By Barry Rubin*
April 18, 2010
By Barry Rubin
Let's begin with what's most important. This may be the most important single point about the world's most important issue and, consequently, the most important thing I write during this decade. In fact, it's so important that I'm going to put it in bold. Read this even if you don't read the rest of the article:
Consider the Obama Administration's concept of how it will cope with a nuclear Iran.
The plan is to contain Iran by scaring it. The rulers of Iran must think the American president is a man of immense power and daring who will smash them if they try any funny business. At the same time, the relatively moderate Arabs must feel secure, like Lois Lane standing behind Superman as the bullets bounce off him.
So clear must this be that someone like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who thinks the deity is on his side and is not easily intimidated, can be deterred from firing missiles, attacking neighbors, sponsoring massive terrorism, transferring nuclear weapons, or subverting other countries because he fears American strength and believes with near-certainty that the United States is ready to go to war and crush his regime if necessary.
Clear so far?
But wait a minute! How can the current U.S. government do that when its whole theme has been proving itself a nice easy-going fellow, eager to get along with enemies, reluctant to use force, and obsessed with popularity?
What does it signal when a president acts ashamed of past American willingness to impose its will? How does this match up with the necessary posture of a fearless giant ready to face down the most ideologically intoxicated, risk-taking, prone-to-miscalculating, ruthless regime America has confronted since Berlin fell in 1945? (Sure, the USSR was far more powerful than is Islamist Iran, but it was also far more reliably rational and cynical as well.)
You cannot have it both ways. The U.S. government will not be able to have it both ways. Is that clear? Your enemies either tremble with fear, at your scary power, or with laughter, at your diffident desire not to offend anyone.
How you can bow down, disclaim your leadership role, and let everyone push you around one day, but then face down a nuclear Iran the next day? Answer: You can't.
What does that mean? Iran acts aggressively and then either you don't deter it--which means strategic disaster--or you surprise it by doing what you've threatened after the failure of a low-credibility deterrence effort--which means war.
Now for the background to demonstrate why the above is true.
On one level, the two pictures above tell the story of the Obama Administration Middle East policy; on the other hand, they are very misleading.The most obvious interpretation is that the president's position is one of antagonism toward Israel and servility toward Saudi Arabia. But let's look more deeply and see why that's not completely right.
The photo on the right was taken at the King David Hotel before either Obama or Netanyahu were elected to their current offices. It was snapped during Senator Obama's only trip to Israel, before he was running for president.
What precisely led to this apparent confrontation isn't clear. Obama looks aggressive and angry, putting his finger into Mr. Netanyahu's chest in a configuration that makes it appear something like a revolver. This is neither good manners nor the usual posture of statesmen discussing international affairs. Behind Netanyahu stands Zalman Shuval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States [you can't see him in the photo very well], and Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. Understandably, Shuval appears astonished at the kind of behavior he isn't used to seeing from a U.S. senator toward Israel.
Some would comfort themselves by saying that it is Netanyahu's chest and not that of Ehud Barak or Shimon Peres. But, then, Barak is defense minister and a partner in this Israeli government and Peres--while technically not part of this government since he's president--is a full supporter of its policies. (At this point I'm torn between using the John Donne reference--ask not whose chest is being jabbed--and the Martin Niemoller one--they came for Netanyahu's chest....) The problem is not one of Israel having a "right-wing" government (which it isn't, it's a national unity government) but of basic Israeli national interests.
What serious analyst can doubt that this is the least friendly administration to Israel in a half-century? Can one imagine Obama doing to any other foreign dignatary what he's doing to Netanyahu in this photo? Would the man who hugged Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a real anti-American demagogue, possibly act this way anywhere else? He knows that Israel cannot or will not retaliate. It is a safe target that won't bite him.
Nevertheless, one must always remember that the frictions in U.S.-Israel relations so far amount to a big zero in practical terms. The new president hasn't taken any material steps to punish or pressure Israel. I predict that this will continue. There are reasons for this constraint, including Congress, public opinion, and part of the administration's officialdom.
But this real passivity also fits a wider pattern. The Obama Administration has basically eschewed toughness against anyone. Aside from some harsh words toward Israel and, grudgingly, against Iran, the government has not criticized any foreign country at all. (Actually, the State Department briefer made fun of Libya once, for declaring jihad on Switzerland, but he apologized so that doesn't count.)
The rejection of toughness is conscious, based on a distaste for force (despite Afghanistan) and an allergy toward taking international leadership in a real way, along with an apologetic rejection of past U.S. "bullying" and "unilateralism."Meanwhile, it is starting to be conceivable that Obama will get through his entire first term without exerting real pressure anywhere in the world. Doubtless, that would please many Americans though they may end up paying for it later.
A man who is nice to enemies and nasty to friends is likely to find himself with steadily more of the former and increasingly fewer of the latter. (See below my anecdote about what a veteran U.S. policymaker told me regarding Arab attitudes toward Obama.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has fallen prey to all the old myths about the region, as if these hadn't been disproved over and over again already. Among these myths have been: it is easy to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict; the lack of a resolution is Israel's fault; past U.S. commitments (and even the ones this administration makes) to Israel need not be kept; the fate of the region-even in such unlikely locales as Afghanistan and Iraq-are closely linked to Israel and the conflict; and that by resolving the conflict the region can be stabilized and anti-Americanism (including terrorism) made to vanish. Then there's the belief that radicals can be moderated by kind treatment.
