Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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U.S. Policy, Viewed From the Middle East

by Elliott Abrams
October 31, 2014


It’s natural that in the United States we see the Middle East from our own perspective, but very useful to step away from that perspective for a moment to try and see the region as our closest allies there do. By closest allies I refer to Israel and to Arab states such as the UAE, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

In some recent travel to the region and conversations in Washington and New York with Arab and Israeli officials, I’ve heard a view that is remarkable, first, for its uniformity: Arab and Israeli leaders stating the same views, almost interchangeably at times. The flippant remark that “the Obama administration has achieved just one thing in the Middle East: to draw Israel and the Arabs closer together” turns out to carry a great deal of truth.

As the officials with whom I spoke described the regional situation, they face two enormous challenges: Islamist extremism of the Al Qaeda and Islamic State variety, and the rise of Iran. As to the latter, they all perceive the U.S. government as not only conceding Iranian hegemony in the region but even promoting it as a positive good. A recent Wall Street Journal story started this way:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.

The shift could drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and risks alienating key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are central to the coalition fighting Islamic State.

The story has one inaccuracy: it says this shift “risks” alienating key allies, when in fact it has already done so, and done so badly. For Israelis facing the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the United States appears not only resigned but anxious to do a deal that allows Iran to enrich uranium and won’t require it to destroy one single centrifuge. Whatever diplomats say about the package they assemble, everyone in the Middle East will see it as a huge Iranian victory that allows Iran to get even closer to the bomb. Washington is moving to containment while Obama administration officials tell themselves and all who will listen that they are not doing that.

For the Arabs, what the King of Jordan once called a “Shia crescent” is forming before their eyes: Iranian hegemony from Yemen through Iran to Iraq and Syria and Lebanon. And their former protector, the United States, seems happy with this development because it sees Iran as a potential partner. If a nuclear deal means that sanctions on Iran begin to crumble, Iran will have more resources with which to project force through war and subversion.

For our allies in the region, the sharp drop in oil prices means this is an excellent moment to step up the pressure on Iran, increasing sanctions until they agree to real compromises on their nuclear weapons program. Instead, the Obama administration and not Iran seems desperate for a deal. In my conversations, I also heard the idea that once the President loses the Senate (if that does happen) he will be left only with foreign policy as a playing field. And he will want to do something fast after November 4th that asserts that he is a not a lame duck and is still in charge. What better than an Iran deal?

Our allies also wonder about our Iraq/Syria policy, for many reasons. For one thing, no one has explained to them how the policy can work, or why American officials think it is working: Jihadis continue to flow into the extremist groups; ISIS is not notably weaker; and above all the United States has no coherent Syria policy. There isn’t even much of a theory as to who, on the ground, will seriously fight ISIS, nor is there an explanation of how we will get rid of Assad. Or is he another potential partner, like Iran? More détente?

For another thing, from the Sunni Arab viewpoint American policy is suspiciously indifferent to Sunni deaths and soft on Shia killers. From their perspective, it’s noteworthy that the United States acted fast to save the Yazidis and is bombing more and more to save the Kurds in Kobane. That’s nice, one Arab diplomat said to me, but who in the United States had ever heard of the Yazidis a couple of weeks earlier? Meanwhile, he went on, you did nothing to save 200,000 Sunnis in Syria. You humored Maliki as he drove the Sunnis of Iraq into desperation. You have no policy on how to get rid of Assad, the butcher of Sunnis. That’s all another reason why, he said, there’s so much suspicion of U.S. policy, which seems to us pro-Shia.

So the view of U.S. policy has a double-barreled quality: they argue that we are weak, and that we seek deals with enemies rather than victory and security for allies and friends. Détente with Iran, not stopping Iran. Attacks on ISIS, but hands off Assad while he butchers more Sunnis. This is obviously not how people in the White House see the world and their own policies, but they have failed to persuade our allies in the region that they have a coherent, cogent policy. From Arabs and Israelis the refrain I heard over and over again was “how will we get through the next two years?”

