So what’s next? Already there is bipartisan consternation on the Hill, where there is movement for yet more sanctions in addition to those that kick in this week targeting Iran’s energy and banking sectors. But sanctions aren’t going to stop the Iranians. The conventional wisdom has it that all eyes are now on Israel, to see if or when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attack Iran. Obama has promised that he has Israel’s back, that all options are on the table, and that he doesn’t bluff. But the real question is why the responsibility to act is seen to be Israel’s. Why has Obama made Israel the focus when the United States has its own considerable stake in the outcome? And that stake isn’t just preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, important as that is. It’s also preserving American hegemony in the Persian Gulf.
For more than 60 years the Persian Gulf has been an American lake, and protecting its vast energy resources has been a cornerstone of U.S. strategy, through the Cold War, two wars in Iraq, and another in Afghanistan. If the Iranians are now fearless in dealing with the Obama administration, it’s because they have recognized that Obama is shockingly unconcerned with maintaining America’s longstanding commitments in the Gulf.
Let’s look at Obama’s Middle East policy the way Tehran must. Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq and has scheduled a similar exit from Afghanistan, exposing the region to Iranian influence that the United States will have little ability to check. Instead the administration has left U.S. interests in the hands of largely incapable allies. The Obama administration did sell $30 billion worth of F-15s to Saudi Arabia—as if hoping that with enough hardware Riyadh would be capable of defending itself.
But consider how the White House has treated its regional partners when the going gets tough. During the course of the Arab Spring, Obama turned his back on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, angering the rulers of Saudi Arabia, America’s key Gulf allies because they happen to sit on the world’s largest known reserves of oil. At the time that might have been defensible. However, now it simply looks incoherent. When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has plagued the Saudis for years, was targeted by a popular uprising, Obama did nothing to topple Iran’s lone Arab ally. Instead, he backed a Russian-inspired diplomatic process that has served only to buy Assad time—just as three rounds of nuclear talks have helped protect Iran from an Israeli strike. So the net effect of Obama’s Middle East strategy has been to protect Tehran’s regional security interests—Syria, Hezbollah, and the bomb.
Sure, U.S. sanctions hurt the Iranian economy, but not the nuclear program. And the strictest sanctions were imposed only because Congress gave the White House no choice. Every signal that Obama has sent suggests the president believes the United States no longer has vital interests in the Gulf. This marks a profound reversal of American strategy. The Obama Doctrine amounts to a repudiation of the Carter Doctrine, which declared control of the Persian Gulf and its energy resources to be a vital U.S. interest.
The free flow of Gulf oil has been central to the stability of the world economy. But it wasn’t until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that American policymakers spelled out just how far they were willing to go. As Carter explained in his 1980 State of the Union address: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
Ronald Reagan’s corollary, pursued by succeeding administrations, was that Washington would use force to protect Gulf security from internal threats as well as external ones. The George H. W. Bush administration expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait before he could make a run at Saudi Arabia. Clinton maintained no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq and added a 1998 bombing campaign to further contain Saddam.
Perhaps most significantly, the George W. Bush White House recognized in the wake of 9/11 that Saudi Arabia itself, or segments of it, could not be relied on to uphold the stability of global energy markets. The American troops whose presence in Saudi Arabia had served as one of Osama bin Laden’s rallying cries were withdrawn, and the White House sought an alternative security pillar in Iraq.