There’s a great line in the latest James Bond trailer. Warning Bond of his ignorance of danger, Mr. White remarks: “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.”
It’s a perfect analogy for President Obama’s policy in the Middle East: a kite dancing in the spiraling hurricane of sectarian politics. Unfortunately, President Obama isn’t James Bond. And today, with America’s kite lost in the wind, Saudi Arabia’s leaders are reverting to sectarian paranoia.
If we decipher the causes of the U.S.–Saudi breakdown, two specific events stand out. First, the American withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011. That decision led to Iran’s seizure of Iraqi political dialogue and to Iraq’s sectarian fragmentation, delivering it into the hands of ISIS. Second, President Obama’s repeated WMD “red line” impotence in Syria. Repeated, because Assad has repeatedly murdered Syrian civilians with chlorine gas since his Ghouta massacre of August 2013.
These two events encouraged the Saudis to believe that President Obama is unreliable and uninterested in their concerns. Their view has been reinforced by subsequent events. The president’s malleability toward Iran, for example, has been especially problematic. Witnessing Iran’s growing empire of Khomeinism and President Obama’s apparent acquiescence to that endeavor — take Obama’s silence to this week’s capture of a vessel that was under U.S. protection — the Saudis are panicking. The central problem is that while both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are aware of Iran’s aggressive ambitions, each nation has a different conception of America’s deterrent power against Iran. Where President Obama sees American regional strength via the (semi) formidable U.S. military presence in the Gulf, the Saudis see America’s regional weakness via Iran’s political domination in Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and now Sana’a, Yemen.
And the distinctions seem to reveal something deeper. President Obama has decided that Iran’s geographical empowerment is a price worth paying to limit American involvement in the Middle East. That may be a tempting assumption, but it reflects his refusal to recognize the degree to which Middle Eastern politics are shaped by perceptions and impressions.
We find a good example of this dynamic in President Obama’s correspondence with Ayatollah Khamenei. Obama seems to believe that he’s fostering trust by writing frequently to the supreme leader. And that might be a logical assumption. The Iranians, however, are judging Obama’s letters not simply by their explicit content but by the subtle impression they give of the power dynamic between the two leaders. I warned last November that Iranian hardliners would be encouraged by his letters. A month later, the New York Times carried this quote from a hardline journalist aligned with the Revolutionary Guards: “When Obama sends letters to our leader wishing him a speedy recovery, to us that is a sign of weakness. During meetings, the letter is discussed and we conclude: ‘Obama needs a deal. He needs us.’ We would never write him such a letter.”
Obama believes that if he restricts American leadership, Saudi Arabia will be forced to compromise and find consensus with its arch-nemesis, Iran.
And rightly or wrongly, Saudi Arabia shares Iran’s view that Obama is weak. By ignoring this perception of his leadership, President Obama has encouraged the Saudis to run amok.
This is not to say that the Saudis are perfect allies deserving of unrestrained American support. King Salman’s regime — as his appointments this week attest — is slowly reforming, but human rights in Saudi Arabia remain under assault, and Wahhabi extremists retain too much power. Nevertheless, by neglecting Saudi concerns, President Obama has allowed them to fester. This is Obama’s defining strategic failure: He believes that if he restricts American leadership, Saudi Arabia will be forced to compromise and find consensus with its arch-nemesis, Iran.
The opposite is true. Absent American influence, the Middle East is now melting into a borderless war. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is in a de facto overt war with Iran. In Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are preparing for a de facto overt war with Iran. Iraq remains in political chaos. The peace of Beirut skates on ultra-thin political ice. Today, the Saudis are obsessed about marginalizing the Shia in Iran. This fixation inversely feeds Iran’s sectarian extremism in the Middle East
America will suffer from President Obama’s kite-flying in the Middle East.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., writes for the Daily Telegraph. He’s a contributor to The McLaughlin Group and holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets.