There was much speculation and angst in Western capitals at the time that the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1973 could trigger a direct US-USSR Super-Power confrontation in the desert of Sinai, leading to a Third World War, unimaginable in the nuclear age. For a moment, it looked as if that just might happen with America intervening to protect Israel and Russia intervening to strengthen its ally, Egypt. The Middle East today finds itself engulfed in a moment even more precarious and dangerous than those autumnal days forty two years ago.
The region resembles Europe circa 1914, a tinder keg waiting to explode. Who will history cast as the Middle East Archduke Ferdinand? The Obama administration bears a lot of the responsibility for the chaos we are witnessing in the Middle East today. President Obama's Middle East policy and geo-politico-security strategy is in tatters, a mess at best and an abject failure at worst. With the clock ticking in Washington DC on a Presidential transfer of power scheduled for January 2017, Mr. Obama has little time to arrest the decline in American authority, prestige and influence in the region's capitals.
The spectacular shattering of American policy and leadership in the region has not been fully comprehended by European and North American commentators and analysts. This American unravelling in the sands of Arabia has created a sinister vacuum which radical, extremist forces such as ISIS have rushed in to fill. From the halcyon days in June 2009 of a newly elected, fresh, young and idealistic liberal Democrat President – and the United States first Government led by an African-American – President Barack Obama sought to chart a new course in relations with the Muslim and Arab world with his reformist and thoughtful 'Cairo' speech. No longer would the Bush neo-conservative doctrine of American exceptionalism, aggressive unilateralism and militarist agitation – pioneered by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – hold sway in the Obama White House.
The Obama administration sought to work with local, organic actors in Middle East countries, actors viewed with suspicion by the previous Bush administration, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Obama Middle East plan was to attempt to moderate and co-opt the parties of political Islam into a democratic process, establish cooperative relations with such forces, expose them to American and internationalist pressures and leverage and see once marginalised but popular entities such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood encouraged into Government with democratic legitimacy, ultimately, hopefully to be integrated and tamed within the democratic and international system thus reformed and encouraged to be responsible, sensible, moderate regional power actors. That was the theory.
Meanwhile, a central plank of then Senator Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign was his Democratic Party foreign policy platform built on his immediate 2002 opposition to the Iraq War and a pledge to end the war in Iraq and pull out the remaining US troops. He campaigned heavily on this issue as his symbol of a decisive, new foreign policy from the neoconservative and nationalist Bush years. His early opposition to the Iraq War was a major element which contributed to Senator Obama's surprise victory over former First Lady and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, since he had been against the Iraq intervention of 2003 from the beginning he seemed more authentic on taking an anti-war stand. It also acted like a magnet attracting the support of young, idealistic college students disillusioned with the debacle in Iraq and a state of quasi never-ending war under George W. Bush. When it came to the Middle East and US foreign policy in general Mr. Obama used every speech and interview to lambast the Bush doctrine and neo-conservatism.
Yet, assessing the state of the Middle East nearly seven years on from the start of the Obama Presidency, it is hard to say the security and political situation regionally has improved much since January 20th 2009. The US administration, White House foreign policy apparatus and National Security Council seem completely out of their depth when it comes to the Middle East. A frequent retort from Arab and Israeli alike is that the Obama national security team do not have great expertise or nuanced understanding of Middle Eastern affairs, contributing to an unstable and incoherent 'phantom zone' of serious and powerful security challenges; from the emergence of the barbaric and unconscionable ISIS beholden to a medieval ideology of hatred and the spread of an even more vicious, fanatical Islamist fundamentalist terrorism equipped with a sophisticated army and array of weaponry and money; to the gestating ISIS hybrid fundamentalist Islamic terrorist state of eastern Syria and northern Iraq, dissolving the sovereign border between the two nation-states; to the collapse of Iraq itself and the growth of Iranian influence in Baghdad and beyond; and Yemen with the proxy Sunni versus Shia battle led by the Sunni House of Saud against the Shia Mullahs in Tehran; the humiliating reversal and constant flip flop of US policy in Egypt and the continuing humanitarian nightmare in Assad's Syria alongside the impression of weakness, fecklessness and hesitation President Obama created for himself when he refused to enforce his own red lines against Damascus's chemical WMD usage. Indeed, it became clear how naïve and limited President Obama was over Syria policy in needing a life line from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to save him from his own policy mistakes.
The National Security Advisor Susan Rice is an Africa specialist with little Middle East credentials while Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power is an academic with a background on genocide and humanitarian intervention. The Defence Secretary Ashton Carter likewise is not a Mid East specialist. There are no Cabinet level classically trained Arabists in the Obama administration.
