Thursday, March 26, 2015

Balancing act - Obama goes academic in the Middle East

The news on Thursday morning was rich in paradox. In Yemen, the United States was assisting Saudi Arabia in an operation against the Houthis, who are backed by Iran. In Iraq, American aircraft were supporting the Iraqi Army and militias, also backed by Iran, in their battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Tikrit.

Such are the realities of President Barack Obama’s desire to push for a new Middle East characterized by a balance of power between the principal regional states. For the president, this would allow the United States to disengage from a region that has drained American resources. But as Obama is discovering, it’s easier to be drawn into the Middle East than to get out.

Since roughly the end of the Cold War, the United States has been the main stabilizer in the region. When Saddam Hussein ordered his army into Kuwait in 1990, it was America that led the military effort to expel his troops. Once that was done, Washington mediated between the Arabs and Israelis to reach peace settlements. The process ultimately failed, except for the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.

After the 9/11 attacks, the American priority changed. From defending the status quo, the George W. Bush administration sought to fundamentally alter it to America’s advantage by removing Saddam’s regime. The rationale was that Arab dictatorships had generated frustration among youths, who, in response, had turned to terrorism. By removing the worst dictator of the lot, the United States could bring about a democratic transformation that made this process less likely.

It may have been simplistic, but the so-called Arab Spring later showed that the absence of democracy and liberty was at the heart of Arab discontent. Yet the Iraqi campaign also brought a fundamental break in the supine Arab equilibrium. The principal winner in Iraq was not the United States, but Iran. This alarmed the mainly Sunni states of the Gulf, who were doubly troubled by the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.

When Obama began his presidency, the Sunni Arab states perhaps felt the most vulnerable. Instead of receiving reassurances from Washington, however, they saw a president who made it very clear that he intended to reduce American involvement in the Middle East. This intention was implicit in the administration’s priority to effect a “pivot to Asia.”

Worse for the Arab states, Obama later began negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, a step Arabs read very differently than Washington. To them, a resolution of the nuclear dispute would lead to normalization between Iran and the United States. Above all, it would lift sanctions, freeing up vast sums of money and thus allowing the Islamic Republic to pursue regional hegemony. And to add icing to the cake of Arab anxiety, Obama appeared to embrace his radical new template for the region.

The president apparently believes that the only way for the United States to reduce its footprint in the Middle East is by establishing a new regional balance of power that can manage itself and thereby maintain stability. Obama seems to believe, however, that for this to take root Iranian interests must be given due consideration and its regional role recognized. That’s because Washington simply no longer has the means, let alone the will, to pursue the containment of Iran.

Yet, while Iran’s stakes in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have been respected by the Obama administration, there are red lines. America will defend allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Jordan and Israel if they are ever threatened. That explains why Washington has collaborated with the Saudis in Yemen against Iran’s wishes, while assisting Iran’s allies in Tikrit. The Obama administration will go along with Saudi and Iranian efforts to keep order in their respective backyards.

This balancing game will not be easy. Regional equilibriums usually only come in the wake of myriad conflicts in which each state imposes its zones of influence on the others. In Europe, it took the Napoleonic wars to bring about the balance reached after the Congress of Vienna. And even then it was relatively short lived, as the revolutions of 1848 challenged the established order, and later as an emerging Germany challenged and defeated France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871.

In other words Obama’s concept of balance seems remarkably academic, with little reflection about the chaos and rivalries that will be unleashed. In such a context it is difficult to see how the United States, which seeks to leave a steady order in place, can avoid greater engagement in the Middle East. The headaches have just begun for the onetime university professor. 

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