The US-Russia Middle East 'reset:' America at the exit

Introduction: The Obama Administration has pursued a policy based on “resets,” most immediately for our purposes with the Muslim world in apparent effort to rebuild the damage caused the region by Bush invading Iraq; and with Russia over missile defense, etc. But “reset” implies things were “better” at a previous time, an assumption questionable at best. Bush transformed a Sunni regime, the same religion as the ruling oil producing monarchies, with a Shiite regime allied with Iran. Obama sided with “the street” against America’s long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, replacing a secular Egypt with one headed by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Obama repeated the favor by “doing the right thing” again, and replaced the relatively stable secular regime in Libya with an unstable Islamist regime under the thumb of an al-Quaeda affiliate. These “resets” are unlikely to win friends among the mostly conservative oil producing states of the Arabian Peninsula, America’s primary strategic interest in the region.
Regarding a Russian “reset.” Perhaps from a naive American perspective things appeared better in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Russia never lost sight of its ambitions in the region. Following its 1979 replacement by the United States in Egypt Russia remained patron to Syria waiting patiently for an “Iranian opportunity” to come along.
The United States emerged from the Second World War a superpower, its military victorious, its economy a model to the world. In the decades since and for reason best left to economists, the country has been in gradual if occasionally uneven decline. Inheritor of Western colonial interests around the world it was forced by France’s hasty retreat to step into the quagmire of a Vietnamese civil war. Similarly in the Middle East the US replaced the British and French imperialists when they could no longer afford the “white man''s burden.”
The Suez War of 1956, the last stand of European dominance in the region, was America’s turning point. To avoid what he saw as the threat of nuclear war with Russia President Eisenhower ordered the British and French forces out of Suez, and Israel out of Sinai.
With Russia supporting Egypt’s Nasser and radical Arab nationalism and the US supporting the conservative oil producers, following the Suez War the Middle East became a fault line between the superpowers.
Nasser signing unity pact with Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli, forming the United Arab Republic, February 1958 (Wikipedia)
Soviet supported Egypt and Syria bordered Israel and, with South Yemen, encircled the oil monarchies. In the confrontation with Russia Israel was America’s natural regional ally. But Washington would not recognize this until a decade later, with Israel’s victory in the 1967, “Six Day War.”
Since Bush invaded Iraq and all but gifted the now Shiite-ruled country to Shiite Iran, his and Obama’s administrations have seemed intent on avoiding conflict with the Islamic Republic at all costs. This encouraged Iranian intransigence and provided Iran a regional audience to American indecisiveness and weakness (see below for links to further and more detailed discussions on the US-Iraq-Iran controversy).
The US-Russia Middle East “reset:” The United States replaced Russia as primary patron to Egypt following the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement and, to all appearances, Russia seemed to have been beaten. But Russia remained in Syria, its toehold to return. In the end American support for the overthrow of her long-time ally, the Shah of Iran, opened a possibility for a new base for Russia to challenge the United States. It took sixteen years, but in 1995 Russia signed an agreement with the ayatollahs to complete the abandoned Bushehr nuclear reactor. Russia was back.
Radical Islamist Iran was the perfect replacement for radical secular Egypt. For Iran Russian military and diplomatic muscle allowed the ayatollahs the opportunity to pursue a millennial dream: regional dominance backed by the threat of nuclear arms.
Defense Secretary Gates, and Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Even before Bush chose him for chairman, Mullen was publicly on record of opposing military intervention in Iran. Gates agreed (Wikipedia)
Exit America, Enter Russia: According to conservative American think tank The Heritage Foundation,
“Russia is a principal military, economic, and geopolitical partner of Iran and views its Middle Eastern policy through the prism of competition with the United States... While Russian foreign policy in the Middle East is clearly anti-American, at times it also appears self-defeating. Russia is backing a losing Assad regime and siding with the isolated Shia Islamic Republic in Tehran. The policy is almost incoherent, driven by a plethora of strategic relationships and commercial interests.”
The error in this line of reasoning is the assumption that it is the Russians and Iranians, not America and its ever-diminshing “allies” who are on the losing side of the conflict. No doubt this rationale assumes that America today is identical to America emergent from the Second World War. In actuality the United States is just emerging from two failed military conflicts, its military leadership clearly reluctant, maybe determined, to avoid another such Middle East war. And unlike 1946, in 2012 the United States is slowly (hopefully) emerging from the worst economic recession since the 1920’s.
America, in other words, is a superpower in decline.
What Heritage described as Russia appearing, “self-defeating… backing a losing Assad regime and siding with the isolated Shia Islamic Republic in Tehran” may, from the other side, appear and, in actuality be, Russia having forced America to take responsibility for two dangerous situations she has been avoiding for years: calling the Iranian bluff on the bomb, which would necessitate a US-led military action; and repeating the “Libyan “right thing” in Syria, which again means a US-led military action. And the cost to America’s regional and global standing and interests for failure in either is enormous.
In practical terms Russia has deftly blocked every effort by Obama to finesse a decision regarding Iran and Syria onto the Security Council. Iran, for its part, has been equally successful in engaging President Obama in endless and non-productive “negotiations” by appearing to agree to American conditions, then leaving the talks as they entered. Except, based on experience, each successive effort by the administration to restart talks is at more favorable to Iran starting point intended to coax the reluctant Iranians back to the negotiating table!
Most recently, after indicating they would not return to talks, Iran said they would accept the American condition and leave open the issue of uranium enrichment, to “20%,” where, in the past, the American condition was that Iran cease all uranium enrichment. Now the US was willing to accept enrichment, “but only to “5%.” And, just weeks earlier the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khameini, insisted that he would never agree to any interference with Iran’s nuclear program which means that any talk of "reduction"is just that, Talk.
As regards Russia, to date American efforts to involve the UN Security Council in Syria through sanctions, or regime change confronted the threat of a Russian veto, forcing the decision upon America to act or not if Obama wants regime change in Syria. And the US military is no more likely under Panetta and Davis than under Gates and Mullen to be agreeable. Lavrov did announce that Russia would also like to see an end to fighting in Syria. He suggested Iran mediate the agreement!
The fact is that Russia has outflanked the US in the Middle East and it is just a matter of time before a cash-strapped economy and war-weary military will inspire the political conclusion that having finally withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, that the costs and challenges of remaining in the region are just too great. With the continuing support of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, Assad and the Alawites will remain in power and the Russia-backed Iran-Syria axis will dominate the region from Suez to Hormuz, and beyond.
With Russia’s military unchallenged in the Mediterranean Europe, already dependent on Russia for natural gas to heat homes in the winter and drive its industry, America will be isolated internationally. Isolationist by choice or not this time, unlike in the nineteen-teens, its oceans will prove no barrier to the 21st century military threat by non-national terrorism, or by ballistic missile by national enemies so armed.
Background to “America at the exit”