The underlying causes of chaos in the Middle East are indigenous. But Obama hasn’t helped.
President Obama claims he inherited a mess in the Middle East. Not so.
Fracking and horizontal drilling on private lands in the U.S. had taken off in the last years of the Bush administration and by 2009 were set to revolutionize America’s energy future. By 2011, the U.S. had cut way back its dependence on Middle Eastern gas and oil imports, which in turn gave American diplomats a measure of immunity from petro-blackmail, and therefore far more clout in the region. Iraq was mostly stable; in Anbar Province tens of thousands of jihadists had been killed by U.S. troops and their tribal allies. Iran’s scope was limited by a new moderate axis of Sunni states, Israel, and the United States. A bruised Hezbollah faced a huge rebuilding tab in southern Lebanon. Libya was beginning to shed at least some of its bizarre past. The Palestinians had no desire for another Intifada. The Middle East was looking to the U.S. for leadership, inasmuch as the surge in Iraq had regained respect for American arms and determination.
All that now is ancient history. In five critical areas, the U.S. blew it.
Sanctions were starting to squeeze Iran, which had been unable to absorb Shiite-dominated Iraq. Unrest in Iran was rising, spearheaded by pro-Western young reformers. Less than a month after Barack Obama’s inauguration, over a million Iranians hit the streets to protest their country’s rigged elections. The Europeans were beginning to understand that a nuclear Iran posed a greater threat of nuclear blackmail to the EU than to the U.S.
Poland and the Czech Republic had agreed to partner with the U.S. in creating an anti-ballistic missile system to deter Iran’s growing missile program. The U.S. and its friends occasionally sent armadas slowly through the Strait of Hormuz to remind Iran that we were determined that international waters would always remain international.
So what happened?
The new Obama administration kept silent as the pro-Western Iranian protests deflated. In herky-jerky style, Obama at first upped the sanctions as Tehran ignored his serial empty deadlines on curbing enrichment. Then, unilaterally and without much warning, Obama relaxed sanctions. He reopened negotiations, even as Iran’s centrifuges multiplied. Currently, Iran is on the cusp of nuclear acquisition, and it quietly advises its supporters that the U.S. is both weak and naïve — and will soon be gone from the region.
Tehran is creating a sort of Co-Prosperity Sphere at the expense of Sunni and Western interests, as it sabotages Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. There is no longer talk of regional U.S.-led missile defense.
In brilliantly diabolical fashion, Iran has maneuvered a deer-in-the-headlights U.S. into an embarrassing de facto alliance with it against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The partnership was designed by Tehran to save the pro-Iranian Assad government, to bolster Hezbollah, to relieve diplomatic pressures on its own nuclear-enrichment program, and to increase tensions between the U.S. and the Sunni moderate states like Jordan and the Gulf monarchies.
There has never been a greater likelihood than there is now, under Obama, that Iran will get the bomb, that it will create a radical theocratic Shiite alliance from Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon, and that it will direct Hamas and Hezbollah to start another war against Israel — this time backed by an Iranian nuclear deterrent.
In Iraq, U.S. strategy hinged on forcing the fledgling democracy to create loose alliances between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis, with the understanding that they would all resist both al-Qaeda and Iranian-sponsored Shiite affiliates. And from 2009 to 2011, consensual government in Iraq seemed to be working, albeit mostly through the implied threats that nearby U.S. troops would intervene if it did not.
The country was more quiet than not. Indeed, the U.S. military there was losing more personnel each month to accidents than to combat. In December 2009, three Americans were killed in Iraq — the lowest figure for any month since the war began. In December 2011, no Americans were lost.
Obama, who had opposed the Iraq war, termed the country “secure” and “stable.” Vice President Joe Biden, who as senator had voted for the war, bragged that it might become the Obama administration’s “greatest achievement.” American proconsuls kept the pressure on Iranophile Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to treat Sunni tribes more equitably, and to keep Iraqi territory free of the Iranian military. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was comatose. Most Sunni Islamists had no desire for a replay of the Anbar Awakening and the Surge.
Then, for the sake of a 2012 reelection campaign point, Obama pulled out all U.S. constabulary troops at the end of 2011. The result was a void that drew in the dregs of the Middle East, as ISIS and the Iranian-back militias fought over the corpse of what used to be Syria and Iraq.
At the same time, the administration proclaimed empty red lines to Assad, in the manner it had given Iran empty deadlines — even as President Obama called ISIS a “jayvee” team that posed little threat to the U.S., or at least no more worries than what street criminals pose to the average big-city mayor.
A growing ISIS soon appealed to disenchanted Sunni tribes who felt that they had been ostracized by Baghdad, even as Iran encouraged the Iraqi government to ostracize them even more.
