The Middle East is undergoing its most consequential transition since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1917. Failure of the Arab Spring has resuscitated the jihadist claim that only violence can produce change in a region that’s stagnant politically and economically.
Wars burn like wildfires across Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Bashar al-Assad continues his reign of terror in Syria, with the death toll approaching 500,000 of Syria’s own citizens. Iraq’s politicians rely on Iranian-backed militia rather than building Kurdish and Sunni trust. Libya, rife with militia and fractured between two governments, has become an independent theater of ISIS operations instead of just a feeder of jihadists for Syria. Jordan and Lebanon warn that they stagger under the weight of Syrian refugees, and increased jihadist attacks challenge the capacity of their security forces. Iran foments sectarian conflict throughout the region, funding, arming, and training Shiite militants as a means of expanding its influence and undermining predominantly Sunni states. The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quasim Sulimanyi, takes celebrity photos on the front lines in Syria and Iraq and positions Iran as the region’s only protector against ISIS. Egypt sinks further into its own dark night of repression; the authorities there have taken 41,000 political prisoners since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s forces overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood, which was itself clumsily authoritarian. Gulf Cooperation Council countries remain divided over support for Islamists, unable to make good on the bold promise of an Arab military force; they are struggling even to bring Iranian-backed Houthi under control in Yemen. Violence between Palestinians and Israelis is now routine, reducing the political space for moderation in both societies.
Obama’s approach is at odds with advice from the foreign-policy establishment: He scolds friendly governments about their inadequacies and assists the ambitions of our enemies.
Faced with an upheaval so consequential, President Obama congratulates himself on defying the American foreign-policy establishment, which counsels a proactive American engagement. The establishment holds that American involvement would foster regional cooperation, reinforce our influence, and help pro-America governments redress their peoples’ grievances and protect their security. Obama takes a different tack: scolding friendly governments about their inadequacies and assisting the ambitions of our enemies. How else should countries in the region interpret his public advice to Saudi Arabia that it should learn to share the region with Iran? Evidently, the cataclysm of the Middle East is what “leading from behind” is supposed to produce.
Add to this Obama’s overt hostility to Prime Minister Netanyahu, his narrow focus on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program to the exclusion of the many other threats Iran is posing, and his manifest discomfort with the notion of using military force against Iran or Syria — discomfort even with the threats he himself has made and then gainsaid. Given all this, it is little wonder that Israel seeks a power other than the United States to rely on as a security partner.
American unreliability in the Obama era is creating new allegiances between Israel and its neighbors. Egypt is overtly cooperating with Israel to undermine terrorist influence in the Sinai. And yesterday, in another sign of the new compacts in the region, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia denounced the Palestinian terrorist attack in Tel Aviv; the prominent Saudi TV channel al-Arabiya condemned it as “terror and thuggery” and referred to the dead and wounded as “victims” rather than “settlers.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu has for years worked with the Russians to forestall delivery of S-400 air-defense systems to Iran (because they could prevent Israeli aircraft from getting through to attack the Iranian nuclear-weapons program). Russia’s intervention to save Assad’s government in Syria has positioned Russia at the nexus of Israel’s security concerns: Russia can influence Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria, the three forces of greatest concern in Israeli external-security calculations. Israel is by no means alone in reconsidering Russia as America stands aloof. Fellow autocrat President Erdogan of Turkey, Kurdistan’s regional government prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, and the Saudi government are also making overtures toward Russia.
The Obama administration has none but itself to blame: Its tolerance for Assad’s butchery, Iran’s terror network (Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations fighting in Syria), and Russia’s intervention have immeasurably strengthened Russia’s standing in the Middle East. President Obama believes that military force does not solve problems; Russia has shown — on the ground, not in empty threats — how effective military force can be in achieving political goals.
— Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.