During the past few months, we have witnessed what can only be perceived as a strategic change in US foreign and defense policy. Part of the change is expressed through new alliances, but mainly in reassessment of military needs and capabilities as well as the will to combat terrorism. If past goals were to win the battle against global terrorism on the terrorists’ turf, it would seem today’s goals are to contain and engage by ethnic divide.
The US has changed the range of threats it faces; if in the past 15 years Iran and the Hezbollah were at the center of the threat matrix, which also included global jihad groups and rogue states, today they are viewed by the US intelligence community as a threat only to US allies, and maybe a potential partner in fighting these organizations and reigning in these regimes in the name of stability.
Articles by Reuters and other major media outlets indicate the US has conducted secret talks with Iran dating back to March 2013 behind the backs of their key allies in the region, specifically Saudi Arabia and Israel. The revelation of these contacts has exposed a crisis of confidence expressed through drastic statements by those affected, including the threat of a self-sustained attack against the Iranian nuclear program made by Israel, and a halt to cooperation on counter-terrorism operations on the part of the Saudi government. The US government responded with well-placed leaks to the media, making its own statements and threats regarding the Palestinian negotiations and re-exposing Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
The issue of the involvement of high-ranking Saudi officials in the attacks has been discussed in the past, raising questions about the current timing of the reemergence of the issue. Recently, the Saudi monarchy awarded a $3 billion grant to the Lebanese military – almost twice its annual budget – on the condition the money not be spent on US hardware.
The issue of the US alliance with Saudi Arabia is also relevant to the ongoing Syrian civil war. Prior to September 2013, the US demanded that Syrian President Bashar Assad be removed from power, and even considered the use of power to punish the Syrian regime for the use of chemical weapons. That position was coordinated with the Saudis and includes the training and arming of moderate rebel forces. However, US reluctance to use force, and the halt to supplies of technological means to rebel forces, because of the fear the supplies would fall into the wrong hands, has pushed Saudi leaders to announce the formation of a joint group for most Islamic organizations (excluding ISIL and Jahabat a-Nusra). The change in US strategy has also led to the west turning its back on its pre-condition to unseat Assad.
Another change is the US approach toward Hezbollah.
The past few months have seen an increase in reports in Middle Eastern media outlets such as the Kumaiti Al-Rai and al-Anbaa, regarding contacts between the US government and Hezbollah. Some of these reports go as far as to describe direct talks between the two. Moreover, during the summer months, there have been several reports regarding indirect CIA warnings to Hezbollah of pending attacks. Finally, US State Department spokespersons have reiterated that they have no objection to Hezbollah – a designated terrorist organization – taking part in a new Lebanese government if it contributes to the stability of the state. This response is in opposition to an earlier statement dating back to the previous government formation in June 2011.
Toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the US has come to understand and reluctantly accept the fact that it cannot reach a military decision in its theaters of operation. One has only to observe what is happening today in both Iraq and Afghanistan, namely the rise in radical Islamic activity, to comprehend the failure of US strategy.
Even though superior in both intelligence and military capabilities, recent US governments have been incapable of translating battlefield achievements to successes in the diplomatic arena. It is possible that arrogance and naivety associated with obsession for democracy have led to these failures and the collapse of moderate regimes.
Whereas Iraq is witnessing the strengthening of Islamist forces, including the recapture of territories, Afghanistan will probably share a similar fate with the Taliban retaking control of the country. Similar events have transpired in Egypt, where instead of supporting the ousting of an extreme Muslim Brotherhood government by pro-Western forces, the US has opted to punish those forces for using non-democratic methods.
Another indication of the weakening of the US is its reluctance to use military force with renegade countries, or credibly threaten to do. Two clear examples are North Korea and Syria. The lack of military threat to the North Korean nuclear program has encouraged the Pyongyang regime to conduct a number of nuclear experiments, continue to develop its ballistic missile capabilities, and raise the level of threats and tension with South Korea. On the Syrian front, the Obama administration is wise enough to deliver an actual threat, that at least achieved Syria’s agreement to disarm its chemical weapons. However, this should be viewed as a failure as the disarmament deal does not include Syria’s biological weapons and program; there are no guarantees all chemical weapons will be destroyed; and most importantly, a recognized government has gone unpunished after using weapons of mass destruction.
In conclusion, its inability to reach a military decision and political weakness have led the Obama administration to change its approach towards the Middle East and strategic partners. From a policy of full involvement and attempts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the United States is shifting to a policy of containment and disengagement.
From supporting and encouraging moderate and friendly regimes, it has modified its goal to seeking new alliances that share a common fear of radical Sunni Islam. The US under the Obama administration hasn’t learned from the mistakes of the first Afghan war in the 1980s and wrongly believes that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is the proper approach to foreign policy. Are we at the gateway to a new global conflict similar to 1913 during the first presidency of Woodrow Wilson? History will be the judge.
The author is the Public Resilience Program Manager and in charge of the Situation Room at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. He also functions as a researcher in the fields of global jihadi organizations such as al-Qaida and its network and Hezbollah.