Now contrast this with the administration courting and flattering Arab and Muslim opinion. What was Obama doing in the photo with the king of Saudi Arabia, the picture on the left? Presumably, he thought that a bow was proper courtesy for a commoner meeting a monarch. In Arab and Muslim culture, though, it symbolizes servility, the weaker bowing before the stronger.
The one who bows does not do so to show he is a good person but because he has to do so yield before greater power.If so, the king should be very happy about seeing so vividly enacted an Arab or Muslim fantasy of victory over America. Yet neither the king nor Arabs generally-those friendly or unfriendly toward the United States-is rejoicing at such behavior nor is it changing their behavior. Why?
Before answering that question, note that it was reliably reported that Obama's gave a bow but got no gift-wrapped present in return. The Saudi king apparently went into a long diatribe and refused to cooperate with Obama's then-initiative (remember that one?) that if Israel froze construction on settlements the Arab states would make some big step to show their eagerness for peace. In other words, bowing doesn't work.
But back to the related question of how Arabs relate to Obama's behavior, Their first reaction is bewilderment. An easy way to look at it is that those wacky Americans are just too inscrutable to comprehend. After all, that is a traditional U.S. view of other cultures, and they reverse it more often than Americans know.
How can an American leader act this way? Such behavior is outside all of their norms. To quote an old Ottoman proverb, politics in these societies often consists of kicking the one below you and licking the boots of the one above you. In their view, nobody gives up power; no one acts weak when they are strong; nobody apologizes.
It is just too weird.
So how can they explain it? For America's enemies, a common conclusion is to consider it as a trick. For them, Obama is just another imperialist, Zionist enemy but he's smarter in pretending to be something different. This makes them angry-lest America "fool" Arabs and Muslims. Yet such cynicism is the best conclusion from the standpoint of U.S. interests since it makes them still a bit scared. If Obama is just faking and is no different from George W. Bush, maybe he'll suddenly throw off the mask and bash them.
An alternative, more dangerous, conclusion for the radicals has been that America really is as decadent as they've been saying. It's the old "we love death and you love life" trope. Caught up in materialism, alcohol, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the United States is going to collapse and is begging for mercy to draw out its life a bit longer. The radicals take this as a signal to step up terrorism and revolutionary activity because the paper tiger, trembling Americans are no threat any more.
What gives joy to the radicals terrifies the moderates. If their protector has gone soft they better appease the new bully in town.
One veteran, Arabic-speaking American Middle East expert had a fascinating way of putting it. The Arabs, he said, view the United States and Israel as close allies sharing a common (non-Muslim) civilization and set of interests. So, he continued, the moderate Arabs he speaks with say, "If they treat Israel, virtually a member of their own family, like that, what are they going to do to us!"
In other words, they don't exclaim: "Hooray! Finally the United States is moving away from Israel and will be our friend," which is what Obama and his colleagues expect. They say: Oh no! The United States is moving away from being a superpower and from being our reliable protector! The winners aren't us--the Egyptians and Saudis--but them--the Iranians and Syrians.
Thus, for the governments of Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and a number of other Arabic-speaking countries, Obama is the scariest president ever. On one hand, they don't understand him and don't know what he's going to do next. On the other hand, he is friendlier to their enemies than he is to them. A weak protector is no asset.
They are themselves--and have to cope with--ruthless men who don't flinch at torture, murder, deceit, bribery, and massive repression. An anecdote: during the 1980s, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had a video widely distributed in the Gulf Arab states showing him picking out men as traitors who were then tortured and shot. He wanted his neighbors to see these videos and tremble.And so, if you're going to have a superpower protector, the relatively moderate Arab rulers prefer Arnold Schwarzenegger to Arnold Stang (an actor specializing in playing wimps, who made Woody Allen look husky by comparison). They want John Wayne, not Wayne Newton; Humphrey Bogart, not Humpty Dumpty; Indiana Jones, not Joan Rivers. OK, you get the point.
Or, as one Gulf Arab put it eloquently: We don't want an American president who is an imitation Arab. We want one who acts like an American. I think the image he had in mind was of a cowboy, not of a man easily cowed. And unless they get a man like Gary Cooper in "High Noon" they are going to suffer from High Anxiety.
What is Obama thinking? One can only speculate but the alternatives are limited and, given everything else the president has said and done, figuring this out is not so difficult. For him, the bow to the Saudi king (and others) symbolizes Obama's commitment to show that America is "just one of the guys" among countries, emphasizing respect for others with an eagerness not to be number-one anymore.He also has a strong desire to win over Arabs and Muslims as a way of defusing conflict. After all, once he shows he can hang out with the Third World, Obama seems to reason, why would anyone hate America any more?
Thus, while Obama is tough on Israel by not being tough on the radicals he is also tough on Saudi Arabia and the other relatively moderate Arab regimes. Indeed, his weakness is more likely to bring down the Saudi kingdom, which is on the frontline with Iran and dependent on U.S. protection, than it is the Jewish state, which can take care of itself. The Saudis know this very well.
Thus, Obama has achieved something that no one would have thought possible: He is simultaneously, in real terms but without any understanding of what he's doing, both anti-Israel and anti-Saudi! [If this seems strange to you, recall President George W. Bush--let's leave aside your dislike of him for a moment--and President Bill Clinton managed to be both pro-Israel and pro-Saudi.]
To succeed, Obama should instead be poking his finger at Ahmadinejad, showing strong leadership and a readiness to defend both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
After all, by the time this is all over, perhaps decades hence, one side is going to be bowing to the other for keeps.