There is some weird and complicated stuff going on right now in the Middle East, and in U.S. Middle East policy—even weirder and more complicated than what has been going on for the past half dozen years. We have shifted gears in recent days into an even more frenetic phase of accelerated experience.
That shift registers in three keys: new developments in U.S.-Israeli relations and the domestic politics churning beneath both sides; the launching of a new phase of war in Yemen that evokes loud echoes of both World War I and the Spanish Civil War prelude to World War II, as mapped onto regional realities; and, of course, the supposed countdown to a do-or-die (perhaps literally) deadline over the P5+1/Iran nuclear negotiations. (I say “supposed” because, even if a framework agreement is reached in the next few days, the parties are bound to abuse the next three months trying to turn unavoidable vagueness into an explicit operational program. The “implementation” phase will be an extension of the negotiations that are, both sides claim, not to be extended. Put a bit differently, a skinny lady is on stage now; the fat lady’s number awaits the end of June. My guess is that it will fall flat then if the show doesn’t close sooner.)
Each of these keys is complicated in its own right and has its own separate internal logic, and the weirdnesses consist in part of a cacophony of speculative interpretation that, as often as not, reads too much—especially too much coherence—into assorted motives. But alas, an additional layer of complexity flows from the indissoluble fact that these three keys overlap, both in reality and in the interpretations thereof. Imagine, if you can, a three-voiced fugue in the interwoven keys of D major, F# minor, and A♭major: occasional harmonies will emerge, but mainly what you’ll get is a lot of irritating noise.
One sees this in the oft-noted fact that of late in Iraq we are operating as objective allies of Iran, where Iranian-directed Shi’a militias outnumber the forces of the Iraqi Army in the battle for Tikrit and environs; but we are supporting the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen against Iranian-supported Houthi rebels. Never mind the next layer of contradictions concerning Syria and Libya. And never mind the fact that complications reside within the complications: The use of U.S. airpower in the battle for Tikrit has led some Iranian-aligned militias to pull out of the campaign and others to threaten to do so in protest, and so we have a competition of sorts to persuade the government in Baghdad that we are more useful friends to it than is Iran. That competition may gain a further bloody edge if things come to a point where it makes sense for Iran to order the militias to attack U.S. soldiers in Iraq, where there are enough Americans to die but not enough to win a serious battle.
Some observers think that this seeming contradiction and these concentric rings of complexity stand as proof of strategic incoherence, but it is no such thing—at least not necessarily. Tactical inconsistencies can be the very stuff of strategic coherence in messy situations. Study 16th-century Ottoman strategy toward the Wars of the Reformation if you need a case in point. (The next issue of The American Interest will help you do that, soon.)
My burden here is to interrogate the “stuff” and its interpretations, and by way of the latter particularly to push back against excessively simplified, invariably speculative, and often partisan-driven assessments of motives. But before we can deal with each key, we need to assess the degree of their overlap, presumed and actual.
There is a line of talk out there lately that the Obama Administration is engaged in a bold, strategically coherent, historically rare, and, in most versions, exceedingly stupid or futile attempt to rebalance U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The plot holds the White House to be intent on transforming U.S. relations with Iran to create what amounts to a Nixon Doctrine-like pillar of stability to replace a United States that either does not wish or believes itself unable to take care of regional security-competition suppression tasks itself. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni Arab associates get downgraded in this rebalancing act, whether gleefully or resignedly depending on which version of the plot is open before you.
Some commentators think this is a pretty good idea, if it can be done—good work if you can get it, in other words. And some think it can indeed be done, with a nuclear portfolio deal the lustrous open gate to a new path for U.S.-Iranian relations. These are supporters of the Administration, of course, but in recent weeks their ranks have grown ever thinner. Those abandoning ship include prominent former employees of the President, including a former CIA Director and a Special Envoy for peace process matters. They have jumped the deck either because they do not credit the wisdom or they do not grant the attainability of the strategy, which usually goes under the shorthand name of “offshore balancing.”
Others think the whole attempt a chimera, and the nuclear negotiations vanguard approach a particularly harmful one, for both are based, they charge, on a miasmic misreading of Iranian intentions floating on a fetid swamp of neoliberal self-delusion. Prominent amid that self-delusion, it is averred, is a crypto-(secularized) theological worship of arms control as a deus ex machina that can achieve what ordinary, mortal statecraft cannot.
