AMERICA'S SHAMEFUL RETREAT
- Mortimer B. Zuckerman MAY 15, 2015
- As a nuclear Iran nears, President Obama hides from the world.
- Nobody need bug the phones at Camp David to know what the Arab leaders have been telling President Barack Obama. The president has made much of the binary choice in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions: Do the deal or set out on "a march to war." It is a false choice since we could stiffen U.S. sanctions and there's the element in the equation that the emirs and princes can describe in detail: Iran is already making war in their region.
Iran's Quds Force brazenly continues fomenting and arming in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Syria, in the Gaza Strip and in Yemen. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that while he is supportive of Secretary of State John Kerry's diplomacy, he worries about the multiple mischiefs of Iran's "surrogates and proxies, weapons trafficking, ballistic missiles development, cyber activity and on occasion, their effort to threaten freedom of navigation." This last week gunboats of the Revolutionary Guard fired on a Singapore-flagged cargo ship passing through the Strait of Hormuz. And The New York Times reports the Quds Force is flouting sanctions with the purchase of nine used Airbus passenger planes from the blacklisted Mahan Air.
You would think all this in-your-face activity is an odd way for Iran to behave when it is on the eve of its final nuclear negotiation with the 5+1 powers. You might even think, ye of little faith, that the Iranians have assessed our president is so keen – desperate? – to claim his legacy as a peacemaker that he will meanwhile close a blind eye. Yet only the other day, in a written Arabic and English answer to the Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsar, Obama broke out of his studied calm to indict Iran as "a state sponsor of terrorism" whose activities should rightly concern the Gulf States. What's up? Is that an awakening, in which case hooray. More likely, it was intended as an ice-breaker for the talks at Camp David. Whatever, it surely makes no sense to open a pathway to nuclear missiles for an untrustworthy nation that is already the region's prime bully and blackmailer.
Our attitude to Iran, to Israel and to our Arab allies in the region, gives the impression we have no settled strategy as we had throughout the long Cold War. We are usefully reminded of the architect of that strategy in an essay in The Wall Street Journal by Josef Joffe, a long time foreign policy expert as a Hoover Institution scholar and publisher-editor of Germany's Die Zeit. The architect was of course George Kennan in 1946, then a 42-year-old foreign service officer in the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Opinion was divided in President Harry Truman's Washington whether Joseph Stalin, our wartime ally, was ready to join the U.S. as our peacetime friend in rebuilding the postwar world of independent nations, or was, instead, dedicated to extending the reach of international communism. Kennan advocated "a long term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points." Kennan's "containment" was a political response to a political threat, though it came to have a military response to Soviet moves. He urged the U.S. to be robust in resisting Soviet subversion and truculence, rather than plunge into an uneconomic level of rearmament. "Look at the alphabet soup: U.N., NATO, IMF, WTO, along with the World Bank. All of them were good for America; selflessness is not a mark of the mighty. But these institutions lasted because they also served the interests of others by promoting such public goods as security, free trade, freedom of the seas, growth and stability," Joffe writes.
But today, as Joffe points out, Obama is establishing neither the appropriate role of arms or architecture to deal with our opponents. "Instead of containment [Obama's] policy is self-containment. Instead of balancing against the expansionist du jour, America is balancing against itself. While Russia and China are increasing military spending by 10 percent and 15 percent, the U.S. is cutting into its military muscle (minus 6 percent)," he wrote. It's like buying an insurance policy with a low premium that covers fire but not flood.
The notion that Iran, a radical Muslim country, could be a partner in stability with the United States would be, as Joffe, put it, "pure fantasy," whose only equivalent would be one of Franklin Roosevelt enabling Stalin's Russia as a guardian of European peace in earlier decades. Why, Joffe asks, would Tehran play second fiddle to Washington when its goal is to dethrone the U.S. as the No. 1 power in the Middle East? Joffe's biting conclusion: "The 44 th president's learning curve has been flat for six years."
It is clear that Obama's long-held, key foreign policy initiative is a pact with Iran of all countries, given its religious radicalism and its hostility to the West. But Obama is promoting it and is heading toward a June 30 deadline despite the lack of support of regional powers and allies. Saudi Arabia has especially been critical of the White House. "Riyadh has also pressed the U.S. to take more-aggressive steps to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran's closest Arab ally, and to push back the Tehran-supported insurgency in Yemen," according to the Wall Street Journal. These countries understand what is at stake for themselves and for the region.
Saudi King Salman's stunning decision to withdraw from the Camp David summit signals that the Arab states see America as being wrongly directed. They might very well resort to their own efforts to thwart Tehran, just as Saudi Arabia has already done in leading a military coalition against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. The Saudis, in their own way, are outraged that not enough progress has been made in narrowing their differences with Washington on issues such as Iran and the Syrian civil war. This is a direct statement of disagreement and disrespect with, and to, the U.S. which would have been unthinkable in the decades since the end of WWII.
Saudi Arabia, like the UAE and Qatar, is seeking more advanced weaponry to counter Iran including surveillance equipment, cruise missiles and drones. The world will become a more dangerous place, but they can't be blamed when the U.S. does not have the will to stand up for its own interests and its values. As Joffe writes, "superpowers cannot go on vacation." Our oil-rich gulf partners have fought with us as allies in multiple wars; they are anxious over the growing role and power of their historic rival Iran, the most deliberate, serious enemy in the region and one we are supporting.
Salman's symbolic gesture of dropping out of the summit – after the U.S. had announced his participation – is an open message from Saudi Arabia and the five Persian states that they are literally prepared to separate themselves from the U.S. after years of being close allies.
A former top administration envoy to the Middle East, Martin Indyk, described it well: The Gulf States "won't be sacrificed on the altar of entente with Iran." Not as long as Iran is on the march through allies and proxies and never when a nuclear deal would give Iran dramatic new legitimacy, military power – and access to more than $100 billion frozen under international sanctions.
Alas, we are witness to another step backward from this president. At first, he was unwilling to bomb Syria for using chemical weapons. Then he made a strategic pivot to Asia and the Western Pacific. Finally his military responses to the Islamic State are so meaningless that they are invisible. No wonder the Gulf States, our former allies, see us trimming back our commitment to them. No wonder they no longer trust the word of the United States and a president they judge naïve.
Into this vacuum France is upgrading its ties with the Gulf States, signing defense contracts including a $7 billion sale of fighter jets with Qatar.
Obama has managed to alienate all of our friends. At the end of this Camp David session he may understand why. Saudi Arabia is leading, but add to it Egypt which has come out publicly against American policy, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar and the list goes on. Obama has finally managed to unite the Arab world and gather them together – unfortunately it is against us and not for us.