By Victor Davis Hanson // Defining Ideas
Nations in the Middle East that once aligned with America are now indifferent. Interests who opposed the United States grow defiant. Fence-sitting countries that calibrated their policies to the perception of U.S. strength are leaning toward our adversaries. Chaos is the result.
The recent splashdown in the Straits of Hormuz of an Iranian missile near the USS carrier Harry S. Truman, along with the January 2016 detention and humiliation of a U.S. servicemen off Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf, is a reminder that the recent non-proliferation deal in no way mitigates Iranian hatred of the United States. The release of some $100 million in impounded Iranian funds will only encourage these staged humiliations. Israel and the Sunni bloc fear tepid American reactions to Iranian provocations are harbingers of likely Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement.
Creating distance between America and its traditional ally Israel did not win over either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. Violence against Jews spiked in 2015. Israel remains silent about its estrangement from America, on the expectation that any elected president in 2017 will be an improvement over Obama’s indifference and occasional hostility to the Jewish state.
Obama’s “special relationship” with Recep Erdogan’s Turkey proved an abject failure. Erdogan interpreted Obama’s coziness as a green light for a new Turkish Islamic state. Turkey itself stealthily is trying to use ISIS and other Sunni terrorists against Iranian-backed Shiite terrorists.
The American estrangement from the Gulf States is a result of near U.S. independence in gas and oil production, the collapse of the global oil market, and the Obama administration’s tilt toward Iran. That American realignment was interpreted in the Gulf as staged indifference to radical Shiite efforts to undermine the Gulf Sunni monarchies. Most Sunni states are prepping for the likelihood of a new Middle-East arms race in a soon to be nuclear neighborhood.
The only upside is an emerging de facto alliance between Israel and the so-called moderate Arab monarchies. That odd coupling assumes that Iran threatens both more than they do each other, and that the United States is no longer a reliable patron to either.
The Egyptian military junta tried to explain to the Obama administration that it had no choice but to abort the one-election/one-time Islamization efforts of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is baffled that Egypt’s opposition to radical Islam has not softened American anger, but apparently only cemented the estrangement.
A weary and embarrassed United States invited Vladimir Putin into the Middle East, in a manner not seen since the Russian high profile during the Yom Kippur war. The long effort to save Afghanistan from the Taliban has never been closer to defeat. Huge numbers of young Middle Eastern Muslim males are migrating into the European Union. Meanwhile, Muslim terrorists have attacked cities from Paris to San Bernardino, California.
All of these events are nominally distinct—and yet not just episodic. The upheavals reflect a shared perception that the U.S. cannot or will not promote pro-Western forces in the Middle East. Obama’s foreign policy is written off as either confused or reformulated to favor revolutionary societies that are deemed more authentic and legitimate than traditional U.S. allies.
Three landmark events over the last four years fueled the general Middle East chaos.
The Libya Disaster
The first milestone was the 2011 American intervention in Libya, in concert with France and Britain. In the midst of the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Obama administration saw an opening—on the eve of its 2012 reelection bid—to promote democratic change in the Middle East without the need for an unpopular intervention such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and National Security Council staffer Samantha Power all pushed for an easy air campaign against Libya. The Obama administration had recently been flummoxed by unrest in Egypt and embarrassed by its disastrous tilt toward Mohamed Morsi, who by spring 2012 had sought to manipulate democratic elections as a means of turning Egypt into an Islamic state.
Yet Libya’s strongman Moammar Khadafy was a monster in rehabilitation, slowly passing power over to his Westernized progeny. That fact was ignored by the administration. Almost everything imaginable went wrong after the United States began bombing Libya. The U.S. violated UN resolutions to limit its intervention to no-fly zones and humanitarian assistance. Instead, it provided close air support to anti-Khadafy insurrectionists. Yet the administration had no intention of filling the void after the collapse of the Khadafy government.
The logical consequence of America’s bomb-and-run Libyan policy was a terrorist wasteland, an ISIS recruiting ground, the Benghazi disaster—with the ensuing wages of scandal and disinformation that continue to this day. Unwise chest-pounding such as “lead from behind,” Secretary Clinton’s crude Caesarian boast over Khadafy’s corpse (“We came, we saw, he died”), her later callous quip “what difference does it make” in congressional testimony about the American dead, and the scapegoating and jailing of a U.S.-resident video maker—these all became iconic of the entire sordid mess.
The Iraq Withdrawal
Shortly thereafter followed the second milestone event that contributed to the end of U.S. deterrence: the disastrous decision to pull out all U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011—a move designed to fulfill an old Obama campaign promise before the 2012 reelection bid. Senator and presidential candidate Obama had once vowed, if elected, to remove all U.S forces by March 2008, just as the surge had quieted Iraq.
Obama wisely had tabled that idea before the 2008 election. When he entered office in January 2009, the country was quiet. The Iraq government was stabilized. There was a general perception that Iraq was beginning to resemble something akin to South Korea around 1954-1955—tense, but viable with U.S. peacekeepers.
Indeed, the Obama administration became so enamored with the results of Gen. Petraeus’s 2007-2008 surge that it gleefully about-faced and took credit for successful nation building. Vice President Joe Biden in February 2010 gushed, “I am very optimistic about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” Obama himself announced on the departure of U.S. peacekeepers in December 2011, “We’re leaving behind a stable and self-reliant Iraq.” But almost immediately, the abrupt disappearance of thousands of American peacekeepers—40,000 were still posted there in midsummer 2011—created a catastrophic void.
Disaffected Sunnis and scattered al Qaedists reformulated under the new ISIS brand—exploiting the furor at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government. Without U.S. troops, Maliki had sensed no more pressure to honor commitments to the Sunni minority or to the Kurds, and thus invited in Iranian interests, essentially destroying the Iraqi military.
Obama seemed stunned by the sudden implosion of Iraq. At first in denial, he serially dismissed ISIS for the next two years, even as it insidiously carved up the Syrian-Iraq borderlands. In an infamous January 2014 interview, Obama assured the New Yorker that ISIS was a mere jayvee team: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
In short order, an abandoned Iraq became what South Korea probably would have looked like in 1955—had an opportunistic President Eisenhower, up for reelection in 1956, sought to blame the war on Harry Truman’s unwise intervention years earlier, and had he promised to yank out all U.S. troops from the DMZ.
Empty Redlines to Syria
The third milestone was the “red line” ultimatum to Syria’s President Bashar Assad to cease using weapons of mass destruction or face U.S. bombs. As Obama put it in August 2012, in the final stretch of his reelection campaign: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation… We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”
When Bashar Assad—who had been ordered earlier by Obama to abdicate—used chemical weapons, Obama abruptly called off promised air strikes. Worse, Obama almost immediately denied that he had ever set a red line in the first place. On September 4, he instead blamed the United Nations and Congress for putting him on the spot: “First of all, I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line. The world set a red line… Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line…”
Obama appeared stunned by the notion that Assad unexpectedly had called his bluff—thus forcing an anti-war, Nobel Peace Prize laureate to preempt and bomb Syria right before the election. Yet Obama was also worried that his failure to back up his own ultimatums might confirm to the electorate perceptions of impotence.
The net result of talking loudly while carrying a twig was that friends in the region no longer counted on American assurances. Enemies sought to escalate their provocations without worrying about the consequences. Observers saw all three disastrous decisions as amateurish political miscalculations, cynically intended to win Obama dividends in the upcoming reelection bid.
In short, 70 years of American postwar deterrence in the Middle East was lost, and we have yet to see the end of the frightening consequences.