Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines recently by attacking the idea of “American exceptionalism” in the pages of The New York Times. In Israel we have come to appreciate the special role that the US plays in the world, particularly in our region. And despite all that has been written about the extent to which Washington has pushed Israeli leaders (Binyamin Netanyahu being a perfect example) toward a peace process they might rather have avoided, let no one think that the withdrawal of American influence from the Middle East would be a good thing.

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but perhaps not as much as those of us who believe in liberal democratic values would abhor those who would fill that vacuum.

The Syria crisis presents us with a few hints as to who the main contenders would be. Putin is clearly interested in reestablishing Russia as a major world power. Not for nothing has he offered – more than once – to host Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Now his alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad, coupled with some calamitous dithering by the Obama administration, has placed him as the man of the hour. Not only do the western powers “owe” him for delivering apparent Syrian acquiescence to chemical disarmament, but his rescuing of Assad from possible US air strikes sends a message that Russia stands by its friends.

This will be noted particularly by US allies in the Arab world, who looked on with horror as President Obama abandoned ex-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to the Tahrir Square democrats (who have since ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood, and now support General Abdel Sisi, a secular autocrat in the same mold as – you guessed it – Hosni Mubarak).

The other major contender to fill any void left by American disengagement is Iran, the only Middle Eastern nation with genuinely imperialistic ambitions. The ayatollahs who have disfigured what was an extremely literate and progressive Persian culture are not content with running the affairs of their own 75 million people, they also intend to become the dominant force in Lebanon through their Hezbollah proxy, and in Iraq, through the pliant Shi’ite politicians now in office in Baghdad. It would also be naïve to see Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons purely in terms of the threat to Israel.

A nuclear-armed Iran would overnight become the dominant force in the Gulf, eclipsing the Western-allied emirates as well as the most important US client in that area, Saudi Arabia. Clearly, the potential for Iranian hegemony grows in direct proportion to the scale of American pullback from the region.

The question then becomes: Would either of these options – or indeed other semi-plausible alternatives, like China or Turkey – be preferable to the US as the dominant power in the Middle East? The US is not perfect. That there are still millions of Americans without health coverage is shocking for the world’s wealthiest nation; it is one of only six countries in which juvenile offenders can be executed (this fact gets more disturbing when you discover that the other five are Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria). There’s more (the lack of gun control, the fact that a great many people believed Sarah Palin was qualified to be vice president), but these and other legitimate disparagements are beside the point.

There is something very relevant in what Israel’s outgoing ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, said in a recent interview: “The value part of American foreign policy is something I think is very laudable, but it is uniquely American. And it is part of what makes America special.”

THE ATTACK on the US by al- Qaida in 2001 was not just an act of barbaric mass murder, it was an assault on the values of the democratic West which America is seen to typify. The French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, arguing against the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of many of his compatriots, pointed out that in the great ideological battles of recent history, the US has been a leading player on the right side in all of them: Anti-fascism, anti-communism and – since 9/11 – anti-Islamism.

President Obama made the point very well in his speech to the UN General Assembly.

“I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional – in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”

He’s received a great deal of criticism, mostly justified, for bad decisions and ham-fisted handling of the power politics in the Middle East (see above on the ousting of Mubarak as a case in point.) But it was nonetheless crucial that, as he indicated in the speech, he is not looking to cut and run from the region. He even warned against an American disengagement “creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”

The reality is that whatever missteps the US has made and will inevitably make in the future, the world is the better for it playing the lead role. Today’s Middle East is not only the epicenter of the two poles of fascist Islamic extremism – the Sunni Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shi’ites of Iran and Hezbollah – but, as we’ve seen, it’s also home to secular tyrants prepared to gas hundreds of their own countrymen to cling to power. An American departure from this morass would be disastrous.

Imagine Russia as the replacement dominant force, driven only by Moscow’s cynical definition of the Russian national interest. What would it mean for aspirant liberal democrats in the region to look for support and to see only the increasingly despotic Putin shoring up his clients in Damascus and Tehran? And, of course, an isolationist America would leave Israel truly alone to face the threat of Iranian hegemony – nuclear-armed Iranian hegemony, no less.

WHETHER OR not America is exceptional, it is certainly indispensable.

Its values as well as its willingness to employ its unmatched military muscle if required have never been more needed in the Middle East.

To return to Obama’s UN speech, he sounded serious when stating: “We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners.... We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people... we will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.”

For all our sakes, he had better mean it.

The author is the director of the Israel Government Fellows program of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center (www.igf.org.il), an elite internship and educational program for Jewish university graduates. Before moving to Israel he served as the speechwriter for Israel’s ambassador to the UK. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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