Whether inflected with approbation or condemnation, both views tend to exaggerate the coherence and single-mindedness of this Administration—more particularly this White House and this President. Not that it, or he, is reacting in a completely random, crisis-management “one damned thing after another” mode. There are abiding themes and hopes articulated in a would-be causal skein, and there is by now considerable experience with the obstacles and uncertainties involved in translating hopes into accomplishments. Ross Douthat’s column in today’s New York Times gets it just right: Yes, it’s good work if you can get it (for us if not for the region); but you can’t get it. The United States can’t get that work because it’s too entwined in the region to begin with, and because the standard breakage that comes with offshore balancing postures—wars and multilateral security competitions—is too dangerous, even from afar, in a era of all-too-easy nuclear proliferation. So here is the rub: The real contradiction in U.S. policy is that to the extent it succeeds in solving the U.S. “overinvestment” problem in the region, it will sire exactly the security/proliferation nightmare it is trying to prevent.
Hence, even if the Administration started with a tightly reasoned, coherent offshore balancing strategy (which I doubt, and have said so before), as opposed to some rather abstract ideas that have always fallen well short of an actual synoptic strategy (which I don’t doubt), its experience to date must have taught it that it is now caught in a proverbial pickle, a rundown with low odds of successful escape defined by a devil of an opponent to one side and a deep blue sea of an opponent to the other.
The devil remains the threat to U.S. interests posed by Iran in the form of its noxious regional behavior—in Syria and Lebanon, in Yemen, in Iraq, toward Israel and Jordan, and toward Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by using fifth column Shi’a communities within those Sunni-led monarchies. Even as the Administration hopes to transform U.S.-Iranian relations by dint of an arms control deal, and even more ambitiously thereby to throttle down Iranian revolutionary energies into Thermidor if not actual regime change, it acknowledges and occasionally discusses these threats. What it has not done is forcibly push back against Iranian probes and other mischief, apparently thinking that so doing might reduce prospects for a nuclear deal. At the same time, the Administration’s reluctance to get kinetic in places like Syria, though clearly a signal to Tehran, has its own rationale based on an assessment of difficulty separate from any connection to Iran.
The deep blue sea is composed of Da’esh, but Da’esh seen in context of the general institutional exhaustion of the Sunni Arab states. The so-called Islamic State is institutionally weak, its order of battle is a brittle combination of fissiparous elements: salafi true believers both foreign and native, unreconstructed Ba’athis, tribal elements making highly temporary deals in parlous circumstances, desperate unemployed young men, criminals and sadists, and rural riffraff dead set on taking revenge on snooty urbanites in places like Mosul. Its temporary success has been owed to the even greater institutional weaknesses of what is left of the Syrian and Iraqi states, the fecklessness of the rest of the Sunni Arab world, and the consequent helplessness felt by so many Sunni Arabs in the face of a terrifying region-wide Shi’a assault.
Together the devil and the deep blue sea are churning up demonic waves of blood and mayhem, and those waves are washing over the deck of the American ship of state. Yemen, the second key, has now joined Syria as a platform for a squaring off between Saudi Arabia and Iran in a new rendition of the Battle of Karbala. But Yemen is a better built platform for the purpose for two reasons: Saudi Arabia borders Yemen it but does not border Syria, and a Saudi-Egyptian alliance can come to fruition there but not in Syria because Egypt has obvious geopolitical stakes in preventing a hostile power from lording over the Bab al-Mandeb. So the Administration is now in a position concerning Yemen of having to objectively align with Egypt, a country it recently criticized for wanting to protect its own security interests in neighboring Libya despite our having largely caused their problem in the first place. (Can Egyptians bring themselves to say “chutzpah”?)
Yemen is no sideshow to the locals, and it certainly reflects badly on a U.S. policy that ended up being much too antiterrorism-heavy for its own good. But the United States has much more portentous concerns in mind. The holy grail of American policy is not in Yemen and it is not a mystery: Again, it is to prevent a cascade of nuclear weapons proliferation in the region, which would not only make the prospect of nuclear war uncomfortably large, but would risk allowing fissile material to end up in the hands of maniacal non-state actors who might one day attack us. To the Administration, the scale of that goal justifies subordinating other concerns to its demands—and thus we come quickly to key number three: Iran and the nuclear negotiations.
