“Withdrawal by the US behind its ocean walls will not protect us from either nuclear terrorism or the very real possibility of a Nuclear Winter.”
The Obama Administration’s ambivalence and apparent naïveté confronting street demonstrations and revolutionary fervor sweeping the region must confuse Israel and her Arab neighbors. How, they must wonder, can a country and world power with regional strategic interests in a state of free-fall support and promote the ouster of long-time allies previously protecting those strategic interests?
The short answer is that the administration’s response continues a policy set in motion early on by the Bush administration.
Obama is often criticized as soft and indecisive compared to his predecessor. And team Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld did project an aggressive, no-nonsense image. The 2002 Bush Doctrine laid this out clearly: “To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively in exercising our inherent right of self-defense.” In other words, under this administration the US would send in the troops if it even thought another country might represent a threat.
In campaign debate and speeches candidate Bush swore that, unlike his predecessor in Bosnia, he would never engage in “regime change.” Months after taking office the Afghanistan changed from Taliban to Karzai, and Iraq was one year off.
Changing regime in Iraq was different. Conversations within the Bush circle involving the overthrow of Sadam were already underway before Bush even took office. The two years delay was the lack of a reason justifying the invasion. By the time the attack order was given Bush knew that Iraq was not “shopping for yellow cake in Niger,” did not even have a nuclear program. Bush also knew that there was no evidence for Sadam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Invading merely to “free” the Iraqi people would not satisfy so, real or not, the threat of WMD would just have to do.
The invasion commenced on 19 March, 2003. Two and a half months later, on 3 May, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln off the Arabian Peninsula, with a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” for a backdrop, President Bush confidently declared Iraqi combat operations at an end.
Three years later American troops were still under fire in Iraq, sometimes caught between Sunni and Sh’ia insurgents engaged in civil war, sometimes targeted by both as invader-occupier. Iraq had become Viet Nam in the desert.
The policy of failure and withdrawal handed down to Obama began to emerge on 18 December, 2006. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, chief architect of the Iraq war, was replaced by Robert Gates, Reagan’s Iran-Contra period CIA director. Ten months later Gates had a chairman of the Joint Chiefs after his won heart. Admiral Mike Mullen, saw eye to eye with Gates on Iran. Long before their appointments, both Gates and Mullen were on record against the use of military threat to back Iran off its nuclear weapons program.
The Bush Administration and Ahmadinejad’s Iran
Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a god-send for Iran, which explains why Ahmadinejad generously opened his intelligence services to him, provided Bush with all the disinformation consistent with the president’s intention to overthrow Sadam. Iran even managed to infiltrate an agent into the White House. Ahmed Chalabi, a Shi’ite Iraqi, was a close and trusted confidante of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
For several years following the invasion Bush was either not told or chose to disbelieve the Chalabi-Iran connection. Because the administration continued to rely on Iranian intelligence regarding what, it turns out, had always been Iran-supported Iraqi militias. Long before the WikiLeaks disclosures, press reports appeared regarding Iran arming, training and even providing Revolutionary Guard officers to lead anti-American insurgents against the American occupation.
Exposure of Chalabi, awareness of Iranian participation in the war against the United States, these might have suggested a more aggressive posture towards the Islamic Republic. Instead Bush was more conciliatory and deferential to Ahmadinejad. As the war grew endless, with an election looming and the electorate growing restive, and with the assurance of the likely tailored 2007 National Security Estimate assuring that Iran stopped working towards a nuclear weapon in 2003, Bush needed Iran to contain the militants, the Baghdad-based Sadrists in particular. Which likely explains the coincidence of Bush’s 2007 pre-US elections Surge and that curious and otherwise inexplicable opening of a State Department “interest section” in downtown Teheran. That gesture abruptly ended America’s thirty year policy of non-recognition and diplomatic isolation of the anti-American Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Obama Administration and Ahmadinejad’s Iran
Enter Obama. Where Bush resorted to threat, Obama was kinder and gentler. And both achieved the same result. And with each act of defiance carried out on the world stage Ahmadinejad’s stature rose with the Arab street, Americas credibility fell with their rulers.
With the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, instability in Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen and even the Saudis beginning to feel the heat, if the White House was truly as clueless at it appeared previously, even the administration appears to be realizing that it is losing control of its assets and strategic interests. Secretary of State Clinton announced that Iran is competing with the United States, but could only pull that old and failed Bush script of increased diplomatic pressure. As for the Bush holdovers in Defense, Gates-Mullen agree with Clinton: more diplomacy! America’s military should be held in reserve, to be used only as a last resort. Which, in Washingtonese means, “not an option.”
Amidst the chaos of the Middle East brought on by American avoidance; with Egypt teetering between a Muslim Brotherhood “democracy” or a continuing military “democracy;” how could Iran not taste blood, resist the opportunity to continue to embarrass the US, foment trouble for America’s last surviving major alliances in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel?
What does this history, this decade of US failures abroad add up to? How do Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Iran describe, if not define, America’s future role in the region? Does the US have or even want a role?
By avoiding confrontation with Iran the United States has not just sidestepped the “third Muslim war.” The dynamic unfolding is of the Arabs states having to confront Iran on their own, the choice between accommodation or confrontation. So far Turkey represents the former, as her vote against Obama’s sanctions clearly demonstrates. The Saudis seem to be choosing to stand up to Iran, have made an end-run around the development phase and reportedly closed a deal with Pakistan to acquire its own nuclear arsenal.
American weakness has created instability and insecurity, tinder for the revolutionary “chamsin” sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. And perhaps Bush’s legacy of “regime change” is the best of bad choices that can be hoped for. But another possibility also looms large: that America, in its rush for the exit, has set the stage for a Middle East nuclear arms race.
The view from America
From the relative safety of my home on the western shore of the Atlantic America appears tired of her global responsibilities, tired of defending her interests in distant lands. Iraq burned, and Afghanistan is faring no better. Failure breeds loss of confidence. Get while the getting is good. But America is not alone in the world, and like it or not, she is leaving a deadly mess behind. In the resulting power vacuum we have created and are abandoning, the world can only hope that another and more confident outside power, likely Russia (see my recent The Middle East after America; Russia, via Iran and Syria, is already nipping at America’s retreating heels) steps in to restore order from above. Otherwise we are all, the entire world, in store for a future which will make the recently ended US-Russia Cold War seem like a leisurely walk in the park.
Withdrawal by the US behind its ocean walls will not protect us from either nuclear terrorism or the very real possibility of a Nuclear Winter. America can still reclaim its position in the region, but only by acting now and forcefully, by taking military action against the Iranian nuclear program.
Today’s headline reporting that, Obama accepts prospect of nuclear-armed Iran, does not inspire confidence.
For other writings on this and related topics please visit my other blog sites, Antisemitism and Jewish Survival and Antisemitism in Art.