From reset to the Iran deal, Obama’s mistakes are so comprehensive they almost look deliberate.
How did Vladimir Putin — with his country reeling from falling oil prices, possessing only a second-rate military, in demographic free-fall, and suffering from an array of international sanctions — find himself the new play-maker of the Middle East?
Putin’s ascendency was not foreordained. It followed a series of major U.S. miscalculations and blunders of such magnitude that it almost seems they must have been deliberate.
What exactly was our road to perdition in the Middle East?
1. Reset with Putin
When Barack Obama came into office, the outgoing Bush administration had crafted a moderate response to Putin’s aggression in Ossetia. The U.S. had made missile-defense agreements with the Czech Republic and Poland. Some Georgian forces were airlifted by the U.S. from Afghanistan back home. Indeed, at the time, many liberals complained that America was too soft on Putin. Perhaps. But the Obama administration entered office claiming the exact opposite, suggesting that the Bush pushback was part of a needless American-caused estrangement from Russia.
Pushing the plastic reset button was Hillary Clinton’s sad gesture signaling Putin and his team that Bush was gone, that a new, more receptive administration was in power — and thus that relations must naturally improve. Putin was somewhat perplexed, given that he knew Russia was to blame for the new estrangement. Naturally, then, he saw the Obama–Clinton reset grandstanding as more critical of America’s past behavior than of Russia’s present aggression — a fact that fueled Putin’s further calculations that he could safely move into Crimea and Ukraine.
2. The Skedaddle from Iraq
The complete withdrawal from a mostly quiet Iraq at the end of 2011 was nonsensical. It was as if Eisenhower, up for reelection in 1956, had brought U.S. troops home from a quiet South Korea, while blaming Truman, out of office for four years, for getting us into Korea in the first place. After great losses in blood and treasure, Iraq was finally functioning. Al-Qaeda was mostly somnolent. The Maliki government was under constant U.S. pressure to share oil revenues equitably with the Sunni minority. Then the Obama administration abandoned Iraq (whose stability, according to Vice President Biden, was perhaps the administration’s “greatest achievement”) for a cheap 2012 reelection talking point of “ending the war in Iraq.” The geostrategic result was catastrophic. The remnants of al-Qaeda resurfaced as ISIS — only to be dismissed by a smug Obama as the “jayvees.” The Shiite government felt freed from American oversight and began ostracizing the Kurds and the Sunnis. The U.S. lost its strategic use of air bases at the most vital point in the Middle East. And, most importantly, Putin recognized that if the Obama administration wanted out of even a quiet Iraq after so much American investment, it was likely to want out of the Middle East altogether — confirming the aura of weakness implicit in its earlier reset outreach.
Note that the Obama administration proved clueless how to stop the primordial savagery of ISIS and more or less has renounced even trying — clearing the way for Putin to enter the region as the supposed aegis behind which nations of good will might rally to end this savage common threat. In truth, Putin has other, far grander interests.
3. The Red-Line Invitation into the Middle East
Putin was effectively invited into the Middle East when Obama sandbagged Secretary of State John Kerry’s claims that the need to bomb Assad was the moral issue of our time. Obama turned the administration’s red line about Syria’s use of chemical weapons quite pink. Embarrassed that Syria had dared Obama to enforce his own threats, in denial that Assad’s opponents were still being gassed, and reluctant to use force as threatened, given the impending November 2012 presidential election, Obama simply froze and abdicated responsibility. Putin quickly stepped in, offering his help in dismantling Assad’s WMD stockpile — chemical weapons, of course, have been used repeatedly by Assad well after Putin’s fix — and never quite left, as Russia’s prestige rose and ours sank.