The problem here is that accommodating increasingly blatant Iranian aggression risks seeding the Sunni world with nuclear weapons desires and programs, from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates to Turkey to consummating longstanding Saudi deals with a nuclear Pakistan. By de-linking the nuclear negotiations from regional geopolitics, and by otherwise behaving in such a way as to persuade Saudi Arabia and its associates that Washington has handed the keys to the region to Tehran, the Administration has made the circumstance it fears most vastly more likely.
In other words, offshore balancing is accident-prone enough, but when the effort tips so obviously not toward a new regional balance that all can imagine if not see, but instead to one side in a vicious sectarian blood feud, it just compounds the dangers and fears among the regional protagonists. And fear, as Elena Bonner once put it, “gives bad advice.”
Perhaps a pickle is too glib a concept for the current situation in which the United States finds itself; maybe double-bind works better. With apologies to Gregory Bateson, who surely never intended his notion to be applied to current U.S. dilemmas in the Middle East, a double-bind is a good description of a situation that finds an American President wanting to court Iran into some kind of working relationship—and doing all sorts of things to convey the message, of which more below—but that finds him supporting from the rear, as it were, Saudi-led military action in Yemen against Iranian proxies, competing with Iranian-directed Shi’a militias around Tikrit for the favor the Iraqi government, putting up with Iranian military games in which a U.S. aircraft carrier in the putative target, and having Iran’s Supreme Leader intone “Death to America” in response to the President’s warm and respectful recent Nowruz message to the “Iranian people.”
Now about those soothing U.S. messages to Iran. With the President’s mellifluous Nowruz message a recent example, they come in different shapes and sizes, and while they may not sum to the strategic master plan some believe exists, they do accumulate into more than a series of accidents.
First and foremost, as already noted, is the absence of pushback against Iran’s aggressive probes throughout the region. Second is the fact that the U.S. air war against Da’esh turns American efforts into the de facto Shi’a air force. American warplanes are shooting at Sunnis in Syria (both Da’esh and Jabat al-Nusra Sunnis) but not Assad regime targets. And they are shooting at Sunnis in Iraq.
Third, as is by now well known, DNI General James Clapper recently removed Iran and Hizballah from the list of terrorist threats to the United States in its 2014 annual report, and made a point of noting the omission publicly. This does not take them off the official terrorism-sponsors list, only off our analytical threat assessment matrix. The signal, nevertheless, rings out loud and clear, and it beggars imagination that General Clapper would have done such a thing without White House approval or, as likely, direct encouragement.
Fourth, there have been reports that in the State Department some planning discussions have begun whose premise is an Iranian role in an eventual political settlement of the Syrian civil war. These planning notions include a U.S.-sanctioned role for Iran in Syrian security affairs. That may or may not be a moral affront, seeing as how Iran has been critical to keeping in power a regime that has murdered more than 200,000 of its own citizens, but it is certainly a sign to Tehran that the United States does not really object to its regional pretensions, but rather defers to them.
And so we come around back to the first key: U.S.-Israeli relations.
As noted above, each key of the recent shift has its own complications and internal logic. So it is possible to explain the Obama Administration’s bizarre post-March 17 behavior based entirely on the contained U.S.-Israeli political dynamic. And it has been plainly bizarre for the Administration to perseverate on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desperate and irresponsible March 16 remarks, and their supposed shroud cast over future peace process prospects—as if they were bright in any case—at a time when the rest of the region is burning to the ground. The Arabs seem to be coming together finally (with what effect we shall see) in response to a threat from Iran (not Israel), yet the White House dial seems stuck on Jerusalem (which it, like its predecessors, insists on calling Tel Aviv). The White House’s refusal to accept the Prime Minister’s attempt to “clarify” his damaging remarks on the two-state solution is counterproductive on its face, and certainly bears the signs of a premeditated attack plan that is using Netanyahu’s March 16 remarks merely as a pretext. It also resembles the behavior of a still emotionally imbalanced adolescent. It is thus bizarre in more ways than one.
Most Israelis believe that the Administration had prepared one narrative for use had Yitzhak Herzog won the election, another if Netanyahu did. After March 17 the latter narrative lurched forth, and with it the threat to reassess U.S.-Israeli relations. That seems to mean to most observers a determination not to use the U.S. veto in the UN Security Council, and so let pass an approaching series of pro-Palestinian resolutions. (It would be passing strange, but amazingly so, if one or more of those resolutions were vetoed instead by France, which has stood to the solid right of the U.S. position on several Middle Eastern issues lately; that would bring things back to where there were in roughly 1955, when the second language in Israel was French, not English.)
