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A Recipe for Violence

Obama’s ‘offshore balancing’ and the New Middle East

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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One small benefit of the Syrian civil war appears to be that it’s preoccupied Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, who continues to play a waiting game. Beyond cheering on Hamas in Gaza, he’s remained reluctant to provoke Israel since 2006. Though that incursion is still widely regarded as a defeat for the Israelis, Nasrallah’s famous public regrets over the campaign have been reflected in his behavior since then. Hezbollah has been concentrating on more far-flung operations, including in Latin America, and its trainers are in high demand by insurgent organizations everywhere.

Jordan, too, is experiencing a spike of dissent. Recent protests pushed past previous boundaries of acceptable dissent in complaining about King Abdullah personally; that’s outlawed in Amman. Even though the Hashemite regime has repeatedly defied predictions of its demise, the generational changes sweeping the region, Palestinian unrest, the civil war in Syria, and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq isolate Abdullah—another pillar of U.S. strategy—more than usual.

All in all, the war in Syria makes the situation in the Levant roughly analogous to that in North Africa. The most powerful status-quo Arab autocracy hasn’t had its regime-change moment, but it’s plainly in view. And the United States is scrambling to keep up with events.

The Persian Gulf

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states retain a tighter grip on power than others, but also have more troubles than in the recent past. With Riyadh’s backing, and indeed, with Saudi troops, Bahrain cracked down hard on Shiite demonstrations last year. But the war in Yemen continues, and a nuclear Iran lurks just over the horizon.

To be sure, Tehran’s balance sheet has lots of minuses to go with the pluses. Assad’s fall would be a significant setback. But there would still be post-Assad opportunities in a weak and divided Syria, and in Iraq, Iran showed its ability to make temporary alliances of convenience with Sunni extremists. The Islamic Republic must also deal with a variety of domestic problems, from factionalism within the regime to the economic pain caused by sanctions.

But compared with its neighbors, Iran looks stable and secure; the likelihood of regime change in Tehran seems low. The Iranians don’t need to be in a nuclear rush, either; much better to pile up supplies of enriched uranium, to work on missiles and a couple of warhead designs, so that the breakout moment, when it comes, rapidly produces a credible deterrent of not one weapon but a dozen or more. In the meantime, watch the Americans retreat and the Sunni regimes worry about their increasingly dissatisfied people.

Israel and Turkey

The winds of Arab change complicate life for those who live next door, or, in Israel’s case, in the same house. Israel’s predicament is acute. The Israelis had, over many decades and with lots of American help, established a crude but durable kind of strategic partnership with the status-quo Arab regimes. Fear of Iran meant that the logic of the partnership would continue; Israel’s “isolation” among Arabs would not pose an existential danger. And it still might—again, Morsi’s Egypt is key—but Israelis have good reason to be more jittery than they’ve been for some time. Walls and “Iron Domes” and “mowing the grass” in Gaza cannot really suffice for Israeli defense. Preemptive attacks and punitive raids have long been needed to keep more numerous foes off balance, and Arab regimes largely looked the other way when it came to the Palestinians or the Shiites of southern Lebanon.

Life is also getting complicated in Ankara. Prime Minister Erdogan’s experiment in modern Islamic rule has all but eliminated the last vestiges of the Kemalist tradition, including in the Turkish Army. But “neo-Ottoman” posturing hasn’t gone down well among the Turkic states of Central Asia, and efforts at a broader Islamic appeal, such as the “flotilla” to the Palestinians in 2011, have mostly underscored the limits of Turkish power. So has the Syrian civil war. The conflict has produced a flood of refugees along what was already an unstable border, and Turkey faces a range of intolerable outcomes. Whether Assad hangs on, Syria breaks up, or radical Islamists take over—none of it looks good to Turks.

Israel and Turkey have been America’s best allies in the region. The U.S. commitment to Israel, like that to Great Britain, is woven into the fabric of American strategy. Turkey is of course a NATO nation, and that alliance remains a solemn treaty vow. Indeed, not that long ago Israel and Turkey were themselves strategic partners, but no longer.

An Ebbing American Tide

When Barack Obama declared, “the tide of war is receding,” what he meant was that the United States would no longer play the directing role it had previously assumed in the greater Middle East. That role began well before 9/11. It grew out of the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine in 1979. The 1990-1991 Gulf War marked a further Rubicon. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney famously promised the Saudi king that U.S. troops would leave once the job of kicking Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait was complete, but they didn’t. There wasn’t a stable status quo to return to. There isn’t one now. We have chosen what’s likely to prove a very bad time to tire of intervening in this region.

If the opportunity to shape the new order is slipping away, so are the means to do so. The U.S. military has made it through the post-9/11 wars by the skin of its teeth. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps, even when mobilizing much of their reserve strength, were not big enough to properly fight in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. The U.S. Navy, supposedly the big beneficiary of the “Pacific pivot,” is running at ramming speed in and around the Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean.

Never mind the “sequestration” arm-waving. As the Obama 2014 budget request is certain to reveal, sequestration-level defense budgets are now the ceiling, not the floor. Perhaps a lame-duck deal will mitigate some of the immediate effect, but the likelihood of deeper defense spending cuts in 2014 and beyond is very high. Taxophobic Republicans will go along with what the president proposes. The Joint Chiefs of Staff will obey orders.

“Offshore balancing” in the emerging Middle East will be very much like shelling the continent of Africa, as Joseph Conrad put it: emotionally satisfying but without purpose or result. Some of the satisfaction will be lost when we balance the human cost of letting local conflicts run their course, as in Syria. But beyond what our moral sense can tolerate, there will be more tangible consequences. No one can predict with precision what they will be, but it’s a pretty good bet that the one thing worse than trying to put out all the fires will be letting them burn.

Thomas Donnelly is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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