Confronted with budget and legislative impasse at home during the spring of 2011, President Obama shifted attention to foreign affairs. This should not be surprising as most past Presidents followed the same path when stalled by Congress. In May, a new Middle East policy was announced by the President, followed up by visits to Ireland, the UK, France and Poland. The annual G-8 Summit is also being held in France, enabling the President to have direct, albeit brief, talks with selected other leaders.
White House aides characterized the European tour as an opportunity for shoring up relations with “friends.” There was no mention of Germany, which should not be surprising as experienced diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic describe relations between leaders in the two capitals as at the lowest point in over six decades. Since the G-8 Summit is in France, the President cannot avoid talking to President Sarkozy, although their personal relationship is obviously rocky. UK Prime Minister Cameron, preoccupied with domestic priorities, including dramatic scaling down of UK military capabilities, has little in common with the US leader.
On the other hand, Ireland is eager to befriend the President, as it has few friends left in Europe. Poland is more than eager to enhance ties with the US, feeling threatened by growing German energy and economic ties with Russia and the rest of Asia. Indeed, Poland’s push to form a new Visegrad security alliance in Eastern Europe is evidence of fear of decline in NATO’s future ability to deter renewed Russian involvement in its neighborhood.
Yes, it is true that the U.S. supported the French-British intervention in Libya, but only briefly and without demonstrating true US capabilities by denying use of F-22s and other cutting edge weapons technologies. On their own, the British and French ran out of firepower in the initial days, and are unable to continue effectively. As for the U.S. President, Libya is far down the list of priorities.
On May 19, attempting to capitalize on the death of Osama bin Laden as a “turning point,” President Obama articulated what appeared to be a dramatic shift in American objectives in the Middle East. He opened his message by pointing to “change” in North Africa and the Middle East: “the forces that are driving it and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security.”
He put U.S. support fully behind the growing quest for “self-determination,” chiding not only leaders in Syria and Yemen but also in Bahrain, home of the US 5th Fleet, guardian of the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. Implicitly, this latter admonition also implied criticism of the Saudi King for sending troops to quell demonstrations in Bahrain. President Obama also confronted Prime Minister Netanyahu with an explicit push for revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the basis of the borders of 1967.
The President’s May 19 speech raises more questions than answers.
It provides no vision or framework of reference for the security of the Middle East after US military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not demonstrate recognition of the underlying, growing confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites across the Gulf region.
Indeed, by suggesting that Israel’s negotiating position revert to the borders of 1967, he opened the issue of borders across the Arab world. Arab memories of many of these borders are memories of British and other colonial powers taking a blue pencil in 1922 to create nations with borders that had little relation to their own tribal distribution and movements. For the Shiites in Iran, it is natural to seek to stir unrest wherever fellow Shiites live in other geographic locations in the Middle East, whether in Bahrain or Southeastern Saudi Arabia or Southern Iraq or elsewhere.
When the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, the Bush Administration never seriously contemplated allowing Iraq to break up into three separate entities according to Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish leadership. There was no consideration of how the British had drawn up the borders as recently as 1922, nor why.
Once the U.S. withdraws its military from Iraq it can be expected that the Kurds will gain even greater autonomy, and the Sunnis and Shiites will have continuing difficulties in limiting violence and pressures for separation into greater tribal autonomy. It would be logical, almost compelling, for Iran to offer to offer military or “security” manpower to the Iraqi Shiites, to help protect them from the Sunnis – and increase Iranian military presence on the border of Saudi Arabia.
As for Bahrain, we said previously on Second Line of Defense (The Bahrain Red Line) that Bahrain was a “red line” for the Saudis and other Sunnis, not only for the security of the Sunni royal leadership but for the security of Eastern Saudi Arabia which was just across the causeway – an area which held some of the most important oil fields in Saudi Arabia among a primarily Shiite population.