4. The Iran Deal
What Putin saw in the Iran deal was not its cumbersome details or the inflated rhetoric about it, nor did he believe the administration’s claims about permanent non-proliferation. Rather, he appreciated the fact that the U.S. had walked back its initial promises to ensure anywhere, anytime spot inspections, zero enrichment, and snap-back sanctions. More importantly, upon the conclusion of the deal, the Iranians seemed defiant, the U.S. depressed — and America’s friends outraged. When Hillary Clinton compared the NRA to intractable Iranians, she inadvertently revealed how we had offered concessions and the Iranians had not. In Putin’s mind, Iran will become the regional hegemon, eventually going nuclear and playing the berserker part of North Korea to Putin’s China-like gatekeeper role.
5. Estrangement from Our Friends
For the past six years Obama has made it clear that the old pillars of America’s Mideast policy — unwavering support for Israel and protection for the so-called moderate Sunni states in the Gulf, Jordan, and Egypt — were no longer relevant. Perhaps these friends did not appear sufficiently revolutionary or authentic to Obama. Perhaps they did not appreciate Obama’s unique multicultural resonance with the world’s dispossessed. Perhaps he wanted an end to the privileged powers and wished to spread the wealth of the region. Whatever his reasons, the result has been that none of our allies can count on U.S. protection or even much sympathy.
They are even unsure whether the U.S. supports revolutionary movements — Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah-supported Shiites in the Gulf, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — that seek to destroy the existing moderate order. After all, the Obama administration is more likely to lecture Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi than it was Mohamed Morsi, more prone to blast Israel’s Netanyahu than Iran’s Khamenei, and, until recently, more willing to talk of a special relationship with Recep Erdogan of Turkey than with the Kurds. Our allies sense that Obama is much less prone to lash out and employ extra-legal remedies against the world’s rogue states than against the House Republicans, associated Tea Party groups, and conservatives in general. Most Middle Easterners sense that Obama gets along with the Iranian dandy Javad Zarif far better than with Ted Cruz.
6. Neglect of Oil
Despite, not because of, Obama, American oil and natural-gas production has soared, thanks to new fracking and horizontal drilling techniques used mostly on private lands. Even the conspiracists no longer claim that the U.S. is interested in the Middle East because of claims on its energy treasure. Yet in our relief over our new near self-sufficiency in energy, we have entirely forgotten postwar petroleum-politics. We ignore that Iran, Iraq, and Russia are among the world’s greatest oil exporters; should that arc become predominant in the Middle East, Gulf exporters will make the necessary political adjustments. Putin may yet lord it over a post-OPEC cartel that could at least argue to the Gulf monarchies that he is a better friend than the U.S. — and would be a far worse enemy. He certainly would see that the Gulf states want higher oil prices, reliable shipments of weapons, and someone to manage Iran. Putin might claim that he can do all three far better than the U.S.
The U.S. has interests in the Middle East. It used to ensure the absolute security of democratic Israel. Once, it declared the Persian Gulf a secure zone, open to the world’s tanker fleet and immune from regime change or outside coercion. Not so long ago, it accepted that radical Islamic terrorists originated in the region, and that it was better to address them in the Middle East than in the United States.
What, then, are the likely consequences of Putin’s new Middle East? We should expect Iran to get a bomb much faster than anticipated, given that the idea that the Obama administration will take any punitive action for treaty violations is absurd. Mr. Erdogan is terrified of Russia, its new Iranian–Syrian–Hezbollah arc, the Kurds — and his own people. He sees Obama snubbing him in the same manner as he used to snub Obama. The Gulf exporters will see that it is better to align with Russia’s view of the oil-exporting Middle East than to rely on guarantees from the United States. For a while ISIS will continue its savagery, given that Russia has no intention of engaging it on the ground. More Sunni states than we think, along with Turkey, probably see ISIS as the only means of striking back at Iran and Syria — in their mind ISIS is a loathsome, but nevertheless perhaps useful, tool. Both Egypt and Israel will triangulate with Putin until the U.S. has a new president other than one from the Obama administration. Obama will offer a few teleprompted speeches on the arc of history and how unwise and counterproductive were Putin’s efforts, how his own Iran deal solved the proliferation issue, and how he stands firmly with our allies — before hitting the links, prepping for a quite lucrative Clinton-like retirement, and leaving his mess for the next president.