A final note, this one entirely from me and not based on any conversations with people from the region. Against the background described above, I think the damage done by administration officials who savaged Prime Minister Netanyahu is deep, including among Arab leaders. Those remarks made a bad situation among our allies far worse. That’s not because they like Netanyahu, but because it suggests that administration officials are callow, undisciplined, and untrustworthy. After all, those remarks were made with the intention that they be published; they were not off the record. The speakers (and there was more than one) obviously thought that in the Obama administration, trashing allied leaders in the press is fine and people above you will just chuckle; anyway, you are reflecting their views. Those remarks were not acts of rebellion nor leaks against administration policy. The officials who made those remarks did serious damage to U.S. credibility, and not just in Israel. That no one was punished, that no one was fired, is a signal that the whole situation is not being taken seriously. Which is one reason why, more and more, and very dangerously, American foreign policy is not being taken seriously.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by EthanP

    As I’v stated before, this President and his sycophants, see’s the USA as the worlds sole super power as ‘the’ evil and threat to peace in the world. Thus every action taken since 2009 makes obvious sense. Not incompetence of fear (though they are a part of this), but a calculated plan to castrate American power. This Administration has made every decision based on hindering the US military and economic power. Thus a nuclear Iran makes perfect sense. Iran then becomes a check on US power. Look at the record. Obama has hindered every ally. (Indeed, they are now boasting that This Administration has prevented at least one planned Israeli strike.) Mubarik and Ghadafi may have been bastards, but they were our bastards. Just look at the world situation. Our enemies hold us in contempt. Our friends can no longer trust us. This is ‘THE” plan of this White House!

  • Posted by EMT

    Who Will Trust You ?

    In order to keep the US government’s credibility, it is time that the Obama administration punishes the one who used these dirty words towards Netanyahu. This incident alone greatly diminishes the seriousness of Obama and his policy as it became very childish and no one will consider the Obama administration seriously. This kind of behavior is Un-American and unacceptable. As for Secretary of State Kerry, he is wasting his time and the American taxpayers’ money and he is also wasting the Israeli officials’ time, who let him do because they are polite. He does not know the ways of the Arabs, or of the Palestinians, or of the Jews. Obama can try again and again; the Israelis will never trust him or his administration.

    Obama has abandoned Israel and the Sunni Arabs.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Right you are, Mr. Abrams, and you have made a most important observation.

    I would simply advance your argument one or two steps further, as I have in previous comments and letters to CFR members.

    The views on US Middle East policy that you describe as belonging to allied foreign officials and observers derive not merely from differences in perspective. They have a sound basis in fact. And I will take issue with your statement that this is not how the “White House” sees things, referring to its negotiations with Iran. They are not blind to their own actions and intentions, and this is most certainly how they see things.

    It is not that they do not understand how our allies see things differently. They just do not care.

    As I asserted in a February letter to Dr. Haass, the Obama administration thinks it can trade Syria for a nuclear development treaty with Iran, and it is willing to do so. It therefore has no intention of doing anything to disturb the Assad regime’s hold on power. If pressed, certain officials will admit to this.

    The Obama administration has only one positive foreign policy objective when it comes to the Middle East. That is to have such a treaty. All else is mere damage control, or nuisance.

    For this reason, the only regime change it has any interest in promoting there is the one currently underway in Iran, from an authoritarian theocracy to a tolerant and democratic state modeled on liberal principles. Administration officials, with good justification, perceive that the hand of the Rouhani government must be strengthened if it is to come to an agreement with the US. They now recognize that a treaty with Iran can not be achieved in the absence of a general warming of relations. And that means doing nothing to challenge Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

    This is indeed what the President and his officers are about, and they know it. Any statements they might make to the contrary should be ignored, for they are merely meant to deflect criticism, or obscure their purposes, and thus buy time and free range of action.

    This policy is as wrong as wrong can be. As I have said time and again, it can only lead to a fool’s bargain, for Iran’s true goal is to be the dominant power in the Middle East, toward which end its nuclear weapons program is merely a means. If Iran trades away its nuclear ambitions, it will only be for the reason that it sees an advantage in doing so. This is the advantage it seeks. If it is conceded, then in all likelihood, the Obama administration will fail to get what they are after. But it really will not matter much, with 100000 conventional missiles in the possession of Hezbollah.

