Obama’s weakness has made the Middle East much more dangerous
Whatever President Obama felt compelled to promise on Iran at his speech to AIPAC in Washington the reality is that his overall stance makes an Israeli attack on Iran more, not less, likely
A newly confident Turkey; an unswervingly aggressive Iran; a revitalised Egypt whose future remains uncertain.
From a geo-political perspective, these realities of the Middle East today are widely discussed. But, important though they are, their significance cannot be properly understood without the addition of two other vital countries with a profound impact on what is, or may be, about to happen.
The actors in question are, of course, the United States – condemned by many for being weak -- and Israel – condemned by many for simply being. Not to downplay the potential impact of developments in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf states, but the game-changing potential of Washington and Jerusalem towers above all others in establishing where we go from here.
It has been widely remarked that at least some of what is going on can be described in terms of the Obama administration’s de facto withdrawal of American leadership from the region. It is hard to prove the point, but it is difficult to imagine Turkey, for example, having drifted so far and so dangerously away from Israel under any of Obama’s recent predecessors.
More generally, Obama’s famous Cairo speech in 2009 – beautifully delivered to cheers of “We love you“ by many in the audience – may well have been intended as, a la Russia, an attempt to press the “reset button“. But as with Russia, it also had the effect of giving hardliners the impression of a new American weakness, a lack of resolve to engage, a vacuum into which they could ever more confidently step.
The backing and forthing over Israel/Palestine has hardly helped in a region where hatred (and that is the appropriate word) of Israel is almost universal. Pleasing the Muslim world one day with harsh words of criticism for the Jewish State and then pleasing Israel the next with words of undying friendship has only had the effect of increasing distrust on both sides of this most intractable of conflicts.
Which brings us to Israel itself and, with it, the question of Iran. Whatever President Obama felt compelled to promise at his speech to AIPAC in Washington in March – military force is not off the table, he averred – the plain fact is that practically no-one in the Israeli government believes him.
It is true, of course, that there is heated debate in Israeli political, military and intelligence circles about whether a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could indeed be effective. But should a consensus emerge that it could be or that there is no alternative but to try, the distrust between the Netanyahu government and Obama is such that a military strike is now more, rather than less, likely than before Obama sought to give his “assurances“.
The point is this: after Obama’s words at AIPAC he would find it politically very difficult not to back any Israeli attack prior to the US election in November. Failure to be robust in Israel’s support under such circumstances would not merely risk costing him the Jewish vote in important swing states, but would raise the ire of tens of millions of non-Jewish Americans (including traditional Democrat voters) who are naturally pro-Israel.
On the other hand, the Israelis (at least those sceptical about Obama) may well calculate that should he win a second and final term he will no longer feel constrained and will revert to what they (rightly) see as his less then favourable underlying sentiments towards Israel.
Put this all together -- the distrust between Netanyahu and Obama combined with the upcoming elections -- and an Israeli attack sometime before November is not an implausible scenario. It may not happen, but policy makers would be irresponsible to dismiss the prospect out of hand.
Moving our gaze southwards, developments in Egypt raise problems all of their own. The huge victory in the parliamentary elections for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists – who took more than 70 percent of the seats – creates a new and dangerous dynamic. Attacks on pipelines to Israel may be the precursor to a far more aggressive stance against the Jewish state from the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with it.
Strong leadership from both the United States and Europe will be vital in containing the situation, especially during some future flashpoint between Israel and the Palestinians of the kind that arose over Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009.
In sum, and in important respects, the situation in the Middle East has not been this volatile for years. Turkey itself has been sliding towards Islamism and against Israel, and is looking to assume a greater role in the region. Iran remains a regional and global menace, and is actively seeking nuclear weapons in the context of threats to destroy Israel, and its continued sponsorship of terrorism.
The direction taken by Egypt is uncertain, but the signs are worrying. Israel is understandably jittery. The United States under Obama appears not to have its hand on the rudder, and to cap it all the US is gearing up for an election.
We live in interesting times, and dangerous ones too.
This piece was written as part of a series for the Globsec International Security Conference in Bratislava, April 12-14. Robin Shepherd is Director, International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society, a senior fellow at the Central European Policy Institute and owner/publisher of The Commentator. He tweets @RobinShepherd1
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