The ayatollahs’ great fear from 2008 to 2011 was that a viable, consensual Iraq on their border might weaken their theocratic control in Iran. Such anxiety vanished, replaced by a new confidence that, in the absence of U.S. garrisons, Tehran had turned Iraq into a vassal state.
When President Obama took office, Moammar Qaddafi was a psychotic monster in rehab. The U.S. was opening a new embassy in Tripoli. U.S. military officials were allowed nearly complete freedom to round up defunct WMD programs.
Western investors were welcomed in Libya. Westerners were talking of investing in Libyan enterprise zones, improving Libya’s oil and gas network, and reopening spectacular archaeological sites to tourism. Qaddafi had clamped down on Islamists, and seemed increasingly to be leaving decisions in the hands of his progeny. The Westernized next generation of Qaddafis were courted by the international jet set, and were subtly sending signals that even greater liberalization was on the horizon. Qaddafi had become a buffoon, not a beheader.
All that vanished when Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice ordered the bombings that turned Libya into a terrorist paradise, whose ultimate trajectory was Benghazi. They had turned up a day late and a dollar short in piggybacking on the Arab Spring unrest in Cairo. This time around they wanted to ride rather than watch the growing protests against Qaddafi — an odd thing, given their prior warnings about Bush-administration naïveté in trying to promote consensual government in the volatile Middle East by force of arms.
The first thing that went wrong was that the U.S. intervention violated U.N. resolutions — which we had supported — about actions limited to humanitarian assistance and no-fly zones. That double cross alienated the snookered Russians, who had signed on to the U.N. resolution.
Then the U.S. ceded its traditional military leadership to the French and British through a lead-from-behind recessional. It turned a new diplomatic presence into dead Americans and a wrecked consulate in Benghazi.
Libya’s oil and gas industries currently resemble Nigeria’s — on a good day. Tripoli is a Mogadishu on the Mediterranean. No Westerner in his right mind will set foot on Libyan soil. The Obama administration’s experience in Libya can be summed up by its election-cycle fraud of jailing an obscure video maker for supposedly causing a “spontaneous” demonstration in which the consulate was ruined and four Americans were killed, including the ambassador — a yarn that even its promulgators no longer believe.
In Egypt, the old kleptocrat Hosni Mubarak was accustomed to chronic U.S. scoldings to democratize, even as he kept offering his own pushback warnings about the worse alternative of Islamic theocracy. If Egypt was not so stable, it was also not chaotic.
Unfortunately, the U.S. saw the Arab Spring as an excuse to dump a tired old ally and to welcome in his stead the U.S.-educated Mohamed Morsi and the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama’s team perhaps believed we were the belated avatars of the Arab Spring, as if the latter were analogous to our own revolution rather than something akin to the 1917 nightmare in Russia or the 1950s cutthroat Baathist takeover from the old corrupt Middle East monarchs.
The administration assured us that the Brothers were “largely secular,” even as they almost immediately went to work Islamicizing the largest nation in the Arab world and subverting the very elections that had brought them to power.
Here the administration’s achievement is quite surreal: Somehow we remain Egypt’s largest donor while being hated by all three of Egypt’s major groups — Islamists, the army, and the rest — who hate each other only slightly less than they do us. In practical terms, the administration earned the hatred of the vibrant General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in place of the good will of his decrepit mentor Mubarak — at the same cost of multi-billion-dollar-a-year subsidies.
Israel recently inflicted serious damage on Hezbollah in the 2006 war in Lebanon. For all the talk of Israeli ineptitude in that war, the final toll on Iranian interests was considerable. There seemed no desire on Hezbollah’s part to replay its aggression. Strong U.S. support for Israeli defensive measures discouraged Islamists from starting a new Intifada on the West Bank or in Gaza. Iranians worried that the U.S. might at any moment preempt their nuclear facility or welcome an Israeli strike on them.
Not now. The Obama administration immediately berated Israel for building houses around Jerusalem. Then came the Palestinian flotilla, and more American ambiguity. Then lectures during the Gaza war. The United States’ relationship with Israel is now at its weakest since the founding of the Jewish State. Administration aides leak slurs about war hero and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling him a “coward” and “chickensh-t,” as if Obama’s open-mic smear of Netanyahu during the G-20 summit in Cannes was not enough.
The radical Arab world has a hunch that another war launched from Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, or Lebanon would not entirely anger a U.S. administration that is more worried about Jews building houses in Jerusalem than about Iranian subsidies to and military support of Hamas. When an American president characterizes an Islamic hit on a kosher market in Paris as a random attack, then it is clear — both to Americans and to the enemies of America — that Jews and Israel are mostly on their own.
Meet the new Middle East: a soon-to-be-nuclear and ascendant Iran, the spreading ISIS wasteland, Egypt and Libya as Somalia, and the end of Syria and Iraq. This was not foreordained, but instead the result of a series of bad U.S. mistakes.