Joseph Klein: The Mideast Maelstrom on Obama’s Watch

Rarely in the history of American foreign policy has a U.S. president been so fundamentally wrong about a vital region in the world, with lethal consequences. President Barack Obama’s legacy will be an unstable, roiling Middle East and North Africa.

His policies are enabling a more aggressive Iranian regime to spread its Shiite brand of Islamic jihad throughout the region and gain a path to becoming a nuclear armed state. His withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq in 2011, coupled with his abetting of the false hopes of the Arab Spring, have given rise to a strengthened Islamic State with ambitions for a transnational caliphate.

From the very beginning of his first term, President Obama has sought to foster closer relations with the Iranian regime. He ignored the dissidents in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, who were beaten, tortured and killed in June 2009 as they dared to defy the ruling mullahs. Obama thought he would be better off showing respect to the regime’s leaders. That way, he reasoned, he could win them over to negotiating a nuclear deal that might channel the regime’s behavior towards playing a more constructive role in the Middle East region.

Obama is doggedly pursuing nuclear arms negotiations, making major concessions along the way despite fierce objections from America’s Gulf State allies, much less Israel. As former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George P. Schultz noted in their April 8, 2015 Wall Street Journal op-ed article, “America’s traditional allies will conclude that the U.S. has traded temporary nuclear cooperation for acquiescence to Iranian hegemony. They will increasingly look to create their own nuclear balances and, if necessary call in other powers to sustain their integrity.”

President Obama’s upcoming Camp David summit with the Arab Gulf countries this week appears to be little more than a PR maneuver to try and reassure them that he will have their back. Unless Obama toughens his stance in the Iran nuclear negotiations, however, the leaders of these countries will have good cause to remain very concerned about the outcome of Obama’s fool’s errand and to turn elsewhere for military support.

A fully verifiable and enforceable agreement, including international inspections anywhere at any time, is a non-starter as far as the Iranian regime is concerned. However, the Obama administration is so desirous of a deal that it is willing to finesse the issue. The deal Obama is contemplating will also leave Iran with sufficient capacity, facilities, equipment and fissile material to break out and become a nuclear armed power with virtually no lag time, once the temporary restraints on its nuclear program are lifted. Freeing Iran from economic sanctions, which Iran is insisting must be completed when a final deal is signed or very shortly thereafter, will provide the regime with more resources to expand its influence to neighboring countries.

While squandering the opportunity to be on the side of change in Iran, whose current regime poses a strategic threat to the United States, Obama encouraged the toppling of autocratic but relatively stable Arab governments in the region. These countries’ regimes posed no strategic threat to the United States, but he risked all on the false promise of the Arab Spring. This also upset Saudi Arabia and other traditional Gulf state allies of the United States.

In remarks President Obama delivered at the State Department in May 2011, he heralded the Arab Spring as a transformational, liberating event in the Middle East and North Africa. He compared this movement by “ordinary citizens” for “self-determination” to “the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat.” He added that “through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.”

In his 2011 State Department remarks, Obama singled out Yemen, Libya and Syria as positive examples of countries where he claimed citizens yearning for freedom were finally able to speak out. “In Sanaa, we heard the students who chanted, ‘The night must come to an end,’” Obama declared. “In Benghazi, we heard the engineer who said, ‘Our words are free now.  It’s a feeling you can’t explain.’ In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, ‘After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.’”

Instead, under his watch, anarchy and disintegration ensued in countries like Yemen, Libya and Syria, giving rise to a fundamental re-mapping of territories within and across the boundaries of the failed nation states.

On the one hand, large swaths of territory have fallen under the control of a pre-modern, jihadist self-proclaimed caliphate that would erase the national borders established following World War I in the wake of the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. The Islamic State, which Obama at first dismissed as akin to a junior varsity team, is successfully combining twenty-first century social media technologies to gain recruits and spread its propaganda all over the world with primitive barbaric acts of murder, rape, abductions and persecution. From its bases in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is spreading its tentacles to Libya where it is establishing a beachhead to migrate its jihadism to Europe. And it has a presence right here in the United States via homegrown adherents to its message of Islamic supremacy and killing of non-believers.

On the other hand, Iran is seeking to expand its hegemony throughout the Middle East and is succeeding. Even before the June 30th deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran, wrote national security and intelligence expert Dr. Norman A. Bailey in a column appearing in the May 5th edition of the Globes, “the map of the Middle East puzzle may have been extensively redrawn. That in turn is likely to cause further aggressive behavior on the part of an embattled Iran.” Dr. Bailey described a confrontation emerging between the “Sh’ia northern arc of Iran, Iraq, Assad and Hezbollah” and “the southern Sunni arc of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States,” with Iran “adding to the confusion” by attempting to “outflank the Sunni arc in Yemen, and the rampaging Sunni Islamic State athwart the Sh’ia arc.”