The Secretary of State John F. Kerry has been undermined and humiliated with his huge investment of time, energy, politico-diplomatic capital and commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, with little results to show for it. President Obama and his Secretary of State have managed to offend and irritate both the Israelis and Saudis at the same time over the same issue: an Iranian nuclear agreement. The power of the pro-Israel Likud lobby on Capitol Hill has been played skilfully by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Never before has it been so clear in the US-Israeli relationship that Israel is the tail that wags the American dog.
The reversal over the Obama Syrian Chemical WMD 'red line' in September 2013 destroyed what little credibility President Obama had in the region. By not following through on his own self declared red lines, Obama signalled he was not a serious and iron willed leader, but rather a dither whose word the world could not take seriously. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said to George Bush snr after Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, 'This is no time to go wobbly George.' Unfortunately, no such British Prime Minister had the backbone to say this to President Obama and help stiffen his spine. The tangled web which is American Syrian policy was illuminated by the summer of 2014 as a disaster and nothing more than wishful, naïve thinking on the part of a very inexperienced President.
ISIS forced President Obama to take action in Syria and once again in Iraq, doing what he baulked at doing back in September 2013. The arrival and explosion of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the headlines of the world, caught Obama off guard and made him look like another Democratic President blind sided by Middle Eastern geopolitics, such as when President Jimmy Carter was shocked to learn Iraq had launched an invasion of Iran in 1980. Again, Carter was caught by surprise when Afghanistan was penetrated in 1979. The United States military, by far still the overwhelming dominant and strongest armed forces super power on Earth; has since August 2014 being leading an international and Arab air campaign against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria, with little success.
The gains that ISIS have made in recent weeks in Iraq demonstrates American military policy is not working, and air strikes alone will not stop and halt the advance of Islamic State fighters. Only a large, professional, fierce Arab army could do that, such as the Egyptians. Meanwhile, the avowed US objective of regime change in Syria, with the hoped for expulsion of the Assad regime has still not come to fruition almost 4 years on from it's adoption by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The US lacks an overarching, grand strategy for dealing with Syria.
So, we have a Middle East torn apart in two key, historic states in the heart of the Levant – Syria & Iraq; we have a simmering cauldron of tensions in Egypt with an upsurge of worrying Islamist inspired attacks in the Sinai peninsula; an open air prison in Gaza and humanitarian disaster occurring there; Shiite insurrection in Yemen played out as a proxy war between the allies of Sunni Islam led by Riyadh and the representatives of Shia Islam, embodied in the Shiite theocracy in Iran; a United States desperate to strike a nuclear bargain and grand deal with Iran while traditional US allies and friends like Israel and the Saudis are incandescent with anger at what they perceive to be an American attempt to re-balance the dynamics of regional relationships with a rebooted and reinvigorated new strategic partnership with a more moderate, restrained and globalised Iran.The Middle East has never been more unpredictable and threatening since the days of the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973. In the age of globalisation this instability and danger could easily spread to all our shores. President Obama has presided over the growth of a security terrorist threat in the Middle East which will make al-Qaida and it's blowback look like a walk in the park compared to the discipline and ruthless, savage fighting talents of ISIS.
Barack Obama will almost certainly leave office in January 2017 with no Palestinian state; no long term and durable Grand Bargain with Iran; no peace and stability in Syria with a continuing blood bath there and attendant carnage next-door in Iraq. An inter-regional war could be on the horizon but not one between Israel and the Arab states, one between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. He will leave to his predecessor an emboldened, confident Iran intervening regularly in Iraqi affairs vying ever more violently with Saudi Arabia for primacy in the Middle East.
In many ways, President Obama's positions vis a vis the Middle East is redolent of President Lyndon Johnson's stewardship of the Vietnam War. LBJ left to his successor Richard Nixon a huge albatross in the form of US military involvement on the side of the South Vietnamese government. It took President Nixon and his erstwhile Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to extract American forces, blood and treasure from drainage in the swamps of Vietnam.This time however, Mr.Obama could very well hand over a basket case of a Middle East to a Presidential successor from his own party: his onetime rival and fiercest critic turned loyal foreign policy chief and Secretary of State following on from Dr. Kissinger; Mrs Hillary Rodham Clinton. Or his failures in the Middle East could become to his party, what Vietnam became for the Democrats. Imagine if ISIS fighters successful breach American homeland defences and cause another 9/11 style terror attack? As Harold Macmillan used to quip, 'Events, dear boy, events'.