A shelved U.S. veto at Turtle Bay, frankly, may be the least of what is to come. So what is the shift in this key really about?
One interpretation is that the White House is attempting to intimidate the five to seven Democratic Senators who might otherwise help Senator Corker put together a veto-proof new sanctions bill. Maybe, even though some of these Senators may have problems with the prospective deal beyond or besides its implications for Israel.
A second, more widespread interpretation, is that this is just about pique, about outright spill-over-the-sides anger. Obama doesn’t like Netanyahu, and from the still recent “chickenshit” comment on back this has to be clear to anyone who can see and hear. The Boehner/Dermer caper that brought Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress should have marked the boiling point, given the unprecedented affront that it was. But the Administration kept its powder dry for fear of playing into Netanyahu’s hands. He won anyway, and so out poured the vitriol that had been accumulating for more than six years.
There is plenty of evidence for this interpretation. Bad relations go back to the beginning of the Administration. One of the first things the Administration did was to disavow an April 2004 memorandum of understanding, based on an exchange of letters between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Such a disavowal had never before been done, and it deeply injured the relationship. As a result, just by the way, the President is on shaky ground in complaining about Congress’ pointing out that a mere Executive Agreement between the United States and Iran over the nuclear portfolio just might be subject to reversal in a subsequent Administration.
One of the next things the Administration did was to insist on a level of Israeli settlements constraints, including in Jerusalem, that not only contradicted the disavowed April 2004 exchange of letters but forced the Palestinian negotiating position into a high corner, where it had never before voluntarily gone and from which it could not easily escape. This initial error doomed the peace process to near stasis at a time when the sides might have been able to make at least some progress. For the Obama Administration to blame mainly Israel for the terrible record of peace process achievements over the past six years thus rankles throughout the Israeli establishment in all major parties, not just Likud.
Those initial U.S. actions set the stage for a thick array of disagreements and nasty behaviors on both sides that have characterized the relationship ever since. We lack room to review them all, but some U.S. behaviors have clearly broken precedent in the relationship—notably the White House’s dipping down into the highly institutionalized military-to-military relationship to interfere with the flow of ordnance to Israel at a time when the IDF was locked in a fight against Hamas in Gaza.
But the anger thesis, while certainly part of the explanation, does not do full justice to the Administration’s behavior. Note that on February 12, more than a month before the Israeli election and before Netanyahu addressed Congress, the Pentagon released a 1987 document detailing aspects of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. The same document also reviewed British, French, and other programs, but only the details about Israel were declassified and released. The amounts to Israel’s closest ally and protector “outing” Israel’s nuclear status. This is a decidedly unfriendly and mischievous act, and gratuitously so, because it feeds a form of pseudo-moral equivalence: If Israel can have nukes, why can’t Iran? (If you really don’t know the answer, just ask yourself which country-with-nukes specter keeps the Arabs up at night.)
If the Obama Administration’s real desire is to unravel the “special relationship” en toto, such an act could mark the beginning of a campaign to delegitimate Israel’s ultimate deterrent. If the Administration should soon start to indirectly float notions about the delights of a Middle Eastern nuclear-free zone, we will know that its behavior goes far beyond an expression of anger at just one Israeli Prime Minister and one Israeli political party.
But why would the Administration want to denature aspects of the special relationship with Israel, or that relationship as a whole? Let us now circle back to near the beginning of this analysis.
If the Administration is a true believer in moving from Pax Americana in the Middle East to an offshore balancing posture, it follows that its current crop of allies, inherited from Cold War days, needs to be scythed down to near ground level. For a new balance to arise that needs less rather than more U.S. management participation—and hence risk and expense—the lowly must be raised up as the high riders are brought down. If the Israelis have not gotten the message, the Saudis certainly have. That, among other factors, explains the boldness of the new kingly administration in assembling a war coalition to fight in Yemen.
