Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday,October 29, 2013
They Said It:
I respect those who say that the United States should simply withdraw from the Middle East, but I don’t respect them for anything but their honesty.
Christopher Hitches, The Quotable Hitches from Alcohol to Zionism: The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens, 2011.
TENNIS GOLF ANYONE?
As you undoubtedly know, for the last several decades the Middle East has been a particular thorn in the side of various U.S. governments. Its natural resources, its religions, and its general cultural backwardness have made it a vital region, but one in which the most delicate of diplomacy has always been exceptionally critical. Fortunately, the United States has had four longstanding and powerful allies in the region who have helped grease the proverbial skids: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt.
The royal house of Saud is, interestingly enough, the oldest American confederate in the region, having forged a close and largely unbroken relationship with the United States upon the Saudi declaration of statehood in 1932. Likewise, Israel has been an American ally since its own inception, which took place a mere 16 years later. The Republic of Turkey has been an American ally since near the end of World War II and was, along with Greece, the proximate cause of the declaration of the Truman Doctrine in 1947. As for Egypt, its loyalties wavered for much of the early Cold War. But upon the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, it moved quickly and forcefully in the direction of the United States and has remained a strong American ally ever since.
Well . . . until now, that is, which is the common thread binding all of these now-erstwhile allies together.
Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia shocked the world – or at least the diplomatic world. Having been offered a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the Saudis refused. And they refused quite forcefully.
In the history of the United Nations, no country that had been offered one of the non-permanent seats had ever before rejected this “honor.” But the Saudis did. And they did so in a fit of pique – pique not at the United Nations, but at Barack Obama. The Saudi statement, delivered by the kingdom’s Foreign Ministry, was both angry and cutting. To wit:
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia believes that the manner, the mechanisms of action and double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities towards preserving international peace and security as required, leading to the continued disruption of peace and security, the expansion of the injustices against the peoples, the violation of rights and the spread of conflicts and wars around the world ….
Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands idly, without applying deterrent sanctions against Damascus regime, is also irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities.
Had this been all that the Saudis said or did in the past couple of weeks, then one might justly interpret it as a slap at the United Nations alone. But the Security Council slap-down was, as it turns out, but the tip of the iceberg. Just days after the rejection of the United Nations’ offer, the two best-known spokesmen for the Saudi royal family also lashed out at the United States and its peculiarly irresolute president. The Daily Mail of London reported the story as follows:
Upset at President Barack Obama’s policies on Iran and Syria, members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are threatening a rift with the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and the kingdom to its lowest point in years.
Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief is vowing that the kingdom will make a ‘major shift’ in relations with the United States to protest perceived American inaction over Syria’s civil war as well as recent U.S. overtures to Iran, a source close to Saudi policy said on Tuesday.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats that the United States had failed to act effectively against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was growing closer to Tehran, and had failed to back Saudi support for Bahrain when it crushed an anti-government revolt in 2011, the source said.
“The shift away from the U.S. is a major one,” the source close to Saudi policy said. “Saudi doesn’t want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent.” . . .
The growing breach between the United States and Saudi Arabia was also on display in Washington, where another senior Saudi prince criticized Obama’s Middle East policies, accusing him of “dithering” on Syria and Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In unusually blunt public remarks, Prince Turki al-Faisal called Obama’s policies in Syria ‘lamentable’ and ridiculed a U.S.-Russian deal to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons. He suggested it was a ruse to let Obama avoid military action in Syria.
“The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. And designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down (from military strikes), but also to help Assad to butcher his people,’ said Prince Turki, a member of the Saudi royal family and former director of Saudi intelligence.
This is, to put it mildly, a BIG deal. Even David Ignatius, the Washington Post’s foreign policy columnist and the most decorated of the Obama administration’s cheerleaders, blamed Obama et al. for the dispute, calling the administration’s actions “upsetting” and “mystifying.” Worse yet, Ignatius also argued that the Saudis are hardly alone in their severe and justifiable displeasure with Obama’s Washington, noting that many others are also upset and for just cause:
What should worry the Obama administration is that Saudi concern about U.S. policy in the Middle East is shared by the four other traditional U.S. allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. They argue (mostly privately) that Obama has shredded U.S. influence by dumping President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, backing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, opposing the coup that toppled Morsi, vacillating in its Syria policy, and now embarking on negotiations with Iran — all without consulting close Arab allies.
Saudi King Abdullah privately voiced his frustration with U.S. policy in a lunch in Riyadh Monday with King Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the U.A.E., according to a knowledgeable Arab official. The Saudi monarch “is convinced the U.S. is unreliable,” this official said. “I don’t see a genuine desire to fix it” on either side, he added.
