Misreading the Middle East

In his own way, President Barack Obama is trying every bit as hard to transform the Middle East as did the neoconservatives in George W. Bush’s administration. And Obama is no more likely to succeed. The neocons tried to mold the Middle East into their image of America; Obama is trying to shape the regional balance of power into his image of what it should look like. 

Obama seems obsessed with the notion that all would be well in the region if Iran were accorded its rightful dominant place and Israel were relegated to a second order regional actor. This obsession cannot be explained merely by his discomfort with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Certainly, Obama has every reason to distrust and dislike the man. The Israeli prime minister has behaved both obnoxiously and disrespectfully toward the American president, and seems to change his tune on a two-state solution as the mood strikes him. 

But Netanyahu’s behavior in no way negates the fact that the Palestinian issue is not at the center of the region’s travails. And his case against the current rush toward a deal with Iran, which is already increasingly dominating the region, remains strong, even if he has chosen the worst possible way to make it. 

The Palestinians must have a state if Israel is to retain its fundamental Jewish and democratic character. But the failure thus far to achieve a two-state solution has nothing whatsoever to do with the Islamic State, the emerging civil war in Yemen, or the ongoing devastation of Syria and the civil wars in Iraq and Libya. These are the matters that should be utmost on the president’s mind as he ponders the future of the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in these wars, and millions rendered homeless. The Israel-Palestine issue, important as it is, pales by comparison. The president’s focus is misplaced. 

Similarly, the administration’s efforts to meet its own artificial deadlines for an arrangement with Iran reflect a degree of undue haste, and an almost deliberate refusal to recognize the second and third order implications of such a deal. Iran will be immensely strengthened, enabling it to solidify its gains in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Indeed, it has not been lost on the states in the region that Iran is already exploiting its increasingly explicit cooperation with America, be it Washington’s reluctance to touch Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Tehran’s Syrian client, or its growing coordination with Iran-led Shia militias fighting, and winning, in Iraq’s Sunni heartland. 

The more powerful Sunni Arab states — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt — as well as Turkey, despairing of American reliability as a bulwark against Iran, will pursue their own nuclear capability. Israel, feeling abandoned by Washington, will find it difficult to resist taking matters into its own hands by attacking Iran’s facilities. 

The Middle East will indeed be transformed, but not as Obama anticipates. This troubled region could well sink into perpetual chaos with America caught in the middle. Like George W. Bush, Obama will find that whenever America jumps into the Middle Eastern briar patch, it becomes ever more painful to stay in and ever more difficult to get out. 

Foreign Policy

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