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A Dangerous Game

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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There’s a Washington think-tank variation on the board game Risk, and here’s how it goes: I give you a short statement about Obama policy in the Middle East, and you have to say who it’s from. 

John Kerry, man of talk

John Kerry, man of talk

Newscom

For example:

“The Persians are taking over Iraq and Syria and building a nuclear weapon. Are you Americans crazy? You think you will outsmart them in Geneva? They send Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah troops to fight in Syria and you do nothing? You draw a red line over chemical weapons and let Putin erase it?” 

So who said it: Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal? King Abdullah of Jordan? The Israelis? The Emiratis? The Moroccans? The Kuwaitis? Lebanese Christians? The list of candidates is long. 


It’s hard to win this game, because in private, all these players are saying pretty much the same thing. At this point they are less angry than astonished by -American policy, though the Saudis have been coming out of the closet in recent weeks with real resentment about the way Obama is changing the rules. In the game Risk, there are no teams, and alliances are temporary and often disregarded. Our Middle Eastern friends see Obama as playing by those rules rather than the ones that have governed American policy for decades, where alliances are real and lasting, and behavior is predictable. In real life they did not expect to see an America -desperate for a deal with Iran. None of these American friends likes the new rules much because it is they who face the risks: For them, what are mere guessing games in Washington can mean life or death. While Secretary of State John Kerry has been making fine speeches and signing op-eds about what is acceptable and unacceptable in world politics, deaths in Syria rise each day (perhaps to 125,000 or even 200,000 now), there are 6 million persons displaced all over Syria and crowding into Jordan and Lebanon, and reports are coming out of cholera and polio. 

The actions of the State Department have rarely seemed as disconnected from reality as they are today. The New York Times’s October 26 story about Obama’s new “modest” Middle East policy was based on interviews with Susan Rice. According to the story, and to Rice, we now have these goals in the region: a successful negotiation with Iran, a successful negotiation of Israeli-Palestinian peace, and a successful negotiation of the Syrian conflict. Gone, it seems, are bad old habits like the assertion of American power or the preference for defeating one’s enemies. The Iranians send troops to Syria, so we send John Kerry to talk with the Russians in a suite overlooking Lake Geneva. The only thing multiplying faster than Iranian centrifuges are talking points. But centrifuges produce enriched uranium, while talking points produce only position papers and Memoranda of Conversations. 

Israel’s former minister of defense and head of the Israel Defense Forces Ehud Barak once said that Israel survives in the Middle East not because Israelis can quote the Bible, but because they have the best army around—and that’s a view their neighbors all share. Until recently, the top gun in the neighborhood was the Americans. Only they had the ability to send hundreds of thousands of troops to stop aggression like Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. They had the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf, a red line against chemical weapons use, and dozens of flat statements promising to prevent Iran from getting to a nuclear weapon. But Susan Rice’s list of American priorities—presumably also Barack Obama’s—might be Belgium’s: all talk, all conferences, all Brussels and Geneva and the Security Council.

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