You’ll note that two of the other three allies we mentioned up top are included in Ignatius’s list of other nations that are “concerned,” with the Obama administration’s actions. And while we’d agree with Ignatius that these nations are not happy with Barack Obama, we’d use a far harsher verb than “concerned” to convey their sentiment.
Three weeks ago, speaking at the United Nations, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu declared that neither he nor his countrymen will permit the Islamic “Republic” of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, regardless of the United States’ intentions. “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons,” the Prime Minister reiterated, and “if Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone, but in standing alone Israel will know that we will be defending many, many others.”
Last week, Netanyahu met in Rome with American Secretary of State John Kerry and once again repeated his displeasure with American policy in Middle East and especially with the Obama administration’s perpetual and potentially deadly dithering with respect to Iran. The Daily Telegraph of London reported on the meeting as follows:
The United States and Israel clashed on Wednesday over Iran as Benjamin Netanyahu called for Tehran’s entire nuclear programme to be dismantled and warned the world against accepting a “partial deal”.
The Israeli prime minister made clear his dismay at Washington’s softer approach towards Iran. He said the ongoing negotiations should insist that Tehran end all enrichment of uranium, destroy all fissile material and close water plants and underground bunkers that he said could only be used to build a nuclear bomb.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Red Sea, anger with the Obama administration is also bubbling over, as Egyptians lose what is left of their patience with an administration that is so upset that its dear friend Mohammed Morsi was forced from power in July that it has decided to withhold nearly all military aid from this onetime ally, causing Egypt’s already severe foreign currency crisis to worsen dramatically.
The Egyptian people are starving – one of the reasons they detested the Morsi regime, incidentally – and Barack Obama, the man who promised to change America’s relations with the Muslim world has decided to make their suffering worse by cutting back on aid to the one sector of the Egyptian economy that will never, ever be cut by the ruling regime. Needless to say, this, along with Obama’s support for the now-hated Morsi, has made many Egyptians incredibly unhappy. As Euronews put it three weeks ago:
Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Badr Abdelatty questioned the future of the relationship between the two countries, saying: “It wasn’t an appropriate decision and it raises serious questions with regards to the commitments of the United States to provide the security programs and assistance to Egypt.”
Political analyst, Saad El-Dine Ibrahim, warned it could have a knock-on effect for Israel: “Egypt will be freer to manipulate its relations with Israel. It will not be as dutiful in observing the terms of the Egyptian Israeli peace treaty as they have been for the last 40 years.”
Not surprisingly, America’s loss in Egypt is, quite possibly, turning into someone else’s gain. As the Jerusalem Post noted over the weekend, the Great Game is again afoot, and only the feckless and clumsy American president is sitting this round out. To wit:
Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering paying a state visit to Egypt to take advantage of frayed ties between Washington and Cairo and possibly gain access to Mediterranean ports, the Sunday Times of London reported . . . .
Putin is seeking to resume military ties with Egypt in light of the vacuum created by Washington’s decision and fears of a return to the Cold War era rivalry in the region, the Sunday Times reported.
Among Russia’s motivations, the newspaper suggests, is access to Egypt’s Mediterranean ports. Russia’s only base in the Mediterranean, the Syrian port of Tartus, could be lost if ally President Bashar Assad’s is driven from power.
Putin is also seeking to fill the void left by the US withdrawal from Iraq and strained ties between Washington and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunday Times reported.
“The US is in retreat all over the Middle East: Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And the Russians are stepping in and intend to stay,” the paper quoted the Israeli security source as saying.
Ah, yes. The US is “in retreat all over the Middle East.” Comforting, no?
Of course, that’s not entirely true. There is one nominally Middle Eastern country from which the United States has NOT retreated, one of the four aforementioned allies with whom the Obama administration has actually strengthened ties and to whom Obama appears to feel greater intimacy, namely Turkey. And how is that working out for Obama, for the rest of the region, and for global stability? Funny you should ask.
Two weeks ago, David Ignatius, the aforementioned Washington Post cheerleader for the Obama administration, reported an interesting, nearly two-year-old factoid that explains in part how Obama’s friend, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Ergodan, deals with AMERICA’S friends, in this case Israel. Ignatius wrote:
The Turkish-Israeli relationship became so poisonous early last year that the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to have disclosed to Iranian intelligence the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had been meeting inside Turkey with their Mossad case officers.
Knowledgeable sources describe the Turkish action as a “significant” loss of intelligence and “an effort to slap the Israelis.” The incident, disclosed here for the first time, illustrates the bitter, multi-dimensional spy wars that lie behind the current negotiations between Iran and Western nations over a deal to limit the Iranian nuclear program. A Turkish Embassy spokesman had no comment.
