War, President Obama says, is the only alternative to his deal with Iran. But if the president’s overriding goal is to avoid bloody conflict, why is he arming the Middle East for a shootout that may lead to Armageddon?
The Iran nuclear deal lifts the U.N. arms embargo and ensures a huge cash windfall to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which will fund its imperial wars across the Middle East. As a result, the other side is girding its loins for combat, too. Saudi Arabia is almost certain to go shopping for a nuclear weapon, now that the path is clear for Iran to get a nuke. But, of more immediate concern, the White House has been selling conventional weapons systems to the Sunni Arab states at record levels.
It’s worth remembering that Obama believes these same Gulf Cooperation Council states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, etc.—that have spent billions on U.S. weapons are also the most threatened from within. The Gulf Arabs’ real strategic threat, Obama says, is not Iran but their own disenfranchised populations. In other words, the president is arming states he believes are fundamentally unstable, regimes that might not be long for this world. He wouldn’t give MANPADs to the Syrian rebels because shoulder-held missile systems might wind up in the wrong hands. But apparently it’s okay to bestow F-15s on countries whose masses feed the ranks of ISIS.
The Middle East never fails to disappoint. Many believed that the silver lining in the Iran nuclear deal would be improved relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, thanks to a shared concern over a nuclearized Islamic Republic. Israel and Saudi Arabia would perhaps coordinate on regional defense and fighting the deal in Washington. Nope. As Obama noted in his speech at American University last week, the government of Israel is the one country that says the deal is rotten (as does the American public, by a 2-1 ratio, in recent polls). Whatever they may think privately, the Gulf states will not stand alongside Israel to oppose the deal.
According to a senior Israeli official, the Saudis think they can’t afford a fight with the White House, even though Obama has less than a year and a half left in office. The way the Saudis see it, the Israelis can have a public argument with the president because it’s family, and after Obama everything will go back to normal. The Saudis have a point—they have never enjoyed the popular American support that Israel counts on. Riyadh’s ability to influence American policymakers is based on the oil it sells, the money it spreads around, and the weapons it buys. The arrangement has been good for the stability of global markets and American industry. It was also good for regional security insofar as it was the United States that, regardless of how many arms the Saudis bought, was ultimately responsible for keeping the Persian Gulf safe.
The other key component to managing regional security, of course, is that the United States also protected the Saudis from themselves. Riyadh never wanted a nuclear weapon until now not just because it knew Israel wasn’t going to level Mecca and Medina. The Saudis understood that the Americans were 100 percent with them, so they didn’t have to do things, like acquire a bomb, that might well complicate Saudi Arabia’s interminable succession crises. Once you remove the United States from regional security, the Saudis are more apt to shoot themselves in the foot—and they have plenty of guns to do it with.
But that’s not how Obama sees it. He wants the Arabs to grow up and learn how to take care of themselves. That is a fine instinct for a parent, but it is hardly a foreign policy principle. You can’t change the nature of your allies without risking the interests that they embody.
Obama’s view of Persian Gulf security is based on the twin-pillars policy that Great Britain formulated shortly before it vacated the Middle East. In order to cover its retreat, London wanted to establish a balance of power in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That’s what Obama wants—a geopolitical “equilibrium,” as he’s put it, that will stabilize the region while the United States retreats.
The twin-pillars policy may have been attractive as an academic theory, but there was no balance of power after the Brits left—the United States simply filled the vacuum. It was only because of the American presence that there was any stability in the Gulf. For instance, when the order of the region was threatened after Saddam invaded Kuwait and contemplated a run at Saudi Arabia, Washington had to land troops to restore order.
Not any more, says Obama. It’s better for America, and the Middle East, if the U.S. footprint is minimized. The Saudis and others in the Gulf are terrified, because they never believed in the twin-pillars fantasy. Their assessment is that Iran will fill the vacuum left by Obama. Don’t be worried, says the president. The Iranians are far from getting the nuclear bomb—and besides, we’re going to sell you tons of weapons to protect yourself.
If it weren’t so dangerous, it would be funny—liberal president arms Middle Eastern regimes dominated by religious obscurantists. But it is dangerous, not just for American allies, like Israel and Jordan, likely to get caught in the crossfire, but for global security. The conflict Obama thinks he is balancing with the Iran nuclear deal looks more likely to widen throughout the region, spreading from Iraq and Syria to include the Gulf, the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa. It may soon reach the capitals of Europe, where Sunni and Shiite fighters will seek to avenge their grievances with the West and with each other. It is not difficult to imagine it touching down on our shores as well. War is not the alternative to Obama’s Iran deal but its likeliest consequence.