Now, once can debate the wisdom of rebalancing of the U.S.-Israeli special relationship, and the extent of any rebalancing. I am on record here and elsewhere, going back more than a decade, as favoring careful and moderate efforts to make the relationship somewhat less special. All the preemptive denials notwithstanding, the circumstances of the post-Cold War world make Israel objectively less useful to the United States as a regional ally. And many have argued—including many Israelis—that too close an American protectorship has abetted Israeli paralysis before some very difficult core decisions the nation needs to make about its future, but manages to avoid to its growing peril thanks to U.S. largesse.
Those afflicted with the Gevult Syndrome, of which I have spoken before, cannot imagine any careful, moderate and, above all, mutual recalibrating of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Any change initiated from the U.S. side they immediately interpret as betrayal, treachery, and yes, of course, anti-Semitism. Some blood-on-the-saddle pro-Likud American Jews have been among the “birthers” who have believed from the start that the President is a secret Muslim who has plotted all along to harm Israel and the Jews. They think he, not the Supreme Leader, is the real modern-day Haman.
Alas, given the copious supplies of venom that have been injected into the relationship in recent years, it has become harder than ever to persuade such fantasists that adjustments in what has been by any measure an abnormal relationship since roughly the mid-1970s might benefit both sides. And there is one more reason why it is so hard: the Administration’s perceived pro-Iranian tilt, added, as described above, to the offshore balancing theme.
Consider how the Administration’s recent behavior looks from Tehran. The President has his Defense Department “out” Israel as a nuclear power. He then presses a public spat with the Israeli Prime Minister beyond logic and reason. He sheds crocodile tears for a peace process that was not going to succeed anyway under current conditions. He presides over a highly public reassessment of U.S.-Israeli relations. In Tehran, all this has to look like an American Administration straining to put distance between itself and Israel so as to plead with the Supreme Leader: You can make a nuclear deal with us because we are not so great a satan anymore, since now we are no longer a good friend to the lesser satan you keep threatening to annihilate.
If you believe that the Administration has doubled down in desperation on the Great White Whale of its diplomacy—a solve-all nuclear deal with Iran—and if you think its greatest worry in this regard is that no amount of concessions will in the end get the Iranians to say “yes”, whether in the next few days or at the end of June, then it is not fanciful to see the Administration’s anti-Netanyahu antics as more broadly, and much more seriously, anti-Israel gestures fabricated to mollify Iranian leaders. If this is deliberate, it is shameful; if it is not deliberate, it is foolish, for it will likely whet the Supreme Leader’s appetite for more of the same, and still not get him to say “yes.”
Can we know for sure that this is among the Administration’s motives for its recent behavior? I can’t, and I hope it isn’t. But I can note, as others before me have done, that the person who actually wrote The Iraq Study Group Report back in 2006, which proposed (see chapter 2, especially recommendations 16 and 17) to essentially throw Israel under the axel to achieve an Arab-Israeli peace that, somehow, was supposed to be the key to solving U.S. dilemmas in Iraq, was none other than Ben Rhodes. Rhodes’s predilection for making Israel the unwilling Christ-figure for U.S. diplomacy may be experiencing a second coming today in his notion of how to get on with Iran. Maybe some day we will find out for sure, one way or another.
The offshore balancing predilection is alluring, but evasive under current circumstances—and probably unwise in pure form even were its attainment possible. It is one thing to counsel that the United States should avoid taking sides in a Muslim sectarian struggle that is none of its business—which is right—another to imagine that avoiding that particular kind of commitment can free us from all the dilemmas we are now stuck in—it can’t. We should reduce some of the ties that bind us, but we cannot approach that task in a wholesale manner without doing more harm than good, including to ourselves, not to speak of our allies. We can “pivot” all we want, or at least pretend to; the quicksand, however, does not relent.
Meanwhile, again, the perceived pro-Iranian tilt in a U.S. diplomacy seemingly designed to bring about an offshore balancing posture compounds the dangers inherent in it. Together the predilection and the tilt threaten to evoke the regional proliferation nightmare we want most to avoid. It’s easy to claim that all this is really the fault of the Bush Administration, which might have determined to drive a bargain with Iran at a much earlier time and thus preclude Iran’s becoming a nuclear threshold state, deal or no deal. But that’s an ultimately unanswerable counterfactual proposition, and it doesn’t really let the Obama Administration off the hook for new and different errors all its own. What is less speculative is the Administration’s use of Israel as diplomatic fodder to advance its “hail Mary” diplomacy with Iran. This is not good work if you can get it; regrettably, however, it does appear to be available.