By shaming the Israelis, Obama has hurt American interests in the Middle East.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 17 2010 4:47 PM

A Middle East Without American Influence?

That's the logical outcome of the Obama administration's current policies.

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Of course, Washington shaming Israel will please the Arabs—even U.S. allies like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Cairo, Egypt, that cheered on Jerusalem when it took on Iran's assets Hezbollah and Hamas. Remember, the Arabs have been compelled by the American strong horse to swallow their pride for decades. But given that Arabs do not air their own dirty laundry for fear it will make them look weak, our public humiliation of an ally will earn us only contempt.

But here's the most important thing: Even if you discount the centrality of shame and honor as operative principles in the Middle East, the Obama administration has blundered by jeopardizing not Israel's stature but our own regional interests and the Pax Americana that has been ours over the last 35 years. Our position in the region depends on every actor there knowing that we back Israel to the hilt and that they are dependent on us. Sure, there are plenty of times we will not see eye-to-eye on things—differences that should be resolved in quiet consultations—but should any real distance open up between Washington and Jerusalem, that will send a message that the U.S.-backed order of the region is ready to be tested. And that's exactly what the axis of resistance is seeing right now.

The recent U.S.-Israeli contretemps is not about progress on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. It is about Iran. The Obama administration has all but announced that it has resigned itself to an Iranian nuclear program and that it is moving toward a policy of containment and deterrence. We will extend a nuclear umbrella to protect our Arab allies in the Gulf, says Secretary of State Clinton, and we will continue to give Israel security guarantees. And, anyway, says Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, the Iranians are probably years away from building a deployable nuclear weapon. In rattling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cage, the Obama administration was warning Israel not even to contemplate an attack on Iran.

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Of course, really effective deterrence would require us to make sure that our Israeli allies were perceived as highly volatile and unpredictable actors who might just take matters into their own hands and bomb Iran's nuclear sites. That scenario would have a better chance of cornering Iran and its allies, compelling them to seek relief from us, the rational senior partner. Instead, we've just pulled off the strategic equivalent of beating our pit bull on a street corner to show the neighborhood tough guys that we mean business.

President Obama is not intentionally trying to sacrifice our position in the energy-rich and strategically vital Middle East, but his policies may well lead to that. Strategic realignment doesn't just mean that Washington gets to trade in one set of allies for another. It means that the American order of the region will be superseded by a new order in which we will play a secondary role at best. More likely, as Ahmadinejad and Assad say, it will mean a Middle East without American influence.

Such a prospect is not impossible, for victory does not always go to the smartest—or even to those who have the most airplanes, the most military bases, and the best technology. It goes to those who do not hesitate to impose their wills on the world in order to reshape it to their liking. It goes to the strong horse. Who is the sick horse? From the perspective of our adversaries, that would be us.

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Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

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