The Magazine

The Great Divide

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By LEE SMITH
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But this is not how Obama sees it. From his perspective, America’s traditional allies in the Persian Gulf represent not an opportunity but a burden. The way he sees it, the Saudis and other Sunni Arabs aren’t looking for reassurances regarding Iran from a longtime ally, they just want him to do their dirty work and kill Persians in a Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict. But that won’t happen on Obama’s watch. What the White House seeks instead is to establish a geopolitical equilibrium balancing the Sunnis and the Shiites against each other. And that is presumably the message Obama will carry when he visits Saudi Arabia later this month—that the Arabs, like the Israelis, need to deal with the new reality: They’re getting a downgrade. As Obama told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg last week, “I think that there are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off guard. I think change is always scary.” And tough luck if the octogenarian Saudi king isn’t nimble enough to keep up.

The unseemly fact is that by trying to establish a new geopolitical equilibrium in which Washington attenuates its support for traditional allies, the White House has effectively become Iran’s lawyer. For instance, last week the outgoing American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, tried to wrangle the Syrian opposition into negotiations with Iran’s Lebanese client, Hezbollah. The administration conveys messages on behalf of the Iranians not only to the Arabs, but also to Israel.

Last week, the White House asked the Israelis to stop killing Iranian nuclear scientists—a request that seems par for the course given that administration officials have repeatedly leaked accounts of Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria. The White House also announced it is cutting $200 million out of the proposed 2015 budget for Israeli missile defense, which means that Israel is more vulnerable not only to rocket attacks from Hezbollah and Palestinian groups, but also ballistic missiles launched by Iran in the event of a retaliatory strike should Israel bomb Iranian nuclear weapons facilities.

The White House’s efforts amount to making Israel more vulnerable, just as the administration has neutered itself by collapsing the sanctions regime and stripping itself of a credible threat of force. The new balance of regional power that Obama seeks to establish is not really between Iran and Saudi Arabia. After all, Riyadh may have plenty of American arms, but it is a U.S. client state, incapable of projecting power on its own. The geopolitical equilibrium that Obama wants is between Iran and Israel. It’s Israeli power that he needs to rein in—he’s balancing Tehran not against Riyadh but against Jerusalem.

Obama, in short, seeks to overturn the U.S. order in the Middle East, a legacy dating back to World War II. The strategic divide separating us from our allies, Israel as well as the Arabs, won’t be bridged while he is in the White House. The question is—what will be left of the U.S. position in the strategically vital Middle East three years from now?

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