How Obama and Trump left a vacuum in the Middle East
Shalom Lipner Tuesday, November 28, 2017 – MARKAZ – Editor’s Note: If Pax Americana is dead in the Middle East, it’s only because America has euthanized it, writes Shalom Lipner. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other moderate Arab states would also welcome a more engaged U.S. into their backyard, but are otherwise taking care of business. This piece originally appeared in Politico. Once upon a time, all the experts said that America was the guarantor of security in the Middle East. To the extent that it’s still true, it’s not at all what you’re thinking. Actually, it’s probably the exact opposite of what you’re thinking.Israel Defense Forces chief Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot gave an unprecedented interview last week to the Saudi media. In a hold-the-presses moment, Eisenkot disclosed that Israel was ready to share sensitive intelligence with moderate Arab countries for the purpose of countering Iran. He credited President Donald Trump with creating an opportunity for a new alliance in the region.
It wasn’t too long ago that dreams of strategic convergence between Israel and Sunni Arabia were simply unimaginable. Even today, Israel’s new Persian Gulf allies are still technically at war with the Jewish state. But eight years with Barack Obama as president of the United States and now, the advent of Trump, have transformed the calculus of the Middle East.
Reconciliation with some of its old adversaries has improved Israel’s security predicament. And indeed, Uncle Sam is at least partially responsible for this windfall—but by default. The scaffolding of this budding romance is commiseration between Arabs and Israelis over the dubious quality of American leadership. The locals have stopped expecting the cavalry to ride in and save the day. The United States is catching up on its sleep.
The world’s worst-kept secret is that Israel and Saudi Arabia are almost perfectly aligned in their opposition to Iran. Eisenkot confirmed this in his interview. The Obama administration’s support for the Iranian nuclear deal, which both countries opposed, was the crucible of this new Israeli-Arab partnership to block an ascendant Shia Islam. When the agreement, for all its immediate benefits, reintroduced Iran into the family of nations and breathed new life into its expansionist ambitions, notorious enemies discovered unity in resistance to a common enemy. Trump has yet to address their concerns about Iranian misconduct with much more than menacing rhetoric, however. In Syria, American inaction has rehabilitated Russia as a destructive regional power and emboldened its Iranian confederates. Reneging on his self-imposed red line, Obama decided against a military response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. Instead, he embraced Moscow’s proposal for its Syrian client to surrender its chemical weapons stockpiles. Syria was still using the illegal munitions on its own people as recently as April, according to United Nations investigators.
The Trump administration is similarly stymied by Russian diplomacy as the Syrian civil war rages on. President Vladimir Putin continues to vetoSecurity Council calls for an inquiry into the tragic Syrian situation. And despite a cease-fire agreement, Russia continues to provide cover — with the acquiescence of the United States—to the “legitimate” presence of Iranian military advisers in Syria. Israelis and Sunni Arabs watch on with horror as their mortal foes, Iran and Hezbollah, run roughshod over the country, filling the vacuum left by a once-assertive America.
Trump has certainly been less deliberate and consistent than Obama in his management of global affairs, but this remaking of the Middle East is their shared legacy. Their message has been the same: If America’s friends in the region aspire for enhanced security, they’d best not wait for the White House to provide it. And if recent events offer any indication, the message has been received loud and clear.
A new cooperative spirit in the region, born of American apathy, has emboldened pro-Western governments to unite in promoting their interests more aggressively than ever before. A young generation of Saudi royals is stepping up to the plate. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman leads the charge on Iran, pushing back against its influence in Yemen and Lebanon. The Saudi-encouraged (or engineered, depending on whom you ask) resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was a bold move designed to challenge Iran’s Hezbollah proxy and expose its control over the Lebanese state. The full consequences of these actions—including a massive purge of Saudi princes—are yet unclear, but Trump seems perfectly comfortable as their enabler.
Israel has also been doing its part to confront the Shia axis, if Syrian and Lebanese reports of Israeli strikes are to be believed. And it has no intention of stopping, especially since its petition to establish a sizable buffer zone to keep Iranian troops and proxy forces away from its border fell on deaf American ears. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threw off his gloves a few days ago, making it clear that Israel will keep acting “in accordance with our understanding and in accordance with our security needs.” Others in the region feel the same way.
Some in the U.S. argue that it’s time for America’s partners to start solving their own problems by themselves. It’s an understandable position, but a short-sighted one. The United States has interests in the world, and outsourcing is the worst way to protect them.
Sitting in the back seat will allow others to control America’s destiny. French President Emmanuel Macron is already filling the vacuum on Lebanon, working the phones between Tehran and Jerusalem. And on Wednesday, the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran launched a new initiative in Sochi to achieve a political settlement in Syria. Should hostilities erupt in Syria, Iran or elsewhere in the region, the U.S. will regret having played observer. At that point, the cost of defending its security, economic and diplomatic imperatives will be exorbitantly high.
Left to their own devices, regional powers are liable to advance solutions tailored to their own smaller sizes. But actions in hot spots like Iraqi Kurdistan and Yemen risk triggering wider conflicts as warring parties with narrow agendas set off unpredictable ripple effects. If that happens, de-escalation—for everyone’s sake—will be required. Nobody is better suited to that task than the United States.
Foreign leaders who recognize America’s contribution to a stable world are trying to wake the slumbering giant. Last summer, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brought his anti-protectionism case directly to the National Governors Association. European and Asian countries are reaching out to forge collaboration with state and municipal officials across the U.S. Their objective is to revive the United States as a positive force in the international system, or at least to work with more willing partners than those in Washington.
If Pax Americana is dead in the Middle East, it’s only because America has euthanized it. Israel, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states would also welcome a more engaged U.S. into their backyard, but are otherwise taking care of business. They aren’t sitting on their hands in anticipation of a decision that may never come. Trump can give them a call if he suddenly chooses to put America back behind the steering wheel.