The Obama administration has no evident coherent strategy to deal with all of these interconnected challenges to peace and security in the region.

Syria, for example, is now in its fifth year of civil war. More than 220,000 people have died so far, with no sign of clear victory by one side or the other. As Dr. Bailey explained, Syria could “break up into ethnic/religious enclaves and disappear as a state entity.” Iran and the Islamic State are running circles around the Obama administration in the meantime.

President Obama and senior officials in his administration have repeatedly called for Iranian-backed Syrian President Assad to step down, but to no avail. The one time that President Obama drew a red line, warning of an American military response if the Assad regime used chemical weapons, he backed off. Iran and other adversaries took note.

The Obama administration is supporting the so-called “moderate” opposition, which thrives more in exile than within the country itself. To the extent that “moderate” Syrian Free Army opposition forces are still fighting the Assad regime, it is too weak to make much of a difference and has had to even engage in tactical alliances with the stronger al-Nusra terrorist group, which in turn shares the Islamic State’s goal of imposing strict Islamic law within the territories they each control. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is embarking on a training and equipment program to enable Syrian Free Army forces to take on the common enemy of the United States and Iran, the Islamic State. U.S. bombing of Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Iraq is not enough to stop the Islamic State’s advance, but is helping to keep Assad in power. All the while, Iran is extending its own influence in both Syria and Iraq, where it has a presence on the ground through the intervention of its Revolutionary Guard and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah.

Post-Qaddafi-Libya has imploded into warring factions, with jihadists filling the vacuum and spreading terror throughout the country and beyond. President Obama led from behind in supporting NATO’s toppling of Muammar Qaddafi, and then left the broken country to fend for itself. Both the Islamic State and Iran have benefitted from the chaos.

Yemen, which President Obama pointed to last year as a successful model of his anti-terrorism strategy, is falling apart. The Shiite Iran-backed Houthis are fighting to topple the internationally recognized central government forced into exile, and have been taking control over large portions of the country. A Saudi-backed coalition is conducting airstrikes to push back the Houthis, with the support of the Obama administration.

With Al Qaeda taking advantage of the chaos to conduct more terrorist attacks of its own and Saudi airstrikes causing civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis, Iran is positioning itself as the savior of the Yemenis. “The Americans shamelessly support the killing of the Yemeni population, but they accuse Iran of interfering in that country and of sending weapons when Iran only seeks to provide medical and food aid,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei charged last week.

Iran’s warships did turn back recently from areas off Yemen’s coast after the U.S. Navy reinforced its own presence. However, Iran may be taking a page out of Russia’s playbook in Ukraine with its plans to send humanitarian aid to Yemen in cargo ships. Is there any real doubt as to what will be hidden in Iran’s cargo of medical and food supplies?

Egypt has been a strong stabilizing force in the Middle East and friend of the United States for decades. Unlike other nations in the region which were cobbled together after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt at least has a national identity rooted in thousands of years of a common history, traditions and culture. Western style democracy, however, has never been part of their traditions. Nevertheless, Obama threw America’s long-time ally President Hosni Mubarak under the bus in the name of democracy. In his 2011 State Department remarks about the Arab Spring, Obama declared: “In Cairo we heard the voice of the young mother who said, ‘It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.’”

The Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi was elected as president of Egypt in 2012, after a popular uprising backed by the Obama administration resulted in Mubarak’s removal from power. Morsi himself was overthrown in a second popular uprising a year later by millions of Egyptian citizens upset by Morsi’s attempt to impose the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist supremacist ideology on the entire country.

Obama supported Morsi and viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a “moderate” alternative to both al Qaeda and to a secular dictator. He kept military aid flowing to the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled regime even as it trampled on the human rights of Egyptian citizens. In doing so, he played right into the hands of Iran’s leaders who believed that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood shared with them a common vision of an “Islamic Awakening” throughout the entire region.

The Obama administration recklessly suspended vital military aid to Morsi’s successor, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. This served to weaken the Egyptian government’s ability to fight jihadist terrorists, who have been seeking to re-impose Islamist rule in the country, including reportedly with some support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Obama finally lifted the year-and-a-half–long suspension for most of the military aid earlier this spring, but it may be too little too late.

President Obama still blames former President George W. Bush for the mess Obama says he inherited in the Middle East. No incoming president is handed a problem-free world, and the Middle East has been a volatile region since time immemorial. However, President Obama has made poor policy choices based on fundamentally flawed assumptions. In doing so, he has made a bad situation far worse.