Ignatius went on to speculate about the crumbling relationship between Turkey and Israel and specifically Benjamin Netanyahu’s anger with Ergodan. The “soft” Islamists of Turkey have been overtly contemptuous of Israel of late, and it is clear that this erstwhile alliance of non-Arab Middle Easterners has deteriorated badly over the last few years. Nevertheless, Ignatius continued:
Though U.S. officials regarded exposure of the Israeli network as an unfortunate intelligence loss, they didn’t protest directly to Turkish officials. Instead, Turkish-American relations continued warming last year to the point that Erdogan was among Obama’s key confidants.
Well . . . of course. How could he not be?
Meanwhile, once again on the other side of the Red Sea, Ergodan is causing more trouble. Last week, The Tower magazine – a new journal funded by The Israel Project – reported the following:
Egyptian media outlets are conveying leaks from Egyptian intelligence officials accusing Turkey of arming jihadists in the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula, a charge that – confirmed or not – will be taken as further evidence of crashing Egyptian-Turkish ties amid deepening Turkish regional isolation.
Turkish shipments to Al Qaeda-linked anti-government elements are not unheard of, and Yemen has reportedly intercepted at least five arms shipments this year. Turkey has aligned itself with Sunni extremists throughout the region, anchoring one of three emerging Middle East camps, opposite a Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah bloc and a bloc made up of the U.S.’s traditional Arab allies and Israel.
Amid calls by U.S. analysts to deal Hamas a death blow, the Turkish foreign ministry on Wednesday announced that it had sent $850,000 to provide energy to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, providing the weakened terror group with desperately needed breathing room.
Ergodan and Turkey, naturally, are upset about the Egyptian army’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom they supported – another point of agreement with Obama. The increasingly radicalized and isolated Turks are supporting Brotherhood-aligned factions in the Syrian civil war. And so it is hardly surprising that they would also be supporting Hamas, itself a Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. All things considered, then, Turkey has, over the course of the last couple of years, earned a rather ignominious distinction: it is now unquestionably the most aggressive and most outspoken supporter of politicized Sunni Islam in the Middle East. And it is, unsurprisingly enough, the only erstwhile American ally with whom Barack Obama remains close.
So where does this leave us?
Well, as best we can tell, the entire Middle East is approaching some sort of denouement, which will probably not include any ameliorating input from the “the world’s sole remaining superpower.”
The Saudis have cut ties with their oldest allies. The Egyptians are starving and turning to Mother Russia for help. The Israelis are threatening to go to war unilaterally. And the Turks are not-so-covertly bankrolling and supporting the Sunni Islamist war on the West. And all of this is IN ADDITION to the civil war in Syria, the collapse of the Iraqi democracy, and the Mad Mullahs’ ongoing push for nuclear weapons. Worst of all, Barack Obama is doing his best not to take any of this too seriously. Truth be told, he reminds us of the old dramatic trope, often and perhaps erroneously attributed to Humphrey Bogart in his early stage career, in which a clueless and fatuous fool bounds on stage, breaking the tension at a particularly stressful moment by asking “Tennis anyone?” Of course, with our Dear Leader, who has no time for briefings by his National Security Agency on the daily activities of Angela Merkel, but has nonetheless played nearly 150 rounds of golf while president, the sport mentioned in the cliché is flexible.
Now, we have to be careful with our conclusions here, so as not to sound crazy (or craziER, if you prefer). But it strikes us that all of this is fertile ground for the plethora of conspiracy theorists that, not surprisingly, thrive in the Middle East and its chaotic political milieu.
A favorite among these “theories,” one that is especially popular among some factions on the far political Right in this country, posits that Barack Obama is not really who he claims to be, but is, rather, a furtive Muslim determined to destroy America from the inside by instigating a series of policy disasters that will leave the country permanently and irredeemably weakened, while leaving the Islamists of the Middle East strengthened.
Let us be perfectly clear about this: we do not subscribe to this theory. In fact, we think it’s nuts. But having said that, we really have to admit that it would be difficult to imagine how his foreign policy would be conducted any differently if he were. After all, the results of his efforts in the Middle East include American alienation, Iranian nuclear weapons, Saudi isolation and presumed investment in its own nuclear weapons, and an Israeli nation abandoned and on its own.
Moreover, we have to admit that Obama doesn’t do much to dispel these theories when he insists that there is really nothing too terribly remarkable going on in the Middle East; that indeed events there are proceeding precisely as he has envisioned them. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration – at the direction of the Obama and his National Security Advisor Susan Rice – has spent the last several months developing a “new” and more modest strategy for its Middle East policy. The Times put it this way:
At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.
That includes Egypt, which was once a central pillar of American foreign policy . . . .
Not only does the new approach have little in common with the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush, but it is also a scaling back of the more expansive American role that Mr. Obama himself articulated two years ago, before the Arab Spring mutated into sectarian violence, extremism and brutal repression.