    This is a real concern for our allies in the Middle East I would include Turkey in your list. And that is why, as you have noted, our only friends in the Middle East are to be found among our nominal enemies.

    This is why the Obama administration has no serious intention of doing anything to weaken the Assad regime. The only thing the US stands to gain for such a bargain is its severance pay as a retired world leader.


  • Posted by Daniel E. Levenson

    I agree that a certain measure of ambivalence on the part of the Obama administration when it comes to dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat is sending the wrong signal to our allies in the Middle East. The question in my mind is whether the State Dept and White House also see the impact this apparent equivocation is having on America’s image in the region, and whether or not key US leaders will be sufficiently concerned to factor in this altered perception to influence decision making when it comes to Iran.

    In addition to the fear that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons could one day lead to their use, there has always been the very real fear (eventuality?) that the possession of this capability alone will embolden Tehran as it seeks to expand its regional and global influence through the use of conventional forces and weapons, confident that no other nation will risk nuclear war by challenging them in a substantive way. This is not to suggest that the nuclear weapons themselves would not pose a grave threat to Israel, Jordan and others, but that the more proximate concern, should Iran aquire nuclear weapons, would be a marked increase in regional instability engineered by Iran both directly and through its proxies as they hide behind this nuclear shield.

    For these reasons alone the possibility of a watered-down deal with Tehran which lacks adequate enforcement mechanisms is deeply worrying. The lack of a Syria strategy, as you point out, combined with the apparent lack of discipline and discretion which led to the Netanyahu “Chicken Shit” comment also do not do much to inspire confidence in America’s foreign policy leadership abroad.

  • Posted by Mike P.

    How funny that the way Obama, the genius, has improved relations between Israel and the Arab states is by betraying them both and cozying up with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood!

    I wonder if this great case study on how to conduct diplomacy–by merely pretending to be a bungler and backstabber–will be taught at Kennedy, Fletcher and Georgetown in coming years.

  • Posted by Michael G. Dworkin

    They have also almost totally destroyed good relations with Canada, too, though few in the Mass Media Mainstream seem to have noticed.

    Amateur bunglers.

  • Posted by jvictor1789

    ” American foreign policy is not being taken seriously.”

    If it wasn´t, Israel and the Gulf monarchs and their spokesmen wouldn´t be so hysterical.

    It is in the national interest of the USA for Iran not to proliferate, but also for Iran to counterbalance so called “allies” that regularly cause more trouble than necessary.The Syrian war was totally uncalled for, it was started because of a whim of these”closest allies” and the end result has been the rise of ISIS and Assad and his wife ditching Home and Garden and becoming furious combatants, all very unnecessary and we haven´t seen the end of it yet..The Iranians are no worse than the Gulf monarchs: their society is just a few degrees less backward, more predictable, and less prone to gamble as if geopolitics was a Montecarlo casino.

    And Iran can´t be broken.It wasn´t in the past, and the new generation is better prepared.It can and must be threatened with war until they sign a nonproliferation deal, but that´s all:after that it is better to be friends. The alternative is for Iran to keep on selling oil to India, China et alia and grow and grow as a permanent and ultimately more dangerous misfit state.

    It wasn´t in the national interest of the United States to support the terrible Central American juntas and oligarchies in their inhuman abuse.To present Death Squads as “freedom fighters” was worse than a crime, a blunder. A blunder that in time paved the way for the pendulum to bring Chavez, Morales, Correa, Lula,Cristina and even Ortega.It was in the national interest to be more realistic and moderate-as for private interests, that´s another matter.

    Let´s not make the same kind of mistakes.

  • Posted by Howard

    It is noteworthy that Obama administration officials call Netanyahu “chicken shit” while they engage in Iranian appeasement. Chamberlain gave the Nazis the Austro-Hungarian military industrial complex, Obama is giving the mullahs nuclear capability.

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