U.S. Position in the Middle East Continues to Decline

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS August 23, 2016

While President Barack Obama and his would-be successor Hillary Clinton try to convince the American people that everything is fine in regards to the U.S. position in the world and the security of the nation; foreign adversaries are celebrating what they see as the country's decline. For example, an August 18 editorial in Global Times, the official media outlet of China's ruling Communist Party, proclaimed "US suffers new setback in Middle East." The column hailed its axis partner Russia for basing long-range bombers in Iran to attack targets in Syria in support of the regime of Bashar Assad. It is official Washington policy to remove Assad from power to end Syria's civil war, but Russian and Iranian military intervention has thwarted the half-hearted, slow-motion effort of the Obama administration to aid the Sunni rebels. "More sadly for Washington" continues the Chinese editorial, "Iraq also consented to the passing-through of Russian military aircraft under some symbolic limits." This is not surprising given that U.S. policy has allowed Baghdad to become a Shiite satrap of Iran. Though this error goes back to the Bush administration, Obama's withdrawal of all American troops in 2011 allowed the Iraq regime to openly embrace Tehran.

The Chinese editorial ended with the statement, "The old pattern and order is gone in the Middle East, where the US has lost its leverage. From the perspective of the region, the US is declining. Moscow, however, has gained the upper hand." This change in the balance of power has occurred entirely during the Obama administration, for part of which Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State.

The same can be said about Iran's stronger position in the region. In has gone beyond sending its terrorist army Hezbollah from Lebanon into Syria. Its own troops are now fighting there as well. It could afford to escalate its war effort because of the generous grant of funds from the U.S. as part of the nuclear agreement which slows (but does not end) Tehran's strategic weapons program. In the long run, the Shiite theocracy still wants nuclear arms to safeguard its regional dominance. At the moment, however, it sorely needs resources to gain that dominance. It must win the war in Syria and overawe its Arab neighbors.

The ending of Western sanctions and the release of embargoed billions by the Obama Treasury gives Iran the means to advance its agenda, in Iraq as well as Syria. While the U.S. has struggled to recruit local troops, Iran has reportedly created a 100,000-man Shiite militia in Iraq which has largely replaced the regular army as the security force that protects Tehran's hold on Baghdad. It is apparently easier to get men to fight for a "true faith" than for the soft tenets of Kantian liberalism.        

The Russian state-owned "international" media outlet RT (which broadcasts in English, Arabic and Spanish) reported on August 16, "Beijing and Damascus have agreed that the Chinese military will provide humanitarian aid to Syria, a high-ranking People's Liberation Army officer said, adding that the training of Syrian personnel by Chinese instructors has also been discussed." The Director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China's Central Military Commission, Guan Youfei, arrived in Damascus on August 16 for talks with Syrian Defense Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij. Guan also reportedly met with Russian military officers during his visit. Chinese political expert Qin Duo Xu told RT, "If you look at the Chinese media, Chinese public opinion, [you will see] that [the] absolute majority is siding with the Syrian government and support[s] Russian military involvement." Beijing had already been giving some aid to the Assad regime, but now feels more confident about the direction of events. It can, thus, be more overt in its actions. It is in China's strategic interests to get involved in the Syrian crisis and "play a larger role" in resolving it, Hong Kong based Chinese consultant Andrew Leung told RT. "This is really a breakthrough in China's strategies in the Middle East. There appears to be more coordination with countries, like Russia...China sees itself as one of the great powers."

 A closer alignment with China and Russia can give Iran the same interim protection from a U.S.  existential threat as developing its own nuclear deterrent. Not that the Obama administration looks dangerous to Tehran. It is America's traditional allies in the region who have cause for concern. U.S. offers to extend its nuclear umbrella to the Arabs does not look credible, given the deep cuts Obama had made in U.S. nuclear forces in his quest for a "nuclear free" world. His obsession appears to have a life of its own, disconnected from the real world. Russia and China are both modernizing their nuclear arsenals, with Moscow fielding hundreds of warheads more than allowed in the 2010 New START Treaty Obama sees as a great legacy and sign of cooperation with Russia.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has allowed its nuclear arsenal to fall some 30% below what the 2010 agreement allows. This policy of unilateral disarmament is reminiscent of American naval policy before World war II when it also allowed its forces to drop below what was permitted by that era's arms control agreements. Japan cheated on the agreements and then pulled out of them entirely in 1934; prompting President Franklin Roosevelt to agree to build up to (but only up to) the then irrelevant limits which Japan was openly exceeding. Tokyo came to believe it had narrowed the military gap sufficiently that a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would swing the balance of power decisively in its favor. The result was another world war. Liberal Democrat Obama is making the same mistake as isolationist Republicans made during the interwar years. Obama believes that other leaders would follow him down the road of peace if he leads by example in cutting military forces and espousing appeasement. Events have proven him terribly wrong.

In 2009, Obama called for a new approach to the Middle East in his now infamous speech in Egypt. He, along with other left-wing critics of the wars President George W. Bush had been waging, thought that the "strongest tribe" approach had discredited America in the region and could not be sustained by a "war weary" public. In reality, the U.S. and its allies were in the dominant position, with Israel ad the Arabs actually working together to contain the Iranian threat. Tehran's efforts were weakened by sanctions and contained by a powerful American military presence. How the situation has changed in seven years as Obama's new approach weakened U.S. capabilities and influence across the region. Shifting the focus to combating the Lilliputian Islamic State should not blind anyone to the larger failures as the effort to topple Assad collapses, Iran expands its control over most of Iraq and the influence of the Russia-China axis grows--- and not just in the Middle East. Aggressions by Russia against Ukraine and by China across the Pacific Rim indicate a belief in foreign capitals hat the American decline is global. America still has the preeminent means to be great, but is perceived as lacking the will to compete; and that is what matters the most as the "great game" plays out.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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