Monday, June 14, 2010

Eyeless in Gaza: Confused Priorities and the Iranian Bomb

By slightly adjusting for characters and causes, today’s Middle East situation is eerily similar to that of the 1950’s. US policy has again opened the door to a radical threat to Arabian Gulf oil producers. And, as in the 1950’s, the US is again allowing Russia to successfully challenge American prestige and power in the region.

The White House chose to turn a minor announcement by a mid-level Interior Ministry bureaucrat into a major diplomatic brouhaha during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel. The timing of the ministry release, more likely intended to embarrass Israel’s prime minister, was interpreted by Washington as a “slight” to the vice president and the United States. According to the administration, the incident nearly derailed the opening of indirect peace talks with the Palestinians, the purported reason for the Biden visit.

Within hours of the story hitting the press Saudi King Abdullah summoned the American defense secretary to Riyadh for an explanation. Was the king concerned at the asserted slight to American prestige, to the danger to the peace talks? According to Israeli military officials the real purpose behind Biden’s trip was not Palestine but Iran. Obama wanted Israel behind his Iran policy and Netanyahu resisted. The media blitz was payback.

That Iran, not American prestige or peace with the Palestinians was the reason behind White House ire is strongly reinforced by visits to Riyadh by other high administration officials. Weeks before the Biden incident the secretary of state was dispatched to reassure the Saudis, and failed. Soon after Biden left Jerusalem the chairman of the joint chiefs made the same trip, with the same result. But most telling was the press conference called by the prime minister of a Gulf emirate on the heels of Biden’s departure. According to the prime minister, regarding Iran, Gulf Arabs and Israel “see eye-to-eye.”

So what is America’s Iran policy, and why the need to reassure the Arabs, to threaten Israel?

The most obvious reason for regional loss of confidence in American policy can be traced to the fallout resulting from the Bush ordering the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the history of American policy mistakes in the region goes back farther, at least to the 1950’s. On 26 July, 1956 Egypt’s Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. England and France decided to take it back. The European plan called for Israel to occupy the Sinai and, as it approached the waterway, the Europeans would intervene to “protect” the canal. When the Russians threatened to side with Egypt President Eisenhower ordered the three “allies” to withdraw. Eisenhower would later describe that decision a mistake. The result was that for nearly two decades Russia, through its radical nationalist proxies in Egypt and Syria, threatened the US-protected Arab oil monarchies and other US interests in the region. By the 1960’s Israel was an essential partner to the US. Natural enemy of the Russian-backed radicals Israel served as counter threat which protected the oil producers, and American interests overall.

By slightly adjusting for characters and causes, today’s Middle East situation is eerily similar to that of the 1950’s. US policy has again opened the door to a radical threat to Arabian Gulf oil producers. And, as in the 1950’s, the US is again allowing Russia to successfully challenge American prestige and power in the region.

So the hurried summons by the Saudi’s, the statement by that Gulf state prime minister are two indications of the degree of threat felt in the region. Others include Saudi Arabia spending billions on a fence, a high tech Maginot Line, intended to surround the entire country. And while the Saudis did not volunteer to join Israel in attacking Iranian nuclear facilities, months ago they quietly let it be know that they would provide Israel an air corridor to conduct the strike, an offer recently renewed.

Other indicators of America-inspired regional angst are not difficult to find. Turkey, long time ally of the United States has, in recent years, grown increasingly distant, carving out an independent Middle East policy. Some analysts attribute the shift to its Islamist government, to dreams of a return to Ottoman glory. A more immediate explanation is that US failure to deal with the Iranian bomb necessitates her neighbors find an accommodation with the Islamic Republic.

Before the overthrow of Sadam Turkey would never have defied the United States at the UN, as it recently did by voting against the US drafted Iran sanctions package. Indeed, the week before that vote the Turks succeeded where the US had failed, to “convince” Ahmadinejad to accept, six months late, Obama’s offer to ship low grade uranium overseas for reprocessing. That gesture nearly derailed the US sponsored UN resolution which would have dealt a major defeat to US diplomacy.

Turkey’s prime minister has staked out a position of support of Hamas against Israel. Since Hamas is also on the US list of terrorist organizations, by doing so Turkey is demonstrating US weakness in being not even being able control its principal Moslem ally. How credible its assurances that it can deal decisively with Iran?

The Mavi Marmara incident is another example of American regional retreat. In this instance one ally, Turkey, was involved in sending a convoy of ships to break the legal naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza by another ally, Israel. Lives were lost with many injured on both sides. Hailed as a “new” Nasser, Erdogan followed up by threatening to send another convoy, this one led by the Turkish navy. And now Iran, intent on not being left behind, is sending its own ships to confront the Israel navy. And American failure to control regional events, even between allies, is again demonstrated.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind down, with Iraq increasingly drawn into the Iranian orbit, with Turkey continuing its drift to the Muslim east; as the threat to the Saudis and Gulf emirates by Russia-backed radical Iran increases so also will Israel’s importance to America. The US-Israel “special relationship” was never, for the senior partner, based on sentiment but on national self-interest. And the need for a reliable ally on the ground in the Middle East will be the basis for that new special relationship. Of course this presupposes the Obama administration can overcome prejudice regarding the Jewish state, can recognize and respond to the reality of the Iranian threat, not only its regional implications, but as part of a resurgent Russian global challenge.

There are some indications that America is coming to grips with the Russian reality. US backing for Georgia in that short-lived war is one example; installing Patriot missiles in Poland, albeit after months of hesitation, is another. But America’s response to Russia in the Middle East continues muddled and ineffective, a confusion of priorities and missed opportunities. The White House seems to accept that there is no longer a question of “winning” in Iraq, but merely containing the damage. In Afghanistan CIA and US Special Forces succeeded in bringing down the Taliban regime a decade ago. But the lesson of the defeat of conventional Russian forces in that country should have been warning enough against the current intervention. Not even the US installed and backed Afghan president believes the US can prevail.

The stakes for America in the Middle East are enormous, its position as world leader is at stake. The Iranian threat inflates the price of oil worldwide, a potential tipping point that can spell global economic disaster; the region is the land bridge between north and south, east and west. The Middle East, not southwest Asia, is America’s strategic imperative, Iraq and Afghanistan mere sideshow and distraction.

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