How Obama and Trump Left a Vacuum in the Middle East
Once upon a time, all the experts said that America was the guarantor of security in the Middle East. To the extent that it’s still true, it’s not at all what you’re thinking. Actually, it’s probably the exact opposite of what you’re thinking.
Israel Defense Forces chief Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot gave an unprecedented interview last week to the Saudi media. In a hold-the-presses moment, Eisenkot disclosed that Israel was ready to share sensitive intelligence with moderate Arab countries for the purpose of countering Iran. He credited President Donald Trump with creating an opportunity for a new alliance in the region.
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It wasn’t too long ago that dreams of strategic convergence between Israel and Sunni Arabia were simply unimaginable. Even today, Israel’s new Persian Gulf allies are still technically at war with the Jewish state. But eight years with Barack Obama as president of the United States and now, the advent of Trump, have transformed the calculus of the Middle East.
Reconciliation with some of its old adversaries has improved Israel’s security predicament. And indeed, Uncle Sam is at least partially responsible for this windfall — but by default. The scaffolding of this budding romance is commiseration between Arabs and Israelis over the dubious quality of American leadership. The locals have stopped expecting the cavalry to ride in and save the day. The United States is catching up on its sleep.
The world’s worst-kept secret is that Israel and Saudi Arabia are almost perfectly aligned in their opposition to Iran. Eisenkot confirmed this in his interview. The Obama administration’s support for the Iranian nuclear deal, which both countries opposed, was the crucible of this new Israeli-Arab partnership to block an ascendant Shia Islam. When the agreement, for all its immediate benefits, reintroduced Iran into the family of nations and breathed new life into its expansionist ambitions, notorious enemies discovered unity in resistance to a common enemy. Trump has yet to address their concerns about Iranian misconduct with much more than menacing rhetoric, however.
In Syria, American inaction has rehabilitated Russia as a destructive regional power and emboldened its Iranian confederates. Reneging on his self-imposed red line, Obama decided against a military response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. Instead, he embraced Moscow’s proposal for its Syrian client to surrender its chemical weapons stockpiles. Syria was still using the illegal munitions on its own people as recently as April, according to United Nations investigators.
The Trump administration is similarly stymied by Russian diplomacy as the Syrian civil war rages on. President Vladimir Putin continues to veto Security Council calls for an inquiry into the tragic Syrian situation. And despite a cease-fire agreement, Russia continues to provide cover — with the acquiescence of the United States — to the “legitimate” presence of Iranian military advisers in Syria. Israelis and Sunni Arabs watch on with horror as their mortal foes, Iran and Hezbollah, run roughshod over the country, filling the vacuum left by a once-assertive America.
Trump has certainly been less deliberate and consistent than Obama in his management of global affairs, but this remaking of the Middle East is their shared legacy. Their message has been the same: If America’s friends in the region aspire for enhanced security, they’d best not wait for the White House to provide it. And if recent events offer any indication, the message has been received loud and clear.
A new cooperative spirit in the region, born of American apathy, has emboldened pro-Western governments to unite in promoting their interests more aggressively than ever before. A young generation of Saudi royals is stepping up to the plate. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman leads the charge on Iran, pushing back against its influence in Yemen and Lebanon. The Saudi-encouraged (or engineered, depending on whom you ask) resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was a bold move designed to challenge Iran’s Hezbollah proxy and expose its control over the Lebanese state. The full consequences of these actions — including a massive purge of Saudi princes — are yet unclear, but Trump seems perfectly comfortable as their enabler.