israel has failed. Arab leaders alternate between bemoaning Washington's weakness and complaining that it isn't doing anything. Here's a remarkable speech by one of Saudi Arabia's most powerful leaders, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi intelligence chief and former ambassador to Washington and London, saying that Obama is no different from past U.S. presidents, has done nothing for the Arabs, and they are demanding a lot more. Naturally, they are not offering to do anything to help or support the United States.

9. A policy of distancing itself from Israel--although this should not be exaggerated--has not yielded any material benefit for U.S. interests. By doing so, and making a freeze of construction on settlements its main theme, the Obama Administration wrecked the chance for any Israel-Palestinian contacts for about a year and have moved them back from direct to indirect talks. The policy is now making the Palestinian Authority think that it need merely sabotage talks and believe that this will yield more U.S. pressure on Israel and unilateral concessions for itself. Moreover, while the administration continues to isolate Hamas, its basic approach is to preserve the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. In short, the U.S. policy is making it harder, rather than easier, to make progress toward a just and stable two-state solution.

To all of this might be added that given the poor performance and inaccurate understanding of the region it holds, the administration is not likely to respond well to crises arising from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egyptian succession, or many other issues likely to arise.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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