America’s Foreign Policy Challenges in the Middle East, 2014

Those who suggest that the United States as a superpower is weaker in the Middle East today than nine years ago overestimate the impact on the region of the Bush administration’s frenetic invasions and occupations. Iraq and Afghanistan were off in corners of the Middle East, and the US clearly got bogged down in them fairly quickly. If anything, many countries in the region, such as Syria, felt they benefited from the US quagmires in the sense that Washington was preoccupied elsewhere. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt also blew off Condi Rice’s demand that he democratize.

Still, it is certainly the case that the diplomatic and military relationship of the US to the region is changing.

Egypt’s officer corps is in general not a geostrategic problem for Washington. The military will want the Suez Canal to be open and functioning, which is important to the US since 10 percent of the world’s trade goes through it. Some 8% of the world’s shipped petroleum goes through it, and Egypt also has oil pipelines. Moreover, the officer corps has and wants to retain correct relations with the Israeli security establishment. Indeed, the nationalists in Egypt, for all their bluster about Israel, are now de facto allied with Tel Aviv against Hamas and other branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. (The officers overthrew elected president Muhammad Morsi of the Brotherhood on July 3 and are conducting a massive campaign of repression against the movement, which they smear as being behind extremist violence in the Sinai Peninsula and as being linked to violence committed by the Hamas party-militia, based in the Gaza Strip). Still, the military government is an embarrassment to an Obama administration that sought better relations with nonviolent Muslim fundamentalist groups and urged that they be incorporated into democratic politics. It is also an embarrassment with regard to human rights. Washington cannot order the officers around, even though it gives $1.5 billion in aid every year. The Gulf oil monarchies who wanted the Brotherhood crushed have ponied up pledges of $16 billion this year alone. There seems little the US can do but to work with Europe to keep pressure on Cairo to move to free and fair elections and to reverse the Draconian laws on protests and the ban on membership in the Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organization despite its long record since the 1970s of eschewing violence.

The Obama administration should attempt to reach a quick deal with Iran concerning safeguards on that country’s nuclear enrichment program.
The Obama administration should attempt to reach a quick deal with Iran concerning safeguards on that country’s nuclear enrichment program. Iran maintains that the enrichment is for peaceful purposes, and if that is so the ayatollahs in Tehran have to be willing to prove it by giving extensive access to UN inspectors. Iran must also cast its stock of uranium enriched to 19.5% percent for its medical reactor in a form that cannot be further enriched for a bomb. At the same time, the White House has to find a way to rein in the sanctions hawks in Congress and at the Treasury Department, and reward Iran for full compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency and UNSC demands by significantly reducing and ultimately removing sanctions. Iran will be important to a soft landing in post-American Afghanistan, and is important to the economic health of Iraq. The US and Iran have substantial common interests and should not allow hard liners on each side to derail this rapprochement.

I am unsympathetic with the problems Washington increasingly has with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is attempting to undermine both the Iran negotiations and the Kerry talks with Israel and the Palestinians. It is outrageous that Netanyahu should announce the building of more homes on the Palestinian West Bank during negotiations on the future of the West Bank. At some point, some president will have the balls simply to stop exercising the US veto when Israel is condemned by the whole world for its policy of annexing the West Bank and flooding Israeli squatters into this territory. Obama should just start abstaining, and let the rest of the world put Israel under sanctions just as they did Iran.

The US also faces a rebellion against its policies by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and his increasingly close adviser, Bandar bin Sultan. Saudi Arabia wanted the US to lob missiles at Damascus over the use of chemical weapons in August, and hoped the US would go beyond a few punishment strikes to hitting the airports the regime of Bashar al-Assad uses to resupply troops in Aleppo and elsewhere (the regime often cannot get overland convoys up north any more because the roads have been cut). Saudi Arabia also wants to keep Iran in the global dog house, seeing it as promoting a form of radical Shiite fundamentalist republicanism. King Abdullah is therefore angry about the US negotiations with Iran. Saudi Arabia is convinced that the protests since 2011 in Bahrain are the work of Iranian provocateurs, and that Iran is propping up al-Assad. They sent troops to Bahrain to aid the Sunni monarchy. And they are trying to offset Iranian backing for the Baath regime in Damascus by funding “moderate” freedom-fighters. (The Saudi royal family hates al-Qaeda and is very disturbed at the rise of al-Qaeda affiliates among the rebels in northern Syria).

The Saudi offer on Monday to give Lebanon $3 bn to spend on French arms and military aid serves the interests of the kingdom in several ways. Riyadh has punished Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc., by encouraging Lebanon to buy from France rather than from the US. That is a slap in the face to Washington. Riyadh is encouraging France to reclaim Lebanon as a sphere of influence, in hopes of excluding Washington. Then, if the Lebanese national army is built up and becomes better trained and armed, it might eventually be able to curb the power of the Shiite Hizbullah party-miiitia, which is backed by Iran. They Saudis want the Alawite Shiite-dominated Baath Party of Syria to fall, with Sunni religious groups (but not al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood) coming to power in Damascus. Without al-Assad’s land bridge, Iran would not be able to resupply Hizbullah, which would decline in favor of Sunni political forces in Lebanon. The US is being most unhelpful in attaining these goals, and the Saudis are in a snit about it, threatening to offer their fealty instead to China.