In Yemen, the U.S. has joined in pressing the Sunni leaders to yield power, but in the aftermath Yemen will be a cauldron of conflicting sects, tribes, and militants, opening further opportunity for Iran to encourage unrest and generate violence on the Southern border of Saudi Arabia.
By confronting Israel’s leader with what Prime Minister Netanyahu described as a “non-negotiable” starting point, President Obama has effectively put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a coma, with neither side likely to revive negotiations until after the US national elections of 2012. Perhaps that was the objective.
However, the bigger issue left unaddressed in the May 19 address is what is the U.S. security strategy for the Middle East, and in particular for maintaining security of oil supplies in the next few years? There is much about U.S. “principles” but little about U.S. interests. For American voters, the price of oil and its impact on gasoline and other fuels is far more important than the pursuit of democracy in faraway places.
The new U.S. stance on “self-determination” leaves all the big questions without a context, or a framework of recognizable “critical American interests.” It ignores the potential role of Iran, including its support for militants and terrorists in the Gulf and the Levant, and the anxieties that a continuing flow of inflammatory, provocative statements by Iran’s leaders plays in undermining security in the Middle East generally.
The U.S. has been lucky lately in being able to ignore Iran, as Iran suffers internal controversies and power struggles. But if Iran does manage to get its house in order, the security of the Gulf and the Levant could be threatened. Continuity of oil supply from the Gulf is not only a question of cross-border potential for military action; it is also a question of social unrest within each of the oil-producing nations.
Following the President’s opening of the issue of borders, the boundaries which define who controls what oil and gas could easily come into question as Sunnis and Shiites, and their various tribes, reopen the boundaries which were imposed on them less than one hundred years ago.
The pursuit of “democracy” in the Middle East may have beneficial consequences in future decades. But the transition between now and then could result in disruptions in energy supplies, or just fear of disruptions, or erratic bargaining about contract terms, any or all of which could throw global markets into crisis.
For example, if oil prices were to rise to the range of $150 to $200 bbl, there would be massive, global demand destruction and virtually certain collapse of the global economy into a depression. Is this hypothetical or a realistic calculation? Some of the world’s largest oil companies recently contemplated this possible outcome, of a price spike of that magnitude this year or next, and privately concluded that the outcome would be a dramatic drop in world GDP.
The new thrust of the President’s Middle East address also leaves unanswered much wider questions about U.S. security thinking. Consider that fiscal austerity policies being imposed by the Germans on all Eurozone nations, combined with UK austerity measures, will inevitably require continuing dramatic cuts in military spending and capabilities of all of Western Europe over at least the next decade.
This will leave NATO with little more than uniformed emergency services and kitchen staff personnel to support the U.S. military if the U.S. military were to be called into action. Congress will not allow continued U.S. military positions to be maintained in Western Europe if Western European governments see no need to defend themselves. So NATO will most likely continue to fade, and eventually to degrade into a meeting place for exchange of ideas and information.
As for the need for the U.S. to “shore up relations with friends,” there is a question of who might be the allies of the U.S. in the face of future challenges.
Will the U.S. develop enhanced security ties to other nations, either in the Western Hemisphere, or in the Asian-Pacific?
Is there a global strategic framework in which U.S. defense spending is being reshaped? How do other nations fit into that framework?
This may seem academic, but the manner in which the U.S. handled the Indian desire to upgrade its air power in the recent bidding process suggests that the U.S. did not consider the need to offer next generation aircraft in order to retain a close tie to future development of the Indian military.
Is there any other emerging military power, or collectivity of power?
The thrust of the new Middle East policy may not be a thrust at all, but rather a sign of sophisticated withdrawal of the U.S .from global security challenges. If so, this also leaves the world armaments market open to China, North Korea, Iran, Brazil, Western Europe, and others, while closing off the ability of the U.S. to strengthen its controversial, but nonetheless valuable military-industrial complex. It leaves world security in the hands of mischief- makers whose interests may often run counter to the interests of the American people – and counter to the interests of nations that have heretofore been reliant on the American security umbrella.