What a difference a day makes! Yesterday the Obama Administration was threatening to withhold the F-16’s which, the day before, were still promised the Egyptian military. Today the administration is reportedly describing the coup as “not a coup,” and so the F-16’s are once again back on line. In the past this zig-zag might have been seen as policy confusion, or even an absence of policy. But today the administration has to be running scared. From some threats even Obama may have to stand his ground!
One wonders if Obama was aware of Putin coming out of the Egyptian closet before the administration redefined the Egyptian coup as “not-a-coup” (definition still unknown) or or was this just another example of CIA failure?
One day the press desctibes the Egyptian generals telling the US to mind its own business, even facing an American threat to the $1.5 billion military assistance package. The next day Cairo is filled with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians shouting anti-American slogans and carrying placards reading, “Obama Out! Putin In!”
Not to toot my own horn (damn, I did it) but I have been warning for years that the real contest playing out in the region, and particularly since Bush invaded Iraq, is between the US and Russia. Once the US quit building the Bushehr reactor Russia became the its new contractor, and then replaced the as Iran''s military supplier. As for Syria, once Sadat''s trip to Jerusalem and its loss of Egypt, Russia hunkered down in the other half of the defunct United Arab Republic. While not able to challenge the US for the Mediterranean they did maintain their naval base at Tartus. So Russia has been a presence in the region continuously since the loss of Egypt and the fall of the Soviet Union. It was just a matter of time before Russia''s position and strength relative to the US made the challenge possible.
Nor have Russian ambitions been hidden from American and Jewish press as a July, 2012 article in Forward represents:
“Putin wants Russia to be acknowledged as a major player in world affairs, and he sees the Middle East, with its numerous crises, as an excellent place to plant a flag.”
And it was against this backdrop, the US-Russia contest, that I questioned the apparent unconcern by Obama over the implications of leaving, or even reducing the US footprint in the region. And when in early December, 2012, the Pentagon recalled the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier and the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group with its 2500 marines in order to “quiet tensions in Syria” (the Russians had just reinforced its naval presence off the Syrian coast!) it was clear Obama had turned a corner either ignoring or ignorant of the implications of “retreat” in the face of Russia’s challenge; was not only eager to exit the troubled region, but uncaring or unaware that this involved abandoning also Europe to the Russians!
As it turns out, those street rallies sporting pro-Putin placards and pictures of el-Sissi, Putin and Nasser appeared following a promise by Puting to replace the United States as Egypt''s arms supplier.
Implications for Israel and the Region: I suggest it is already too late for the US to recoup its losses, to return to a position of leadership and authority in the region even if Obama were to awake tomorrow from a Eureeka! dream regarding the costs and dangers to the United States of his failings. As I wrote yesterday, whatever Bush’s motives for overthrowing the Sunni regime in Iraq it had the effect of empowering Iran, traditional enemy of Sunni Islam. The Shi''a were provided a foothold in the heartland of Sunni Arabia. That Bush did so in spite of advice and strong protests by Saudi and Israeli intelligence only intensified regional mistrust in his judgement, and the dependability of the United States as protector. The final straw for the Saudis and Gulf Emirates was Obama ignoring their protests, even pleas to not depose America’s long-time ally and close Saudi friend, Hosni Mubarak (Israel again joined the Saudis in warning the president of the consequences).
So what are the implications of Russia inheriting the Mediterranean and the Middle East? For Europe a pragmatic turn north: the EU is already dependent on Russia for natural gas to heat its homes in winter, to run its factories. And while the US will still provide an important trading partner, militarily the EU will be far more sensitive to Russia than America.
For the Middle East, minus a weak America unable and unwilling to assert authority the region has been bordering on anarchy, particularly following Obama replacing a secular government in Egypt with tthe Islamists. And, had he had his way with the Saudis, Obama would have turned Sunni-ruled Bahrain into a Shi''ite ruled country. And since the US Fifth Fleet is based on Bahrain, difficult to see how the US would manage to share facilities with the Iranian Navy.
But politics, as nature, abhors a vacuum and so the idiocy of a bush-supported Brotherhood “democracy” was overnight replaced by that “coup-that-is-not-a-coup” in Egypt. And since Putin appears far different from the weak and indecisive Obama, for the first time in fifteen years relative calm may return to the region, and something closer to Obama''s dreamed of “spring” for the Arabs.
And Israel? Status quo ante is my expectation. The region will still be a quarrelsome place, particularly with Iran, thanks to Bush, entrenched across the Gulf in Iraq and Syria. As did the US (in days when there was some semblance of awareness of its own national interests!) Israel will then serve the Russians as it previously served the Americans. In the days of the Cold War, when Soviet-backed regimes in Egypt and Syria threatened the American-backed oil-rich Arabian Peninsula monarchies there was Israel, the military threat behind America’s verbal threat. So also will Russia benefit from Israel useful providing the same service. And just as the Americans found the investment in Israel highly profitable compared to the out of pocket costs involved in having to position far larger numbers of ships and ground troops to protect its regional interests, so too will Putin.
Putin''s Russia already has significant investments in Israel, including in the off-shore liquid natural gas fields. He has repeatedly indicated interest in an expanded partnership with Israel, particularly since Israel is an acknowledged leader in hi-tech, an area Putin wants to expand in Russia (China also, that next generation superpower, is also developing strong relations with Israel, for the same reasons).
In a rational world, where states recognize their own national interests alliances develop naturally. the less interest the US has in the strategic importance of the Middle East the more that country will see Israel as a "burden." But Putin is not Obama.