The deal may also function as a bribe to France, encouraging it to continue to obstruct President Obama’s negotiations with President Rouhani.

Rhetorically, the US is on the Saudi side, wanting to reduce Iranian influence in the Arab world, to destroy Hizbullah, and to see al-Assad fall in Syria. But President Obama not only isn’t doing anything dramatic to implement these oral policies, some of this other policies, such as negotiating with Iran, may get in the way of the first set.

The Saudis are bluffing and the US should call their bluff. They are not actually going to entrust their security to Chinese communists. If the US really can forestall permanently a nuclear-armed Iran, Riyadh will owe Washington rather than being in a position to blow it off. And if the kingdom does not like Baath socialists in Damascus, it is going to hate the Chinese Communist Party. Obama was right to accept the Russian deal on Iran inspections, and should tell the Saudis to sit down and shut up when they make trouble. They need us more than we need them, what with all the turbulence in their neighborhood. Charles De Gaulle used also to sulk in this way about US policy, and the US just let him sulk. In the case of Algeria, Eisenhower and Kennedy twisted his arm to let Algeria go lest it become radicalized and go communist. Washington has never been afraid to put overly uppity allies in their place.

At the same time, the US and its allies need to get off petroleum and go to electric cars and plug-in hybrids fueled by sun, wind and wave. I run my Chevy Volt mostly off the solar panels on my house, and everyone could do the same, and should. The faster this transition can be made, the less important the oil monarchies will be. petro-economies anyway haven’t served the region well, promoting dictatorial rule because they strengthen the state against civil society. Developing a normal economy would be much better for them and for us.

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12 Responses

  1. KR

    i think the saudis are overestimating the French to perform per ure analysis. US cant sell anything decent to Lebanon b/c Israel

  2. Excellent rundown of the U.S. foreign policy challenges in the Near East, Professor. If Iran is sincere about reining in its nuclear enrichment program and agrees to a strict inspection regime, and if as a result the U.S. and Iran can eventually establish something approaching normal relations, the Saudis will come around as well. (The notion that the Saudis might replace their long-standing relationship with the U.S. for one with China is farcical.) I hasten to add it probably will take us beyond 2014 before reaching that level of agreement, but better to nail all corners down with a good agreement rather than accept a bad agreement for the sake of just having an “agreement.” The optimal U.S. position would be to have normal, productive relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, favoring neither, and certainly not diminishing our relationship with the Saudis and others by establishing a formal “alliance” with Iran, as some have suggested.

    There will always be tensions in the Near East–Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, etc.–but if Iran comes in from the cold and conducts itself in accordance with internationally accepted standards, it will be easier for the U.S. to manage its interests in the area. Above all, we should not alienate the Egyptian military. We have more to gain by working with the Egyptians and using quiet diplomacy to try and steer them toward eventual elections; we have much to lose by openly and publicly hectoring them about democracy and human rights.

    Now, as you have noted, if the United States could screw up its guts and stop running interference for Netahyahu and Israel in the United Nations; and above all, if the U.S. would actually punish Israel for continuing to build settlements on the West Bank against official U.S. policy….”

    .

    • “…but if Iran comes in from the cold and conducts itself in accordance with internationally accepted standards, ”

      What would those international standards be like? Lobbing missiles from drones to get people on a Tuesday kill list? Accessing the electronic communication systems of everyone on the planet? Condoning, if not supporting, right-wing coups, as in Honduras? Shredding the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions to wage an illegal war, as in Iraq? Engage in “enhanced interrogation?” Behave as a lapdog for the Israel lobby?

      • “What would those international standards be like? Lobbing missiles from drones to get people on a Tuesday kill list? Accessing the electronic communication systems of everyone on the planet? Condoning, if not supporting, right-wing coups, as in Honduras? Shredding the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions…”

        First, we shall dispense with your attempt to continue riding your pet hobby horses listed above. All of those issues cited above have been dealt with and refuted in many previous posts, and I do not intend to go over it all once more here and bore our readers. That you disagree is part of the give and take of debate, but your disagreement and alternative vision does not necessarily equate with ground truth.

        Regarding Iran conducting itself according to international standards, a good start would be to cease supporting, funding, and supplying Hezbollah’s terrorist activities. No more blowing up Jewish community centers in Buenos Aires, no more blowing up tourist buses in Bulgaria, for just a couple of examples. Moreover, it would cease referring to the United States and others it does not like as the “Great Satan” and acting to undermine those with whom it disagrees, instead of “unclinching” its fist, as Obama said.

