For many years, with the exception of its relations with revolutionary clerical Iran, the United States has had a diplomatic dominance in relation to developments in the Middle East that for years has almost made that area seem a privileged preserve. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving a Russia desperately seeking to reorganize itself, had removed the constraints of the post- World War Two balance of power there as in other places; and the suddenness of the ferocity of the Khomeini revolution in Iran forced the US, then led by Jimmy Carter, into a kind of retreat from a country which had been a major ally.
The other Western powers, the United Kingdom and France in particular, had been themselves victims, during the period of the Cold War, of the extent to which the US would not accept that other countries, including the retreating imperial powers, should be allowed to interfere with its strategy to make the Middle East its preserve. So for years, they too would be careful to hold themselves in reserve, once the oil from Saudi Arabia, in particular, kept flowing.
A reversal of the inclination to be careful about intervention in the area, and the Americans’ disposition to guard what they dominated, but go no further in the post Carter period, was broken with George W Bush’s largely unilateral invasion of Iraq which seems to have boosted American confidence in their ability to control things in the Middle East once again. But in a sense, the following American foray into Afghanistan was something of a reversal of that bravado orientation, as a sense developed of being bogged down in developments difficult to make any headway with.
That really was the domestic political atmosphere, one of reservation about extensive American military intervention, in which Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency of the United States, and it was evidently the general strategy which he followed after his election. His Arab Spring speech in June 2009, given in the Egyptian capital Cairo, sought to put the onus on the Arab people, and particularly the Egyptians as an historical centre of Arab nationalism, to pursue a self-generated course of economic and social development and regeneration.
Even when the British and the French began to argue for military intervention in Libya, the President seemed reticent, and essentially restricted his country’s participation to operational, though critical support. But he remained intent that that intervention should not be a general model for future conduct, seeking to find an alternative that did not require extensive American participation, and arguing all the while for a negotiated withdrawal in accordance with his electoral promise from Afghanistan.
The President seemed satisfied that he had found an alternative mechanism for dealing with the Taliban, while finalizing his withdrawal from Afghanistan, the location of substantial American military activity against extreme muslimist anti-Western forays directed at NATO allies. His use of the drone, successfully liquidated allies of Osama bin Laden, but to some extent alienated the Pakistanis on whose territory bin Laden resided.
So, although his allies in the Middle East, particularly the Saudis and the smaller sheikdoms, were really not impressed, and to some extent were even less impressed with the President’s decision to do nothing to prevent the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood to governance of Egypt, he insisted on a policy of diplomatic persuasion there.
But what has brought discontent to a boil is what the Saudis and others consider his policy line of temporizing diplomacy towards Syria. To them, the President’s response to the policy switch of the Iranians with the emergence of a new government, obviously supported by Ayatollah Khamenei and directed at an apparent conciliation towards the West, and in particular the United States, is dangerous to their interest and stance in the Region.
The Americans probably see a bonus for themselves in this Iranian turn, since it presents them with a possibility of linking whatever the Iranians want to do, to their policy in Iraq. To the Saudis, the Shiite led government there has permitted, or has been unable to halt, continued infighting led by Shiite forces against the Sunnis, at a time when the Americans want to see not a new civil war, but a consolidation of the post-Iraqi War intervention settlement.
To some extent Obama will have seen this Iranian turn as a partial victory for his policy line. But that switch has virtually coincided with the Egyptian military’s reversal of Muslim Brotherhood rule leading to the opposite line of democratic evolution which the US government has pursued there. What we can call the American half and half diplomacy in Egypt, indicating displeasure with the military’s intervention while not actually condemning it, given the Brotherhood’s Shiite inclinations, has now upset the Saudis, muslimist Sunni rulers, along with the monarchies of the Gulf Sheikdoms and Jordan.
The Saudis fear the US agreement with the Iranians’ reconciliation initiative, seeing that as a ruse to obtain temporary reprieve of Western pressure placed on Iran on the question of nuclear weapons. But the Saudis also see the US and NATO initiative towards Iran as representing something of a shift in the balance of power, at a time when it appears that the leadership of Syria is likely to be influenced in an approach to some form of internal reconciliation, when it is well known that a new element of influence, additional to the Iranians, has entered the fray.
For the initiative taken by President Putin in relation to a solution to the Syrians’ use of chemical weapons has caught the Saudis, and indeed the Israelis with their actively hostile posture towards Iran, by surprise. They know that Iranian influence on the Syrian leadership, when combined with the Russian initiative, can change the balance of world sentiment away from hostility towards Iran, and give them an enhancement of their legitimacy in the Middle East.
This Saudi posture is indeed not dissimilar to that of the Israelis who have seemed to want to keep the anti-Iranian fervor boiling. And from an Israeli perspective, the Russian diplomatic intervention is likely to give them a new breath of respectability in the Middle East, something they have not really had since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
So President Obama, as the central figure in all this, is shuffling a variety of cards at the same time, with his allies feeling that he is being too tolerant of the Soviets’ and Iranians’ re-entry as legitimate players in the Middle East.
But the President has read the cards, after the American Senate and House refused to permit any extensive intervention or military support to the warring elements, friend or foe, in Syria. So the President continues to balance.