The Middle East, a global crossroads since antiquity, is now itself at a crossroads.
Originally relevant due to its centrality, fertility, religious inspiration and mineral wealth, this tri-continental nexus is now relevant not for connecting, feeding, comforting, or energizing mankind, but for splitting, destabilizing, inflaming, and rapidly tearing the world apart.
Plagued by social despair, religious wrath and multiple civil wars, the Middle East’s fires now span an arch stretching from West Africa to East Asia while unleashing on Central Europe an immigration it can doubtfully digest.
Befuddled by this unrelenting volcano, US President Barack Obama
has led a grand retreat, abandoning the Middle East to its devices.
It is the inversion of the Monroe Doctrine, president James Monroe’s statement in 1823 to the rest of the world that Washington will not tolerate outsiders’ intrusions in the Western Hemisphere. Obama has effectively said that no matter what happens in the Mideast or who barges into it and why, the US will be watching its travails from afar.
It is a policy that cannot last.
The American retreat unfolded on three fronts.
Economically, America has rightly redefined the Middle East as marginal for its concerns. America’s imminent emergence as a net exporter of crude, thanks to its production of shale, and oil prices’ consequent dive by more than 50 percent – mean that the Middle East is losing its time-honored status as American industry’s main oil well.
Diplomatically, Obama has demoted Cairo, for decades the epicenter of Washington’s Arab policy.
Obama’s support of Egypt’s Islamist revolution and his subsequent snubbing of the Islamists’ successors made Egypt turn its back on Washington and reopen its longshut door to Moscow. Washington’s other regional allies have also been made to feel sidelined, each in its own time and circumstances.
Lastly, on the moral front, after 36 years in which five US presidents confronted Iran for its global and regional troublemaking, Obama failed to help, or even just encourage, Iran’s moderates during their 2009 revolt, and then engaged the ayatollahs – who slew and jailed them – without even demanding any retreat from the mullahs’ religious intolerance and political oppression.
While it remains unclear to what extent this unfolding withdrawal was properly researched, debated and planned, and whether it was driven by fatigue, despair or conceit, its future is clear: It will be reversed.
The next administration will reboot America’s Mideast policy, not because it is insufficiently for or against any of the many actors it affects, but because it assumes the world’s major superpower can abandon the world’s most explosive powder keg to everyone else’s devices. It can’t.
WASHINGTON’S ABSENCE is what made Russia embark
on its unfolding Syrian adventure. Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that America’s current apathy opened a window of opportunity that will close once the White House’s next tenant arrives. Hence the rush to consolidate Moscow’s regional gains.
As discussed here two weeks ago, Putin’s move is a Russian gamble.
This week’s report about the Red Army suffering its first casualties in Syria – three men outside Latakia – is a sign of things to come. Things will only get worse for the Russians, should they be tempted to join the ground offensive on Aleppo that their alliance is now preparing.
Conversely, if Russia makes do with aerial activity, victory will be delayed. Unlike NATO’s attack on the former Yugoslavia in 1999, when aerial bombardments produced surrender, Russia now faces no state or government but a compilation of militias, guerrillas, jihadists, and terrorist groups, whose defeat demands bloody skirmishes on the ground.
Then again, chances are good that by the time the next American president is elected, he or she will face a solid, if compact, Russian proxy in western Syria, firmly backed by Iran, and provoking by its very existence America’s nearby ally, Turkey.
The approach of such a configuration was visible this week when Assad emerged in the Kremlin for a high-profile visit, his first emergence from his war-ravaged land since he lunged it into civil war.
Preceded by Iranian generals’ visits to Moscow, and coupled with reports about thousands of Iranian troops gathering in western Syria, an anti-American outpost is sprouting in the eastern Mediterranean unopposed.
Assad’s survival, if even dramatically weakened, would be harmful for the US on two counts: Morally, it would prize the man the US and Europe see as genocide’s worst perpetrator since Pol Pot.
And strategically, it would weaken the Sunni powers and deepen the sense of American betrayal which is already palpable in Ankara, Cairo and Riyadh.
Still, in themselves such setbacks would doubtfully make the next US president set out to reverse Obama’s Middle Eastern legacy. What will make Washington seek a counter- Obama doctrine will be the free world’s most pressing geostrategic problem: the war on Islamism.
HISTORY’S MOST ambitious ideology since communism has yet to suffer its first great setback.
While thousands have died in countless terrorist attacks from Argentina and Kenya to the Philippines and China, and while governments have come under its sway from Tehran and Ankara to Sanaa and Khartoum, Islamism is the main threat to the world’s stability.
Curiously, Putin understands this simple truth better than Obama.
There is good reason to believe that Putin is interested in a combined effort to defeat this menace, in return for recognition of Russia’s special status in eastern Ukraine.
His alliance with Iran is technical, and will readily be shed for a greater cause. Russia has a 15 percent Muslim minority, and it suffered major Islamist terrorist attacks in Beslan, Volgograd and Moscow, not to mention Grozny.
Islamism is therefore for the Kremlin what it is for everyone else: a strategic threat.
The same goes for Europe.
Time will tell to what extent Islamism was a cause of the current Arab upheaval. There will be no arguing that it was one of its major results, giving rise to the most brazen Islamist project yet, Islamic State. There will also be no arguing that America’s strategic neglect in the face of all this helped unleash the refugee influx Europe currently faces.
The immigration into Europe is also a major geopolitical problem, as it is a potential accelerator of Islamism at the heart of the industrialized world, a fear voiced openly by distinguished Europeans such as former Polish president Lech Walesa.
The Middle East’s fundamentalist wrath threatens stability worldwide, certainly in Africa but also in China, where Uighur terrorism is a constant irritant, not to mention Western Europe, where the far Right keeps growing in tandem with its Muslim population’s demographics, social costs and religious fervor.
The boiling Middle East that Obama will bequeath to his successor is therefore unbearable for the US, which is in no position to outsource its rearrangement to other powers.
For its own sake, and for the sake of the free world which it leads, the US will have to be the one defining Islamism as the rest of the world’s major enemy, and then lead civilization’s war on this scourge’s thought, leaders and troops – educationally, politically and militarily.
The good news is that while Islamism’s demise remains distant, there are signs its eclipse is on its way.
Fundamentalism suffered its first major setback two years ago in Egypt, where the country’s secularists confronted its fundamentalists.
It was the first such setback since Islamism conquered Iran 36 years ago.
A second retreat is under way in Turkey, where the Islamist government last spring lost its 12-year-old absolute majority. Next week’s premature elections there may or may not accelerate this trend, but Islamism’s popularity in that country has apparently peaked.
While this happened in the centers of Sunni fundamentalism, Shi’ite Iran’s grip on Syria was first challenged by the Syrian majority and is now compromised by the Russian intrusion. At the same time, Iran’s advance in Yemen has been blocked and reversed, with the Houthi insurgency’s loss of Aden. Iran’s quest to overtake Lebanon was frustrated earlier, with Hezbollah’s setbacks in Syria’s battlefields.
Yet these are but side theaters.
The big theater where Islamism’s demise will be triggered is where it originally erupted: Iranian society.
Iran’s clerics will be defeated from within and from below, and while this may take years to mature, signs abound that the middle classes have lost faith in the revolution and are yearning for its demise.
The next White House will realize this. It will then ask prospective allies one question only: In civilization’s war on Islamism, are you with us or against us? The Monroe Doctrine responded to Russian designs on the West Coast and Spanish designs on South America. The Counter-Obama Doctrine will come in response to Islamism’s designs on the entire world.
The former was effective in its time, and the latter will be in ours.