Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 8 February 2024

Biden’s biggest problem in the Middle East is of his own making

Opinion by John R. Bolton

February 06, 2024 at 22:30 Melbourne Time

John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald Trump and is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.”

Before Washington unleashed strikes against Iranian assets and Iranian-backed militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, media reporting highlighted the Biden administration’s concerns over potentially broader regional fallout. Fearful of escalating the current conflict and producing a wider war by crossing Tehran’s publicly declared “red line,” we heard, the United States would not attack inside Iran.

Retaliation, we heard, would be carefully calibrated lest it disrupt negotiations for a lengthy cease-fire and the return of Hamas-held Israeli hostages. Or disrupt talks to recognize “Palestine,” with the Palestinian Authority as Gaza’s postwar government. Or prevent Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Israel. Or complicate President Biden’s desire to withdraw American forces from Iraq and Syria. Or complicate his efforts to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Or more.

So intricately reticulated were Biden’s worries, that striking the right balance seemed impossible. Such worries are legitimate but not for the reasons advanced by anonymous administration sources. The problem is of Biden’s own making. He has too many wrongheaded, confused and contradictory strategic objectives colliding and gridlocking, most likely leading to inadequate or undesirable results for them all. Washington needs not just aspirations but also priorities and concrete strategies to realize them. You can simultaneously drive only so many camels through one needle’s eye.

Biden’s wish list is overbroad and deeply flawed. For example, the idea of raising the Palestinian Authority from its ashes on the West Bank to govern Gaza leaves Israelis across the political spectrum speechless. The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor recently described the Palestinian Authority as “weak and increasingly unpopular” and a “sclerotic institution, riven with corruption” and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as presiding “over his rump of a fiefdom like other Arab autocrats in the region, stifling civil society and repeatedly dodging calls for fresh elections.” It defies common sense that such an entity should be entrusted with responsibility on the West Bank, let alone post-conflict Gaza.

Nor do the objectives of full diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, or a formal Saudi-U.S. military alliance, require near-term Palestinian statehood. Before Oct. 7, Riyadh and Jerusalem were progressing toward mutual recognition, motivated by their shared view of Iran’s threat, amplified by the palpable economic and political benefits likely after recognition. The current conflict has not altered those realities. Rather, Iran’s “ring of fire” strategy against Israel has emphasized, not reduced, the congruence of Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s national security priorities. Riyadh and other Persian Gulf capitals could help by publicly explaining why this is really an Iranian war against Israel, not an Arab- or Palestinian-Israeli war. The issue of Palestinian statehood was not resolved before several Saudi neighbors recognized Israel, nor will it be a dealbreaker for Riyadh.

And while it is desirable to deepen politico-military ties between Washington and Riyadh, the Senate will be ratifying no significant treaties this year or well into the future, given the Constitution’s two-thirds majority requirement. If Biden’s negotiators are suggesting that quick treaty ratification is realistic, both Israelis and Saudis should beware. Nor would a Donald Trump victory in November be likely to change the picture, since no one can honestly say what he will do, other than look to put himself in the best possible light.

Recognizing a Palestinian state before peace is agreed on with Israel only compounds the error. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said recognition “can’t come at the start of the process, but it doesn’t have to be the very end of the process.” Sadly, these suggestions mirror Yasser Arafat’s endless campaign in U.N. agencies to make “Palestine” a state just by saying so. They contradict years of U.S. policy, as well as the Oslo Accords, and will cause Israel to stiffen its resistance. This is no way to treat an ally gravely threatened by Tehran.

As for the “wider war” issue, the United States and Israel have been in a wider war since Oct. 7. The real worry should not be “wider war” but the cause of the current one, which is unmistakably Iran. Until Iran stops interfering beyond its borders — stops arming, equipping, training and financing terrorist groups and stops seeking nuclear weapons — there will be no lasting Middle East peace and security. Iran does not and will not fear U.S. power until it pays heavily for what its barbaric surrogate Hamas unleashed four months ago, now joined in violence by Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shiite militias.

Prioritization is essential here — and actually straightforward, contrary to White House hand-wringing. By torquing Iran’s menace into the still-unresolved issue of the Palestinians, Biden has fused multiple problems into a larger, even harder problem. Instead, the United States and Israel should focus first on thwarting Tehran’s multiple offensives, then more intensively focus on other issues. Whatever their public commentary, Arab leaders fully recognize that cementing ties with Israel is critical to their own security, especially facing a possible future with a feckless American president. Every day that passes without consolidating like-minded states against Iran renders achieving any of Biden’s multitudinous goals more difficult.

The Middle East has never been an easy problem set. Biden is making it unnecessarily more difficult.

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