Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Another Obama Foreign Policy Miss

The ongoing dustup between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the Saudi execution of a Shiite cleric (Nimr al-Nimr) and three other Shiites reflects another foreign policy foul up by the Obama administration.  Instead of tamping down sectarian tensions in the Middle East, the Obama administration (and its predecessor, the George W. Bush administration) made it easier for conflict to flare up.  A "democratically elected" government was established in Baghdad which, not surprisingly was Shiite dominated because Iraq is majority Shiite.  But adequate protection for the interests of Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds and other ethnic or religious groups wasn't ensured.  So Iraq degenerated into sectarian warfare, with the Sunni-dominated ISIS readily able to seize vast amounts of Sunni Iraq without facing much of a fight.  For the same reasons, it's been impossible to organize a military force in Iraq that can dislodge ISIS, except at the margins.

The Obama administration stood by the sidelines as Syria descended into civil warfare, without having a discernible, let alone coherent, policy.  The only line in the sand drawn by President Obama was to warn Bashar Assad against using poisonous gas, and when Assad did just that, Obama flinched.  His flinch paved the way for Vladimir Putin to start mucking around in Syria, a role that Putin has now expanded to a much larger military commitment to Assad.  Iran has been supporting Assad, because he is a member of the Alawites, a religious group affiliated with the Shiites.  So we have Russia and Iran working against the Saudis and their allies, who have been supporting Sunni interests in Syria.  The war in Syria is now firmly sectarian.  The ideals of the Arab Spring died a hard death there.

In Yemen, Shiite rebels have booted the Sunni ruler, and Iran is supporting the Shiite side of a civil war against the Saudi-supported Sunni side.  The U.S. used to have a Special Forces presence in Yemen, but those troops reportedly have left the country.  So we have in Yemen a second proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Obama administration has been trying to sell the nuclear accord with Iran as a great diplomatic achievement.  But the Saudis are nervous about the agreement, apparently believing that it doesn't truly restrain Iranian nuclear ambitions.  So, even while Obama thinks he's getting somewhere with Iran, he's losing influence over the Saudis.  It shouldn't be a surprise that the Saudis are getting feistier.  They evidently don't believe they can count on the U.S.  One would think that the U.S. might have restrained the Saudis from executing Nimr al-Nimr.  But either the administration didn't know the execution was scheduled (which would seem an intelligence failure) or it didn't understand the importance of the execution to the Iranians (which would seem an intelligence analysis failure). 

At the same time, the nuclear accord appears to have emboldened the Iranians.  They fired missiles from a ship that was hardly a mile away from an American aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.  They've announced they'll increase their ballistic missile capabilities, apparently in violation of a UN resolution.  But neither action generated a response from the U.S. other than commentary by official spokespersons along the lines of "naughty, naughty." 

The President reportedly is holding back on sanctions against Iran because he wants to implement the nuclear accord and strengthen the hand of Irans moderates.  The problem is we don't really know who is in control of Iran (another intelligence failure).  Implementing the accord means rolling back sanctions and allowing Iran to sell more oil internationally and otherwise engage in more international trade.  This will increase Iran's financial strength.  Who really controls that strength--Iranian moderates, Iranian radicals or Iranian terrorists?  No wonder the Saudis think they may have to go their own way.  If Obama is, in effect, going to strengthen Iran, the Saudis have to find ways to push back.

President Obama is dead set on avoiding conflict.  That much is clear to everyone.  Assad steps across his line in the sand and he does nothing.  Iran engages in provocative behavior after the nuclear accord, and he does nothing.  Putin has Russian jets bomb American-supported moderate rebels in Syria and Obama does nothing.  While almost no one in America wants our ground troops back in the Middle East, it's clear that the administration's policies are heightening sectarian tensions in the Middle East.   Just as the Obama administration was unduly focused on al-Qaeda until ISIS literally blasted its way into the administration's consciousness, it's now too obsessed with combating ISIS and not focused enough on the root problem of reducing sectarian tension.

The Middle East could degenerate into regionwide sectarian warfare in a flash--indeed, it's already partly there.  ISIS has been able to hold large amounts of territory only because sectarian tensions have been allowed to flare up.  It's important now to try to get the Iranians and Saudis to stand down.  The more Obama appeases Iran, the more provocative Iran becomes.  The recent Iranian Persian Gulf missile firing and ballistic missile program boost should be met with sanctions and a delay in the implementation of the nuclear accord.  The Iranians need to be firmly told that if they want to be re-admitted to international society, they have to be good citizens.  At the same time, the U.S. should quietly reassure the Saudis that it stands with them, and that they need to cool their jets.  Saudi arms should be twisted if necessary.  In other words, Obama has to stop appeasing and get tough with the toughs in the Middle East.

If the U.S. can lower sectarian animosity in the Middle East, it may be able to put together a working alliance to defeat and eventually destroy ISIS.  But if sectarian tensions keep increasing, there will be no workable solution for dealing with ISIS, and more conflict will likely erupt, further eroding American interests and influence.  ISIS could survive and perhaps even prosper.  It seems unlikely, however, that Obama, now firmly ensconced in his Ivy League populated bubble, will somehow connect with the realities of foreign relations.  That's a shame, because it means that he, like George W. Bush before him, will leave a foreign policy mess for his successor.

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