        Iran appears to be veering in the direction of such conduct. Let’s hope it is sincere and follows through. If it does, Iran, the Near East, the United States, and indeed the world will be a better place.

        • “First, we shall dispense with your attempt to continue riding your pet hobby horses listed above.”

          In other words, we will continue with the policy “don’t do as I do, do as I say.”

          This is rich, coming from supporters of one of the two nations who engineered the overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeqh, in 1953.

  3. Fine analysis Dr. Cole, Thanks.
    But, regarding “balls” as in: ” At some point, some president will have the balls simply to stop exercising the US veto when Israel is condemned by the whole world for its policy of annexing the West Bank and flooding Israeli squatters into this territory. Obama should just start abstaining, and let the rest of the world put Israel under sanctions just as they did Iran”., probably presidents do not want to loose their balls on account of the JFK’s factor.

  4. Fine, mostly conventional analysis of The Situation, about the many details of which, compared to Prof. Cole, I know a minuscule amount. But despite all the attention given in other articles in this space to the need for Different and Better, it sure seems like the prescriptions here are a lot like what medieval physicians wrote, out of a Pharmacopeia full of toxins and chalk dust and colored powders, for patients suffering from imbalances of their humours and black and yellow bile. They wrote what they knew, often well aware that their dispensations were neither safe nor effective.

    Of course, the System, such as it is, is clearly im- and un-balanced, but rather than parsing the Krebs cycle of political economics for encourageable feedback mechanisms (other than solar and wind and tidal and hydropower to maintain as much of business as usual as long as possible), a lot of this is prescribing for more of the metabolic pathways and hormone and enzyme activity that favors the safety and propagation of “institutions” and memes, and whatever, that sure look like pathogens and parasites and ambitious cancers that will happily grow and multiply and eat more of the host’s resources until they kill it, often converting a lot of the host’s tissues into more of themselves (see, e.g., SARS and other acronymic viruses and bacteria, and so many -omas).

    Maybe talking about “the US” as a Promethean personification, still able to move the earth with this or that lever, gets some credibility from the people who can do and shake, in the hope of insinuating some new coding into the institutionalized genetics. The text is a nice main-point outline of policy prescriptions, but so much of what happens is the result, way down in the tiny text of the sub-sub-sub-headings and foot- and afternotes, of greedy and idiotic little souls selling or giving weapons and providing “training” and “incentives” to “gunmen,” via the shadow Underground Mart that makes and delivers and gets paid for them with no accounting for the externalities that follow, behind a scam excuse that arming or “projecting power against” this or that group will somehow “advance ‘our’ interests.” Accepting the premise that the modes of “governance” that ARE, will also always BE.

    The analysis covers a huge territory in 1400 words. Well done, of course. It would be so nice if there were nostrums and specifics and advanced DNA manipulations that might cure the socioeconopolitical disease states that afflict the species. Assuming that “the species” has any will to be kinder and gentler and likely to endure…

    But as I freely acknowledge, these are just generic observations of an outsider outlier, in the awareness that I only see little bits of It All, unblessed and unburdened by the complexities but pretty sure, on some pretty substantive evidence, that “we” are headed for a cliff of our own idiot making, following “leaders” who can hop on private jets and soar off to comfortable old age, consequence-free, as the hordes charge over the 4 or 6 degree hotter, everyone-armed edge.

  5. “If the US really can forestall permanently a nuclear-armed Iran,” Juan, surely you do not believe all those lies?? You seem to praise a lot of the present and former US policies eg at the time of deGaulle, as if they were right!

  6. These tours of the horizon which you seem to produce for us so effortlessly are very useful. I especially appreciate the impression provided of Saudi Arabia which I’ve always seen as an incompetent pseudo-royal kleptocracy at best, one which can not be described as an ally of the United States without averting the eyes and holding the nose.

    However, I beg to differ on the advisability of encouraging the Chinese Communists to assume our responsibilities in the region. The quicker they do so the sooner we trade places with them economically and militarily. By the way, Professor Cole can you shed light on the power of the Israel Lobby in China?

  7. I wonder why you don’t seem to lay any responsibility for the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to even mention Sudan and Pakistan and Somalia covert actions on Obama. After all it was he who escalated the war in Afghanistan and continues the occupation of Afghanistan and is pressuring the govt there to agree to an ongoing military presence there. You seem to be reluctant to criticize the Obama administration on there imperial actions and policies including there so called war on terror and there worldwide surveillance operations. I am just a citizen without any foreign policy experience or expertise, and I am curious why you seem to always blame Bush and not Obama for these disasters. It seems to me that Obama is a continuation of Bush in many ways and has even gone further, for example his drone attacks and institutionalizing of surveillance as well as persecution of whislteblowers like Manning and Snowden, who are heroes in my book.

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