The blueprint drawn up on those summer weekends at the White House is a model of pragmatism — eschewing the use of force, except to respond to acts of aggression against the United States or its allies, disruption of oil supplies, terrorist networks or weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, it does not designate the spread of democracy as a core interest.
Now, to be honest, we are big fans of more “modest” and “pragmatic” foreign policy. The only problem being that our vision of what is modest and pragmatic doesn’t align with Obama’s. Indeed, even if one could ignore the preposterousness of the notion that the United States could ever peacefully persuade Iran to give up its nukes, there still exists the even more preposterous fantasy that Obama can settle the Israeli-Palestinian question. Does he not know that every American President since Truman has been unsuccessful in this endeavor, largely because it is an impossible task for which the Palestinians in particular have no desire? The sad and disturbing fact is that one doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder what Obama is really thinking in this context, or if he is actually thinking at all.
If pressed to find a glimmer of hope in this impending tragedy, we’re happy to say that we can find two. The first was noted over the weekend by the inimitable Walter Russell Mead, who is pleased that Obama appears, at long last, to have abandoned the democracy agenda, which was launched by his predecessor and which was the animating force in his own first term. We heartily agree with Mead. Indeed, we have long opposed the notion that inside of every Islamist terrorist is a Thomas Jefferson or George Washington fighting to get out. We stated our feelings about the Bush democracy agenda more than a decade ago in an August of 2003 piece titled, “Over the Edge With Condi.”
In the words of the two writers, this “senior administration official” said that this commitment [to democracy] was part of a “long-term strategy in which the United States would spread its values through Iraq and the Middle East much as it transformed Europe in the second half of the 20th century.”
Furthermore, they said that this official noted that, “this commitment to Iraq and the Middle East would be far more expansive than the administration had described to the public and the world before the Iraq war.”
Our first reaction to this article was that this “Bush aide” needed to get some rest. And then, less than a week later, the Post ran an op-ed piece by prominent “Bush aide” Condoleezza Rice, entitled “Transforming the Middle East,” which said exactly the same thing. In fact, she asserted that America and its “friends and allies must commit ourselves to a long-term transformation” of the Middle East region . . . .
This was followed by a front page piece in the Post the very next day entitled “U.S. Promises Democracy in Middle East,” which discussed a speech that Ms. Rice had given the day before in which she, in the words of the reporter, “made a broad pledge to spread democracy and free markets to the Middle East, promising to move beyond the recent focus on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an ambitious but vaguely defined project to transform a troubled region.”
This time our reaction was somewhat harsher. In fact, we came to the conclusion after reading and re-reading these articles several times, along with Ms. Rice’s actual speech on the White House website, that if Ms. Rice’s views do indeed outline what George W. Bush and his foreign policy team have in mind for the Middle East, then the United States is headed down a road toward a foreign policy disaster.
An ancillary thought that came to me at the same time is that these people are insane.
Of course, even in the darkest days of America’s fatuous attempt to introduce democracy into an ancient tribal community, we never thought that a viable substitute would be to alienate virtually all players in the region.
The second bit of potential good news is one suggested by one of the news stories cited above, that which “warned” that Vladimir Putin was on his way to Egypt to attempt to fill the void left by Barack Obama’s apparent abandonment of that nation’s current regime. Egypt, of course, is not the only country in which the newly reinvigorated Russia is flexing its muscle. Indeed, as countless wags have noted, not only is America in retreat everywhere on the globe, but Russia and its ex-KGB president are on the offensive everywhere on the globe, and especially in those corners recently abandoned by the United States. Barack Obama may not know that nature abhors a vacuum, but Vladimir Putin surely does.
How, you ask, is this good news? Well, we’re not sure. In fact, we’re probably stretching here a bit. Still, it strikes us that Putin – who is a cruel and murderous thug – is probably at least nominally concerned about stability in the Middle East. This concern, of course, is unquestionably self-serving, but it is concern nonetheless. It is unlikely, for example, that Putin believes that all-out nuclear war between Iran and Israel is conducive to Russia’s ongoing and perpetual search for a stable warm-water port. And while a gangster like Putin can and undoubtedly will cause a great deal of trouble in pursuit of his self-interest, there is still some comfort in knowing that the region has caught the attention of someone whose self-interest revolves around his country’s future, rather than the guy whose self-interest is strictly limited to playing conditions at the Fort Belvoir golf course.
In the meantime, we suppose it wouldn’t hurt if Obama showed up on stage a little more often, bounding along joyfully if cluelessly, asking if anyone would like to join him on the links. Lord knows we’d rather he be hitting a golf ball than trying to “fix” the problems in the Middle East – or worse yet, trying to fix the problems in the Mid-West. Golf, anyone?