From his place on the podium at AIPAC’s annual policy conference last week, Benjamin Netanyahu surveyed the Middle East. “On the one side stands Israel, animated by the values we cherish,” said the Israeli prime minister. And on the other side are Iran, Bashar al-Assad, and Hezbollah—“the forces of terror . . . steeped in blood and savagery.” There’s a “moral divide,” said Netanyahu, “that separates Israel from its enemies.”
There is indeed a yawning moral chasm separating the Iranian-led axis of resistance from Israel, a nation that sets up field hospitals to care for Syrian civilians targeted and besieged by Assad and his allied forces of terror. However, the more daunting issue right now is the strategic divide separating Israel from the White House. The two sides don’t see the same Middle East, neither the region’s major threats nor its potential bright spots. And there is no telling how that enormous gap might be bridged.
Netanyahu, like America’s traditional Arab allies in the region, believes that Iran is the pressing issue. In his AIPAC speech, he was careful to underscore a point he has been making for years: “No country has a greater interest in the peaceful elimination of the Iranian nuclear threat” than Israel. And in order to dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons capability peacefully, there are two necessary conditions: first, crippling sanctions. “Pressure is what brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place,” Netanyahu reiterated last week, “and only more pressure will get them to abandon their nuclear weapons program.”
Obama’s reading of the regime, however, runs entirely counter to Netanyahu’s. Obama believes the Iranians need to be coaxed, not pressured. He refused to back the Iranian Green Movement that took to the streets to protest the 2009 elections, or to arm the anti-Assad rebels in order to topple Iran’s Syrian ally, because he feared pressure would drive the regime away from the negotiating table. Obama initially resisted the congressional push for sanctions legislation and has most recently promised to veto further rounds. The president’s faintheartedness on the subject, coupled with the economic relief already granted to Iran, has effectively collapsed the sanctions regime.
Netanyahu’s second condition is that there must be a credible threat of force. However, the situation unfolding in Ukraine underscores the fact that, counter to Obama’s boasts, neither adversaries nor allies believe that this president would ever use force to stop Iran. The issue is not that Obama won’t dispatch special operations forces to liberate Crimea. Rather, it’s that in his mishandling of Syria, Obama has heightened Putin’s stature while diminishing his own.
Even before the administration signed on to the Russian initiative to rid Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama was enabling Putin by claiming that there was only a political solution to the Syrian conflict—a solution to which Russia held the keys. Putin on the other hand obviously believes there is indeed a military solution, which is why, ignoring the nagging of White House officials, he continues to back the Syrian regime. Accordingly, Moscow rather than Washington became the address to apply to for anyone, including American allies from France to Saudi Arabia, who sought to stop Assad’s killing machine. When Obama accepted Putin’s chemical weapons initiative in order to avoid a potentially embarrassing vote in Congress refusing to authorize the use of force against Assad, the commander in chief effectively turned Putin into the indispensable Russian, while rendering America irrelevant. With Ukraine, Obama reaps what he has been sowing for three years in Syria—American impotence.
Perhaps Netanyahu regards the American position with alarm—or maybe he’s already written off Obama because it’s obvious the White House is working from an entirely different script.
Netanyahu’s most positive message last week concerned future cooperation with Israel’s Arab neighbors, especially those in the Persian Gulf, also threatened by Iran’s revolutionary project for the region. “The combination of Israeli innovation and Gulf entrepreneurship,” said Netanyahu, “could catapult the entire region forward.”
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?