US thinker Walter Russell Mead believes President Barack Obama has adopted a failed strategy in the Middle East over the past five years.
Mead believes Obama’s gamble and mistaken political calculations have distanced him and the US from three main allies in the region: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian military. There is no way to correct US strategy except through positive action with the three allies. Mead further argues that past experience shows that their vision and perception of the nature of the alliance with Washington in the end serves the US’s top interests.
Thus, we can understand why Saudi Arabia and Israel were startled by the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The Saudi monarch warned Obama of the dangers of allowing Mubarak’s ouster because it sends a negative message to Washington’s allies.
Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdel-Aziz pressed on Obama, after his first statements on Egypt on 28 January, the need to “stand by president Mubarak”. Clearly, the royal family in Saudi Arabia was worried about the effect of change and democratic evolution in Egypt – if it succeeded – on Saudi Arabia, and the possibility of infecting Riyadh.
It is also understandable why Tel Aviv incessantly called the White House to urge the US president to take his time and stand by Egypt’s ruler. Netanyahu told one of Obama’s advisers, “I don’t think President Obama understands what awaits him.” Netanyahu pressed on Obama “the importance of standing by Mubarak no matter what happens.”
Amid rapid and dramatic change in the regime, some US strategy theorists believe Obama gambled everything on the success of Arab revolutionaries, in the belief the US administration would be able to push events in a certain direction. Meanwhile, other theorists felt Obama followed a balanced correct path by trying to push events towards a course that does not clash with US interests and principles.
However, developments proved that Washington and Obama’s administration were unable to influence the course of Arab revolutions, primarily because they did not understand the core of these revolutions or the dynamics of the political game, especially in Egypt.
Mead accuses Obama of adopting a greater strategy in the Middle East based on dealing with and relying on moderate Islamic currents, such as the Justice and Development Party in Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The US administration forged this alliance in the belief that Islamists can contribute in democratic transformation, and improving living conditions in regional states. This drove a wedge between the three traditional allies, even if temporarily.
Mead believes the strategy of the Obama administration in Middle East is seriously flawed, which is evident in greater crises in regional states. Mead explains what is occurring in Egypt, namely the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi, as the military recovering and restoring the state that was established by the army after the 1952 revolution.
Mead believes the Egyptian army is the strongest state institution (compared to the liberal current and the Brotherhood), and therefore the civil current turned to the military after the former’s relations with Islamists became strained. Mead argues that the call by the civil current to the army to return to political life is understandable.
Mead adds that amid these entanglements and complex calculations, the US administration made a serious mistake by ignoring all these issues, and continued to primarily believe what is happening in Egypt is genuine democratic transformation.
The heart of relations between the US and both Saudi Arabia and Israel was ignored by the Obama administration as it mapped out the strategy of dealing with Islamists. The US administration ignored the strains this strategy would put on its ties to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and was unable to deal with the concerns of these two countries.
Mead suggests that relations with Riyadh are very complicated; the US administration did not take into consideration Saudi concerns about the rising influence of Turkey and the Brotherhood in the region. This was evident in Washington choosing to ally with Turkey and positively dealing with Morsi in Egypt. This meant restricting Saudi diplomacy in favour of other neighbouring states such as Qatar, which has ambitions to snatch diplomatic initiative from its stronger and more influential neighbour.
Mead reasons that the majority of Americans do not realise how much Saudi Arabian officials hate the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists in Turkey. For a long time, there was a strong belief in Riyadh that the Brotherhood poses a political threat to the world of Sunni Islam. In addition, the ambition of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan – linked to reviving the glory of the Ottoman Empire and transferring the centre of power of the Islamic world to Turkey – was unacceptable to Saudi Arabia, because it was a direct threat to its influence.
Washington’s support for the Qatari alliance with Turkey and the Brotherhood in Egypt upset Saudi Arabia even more, causing Riyadh to side with those opposing US diplomatic goals. This was clear on 30 June in Egypt; Saudi Arabia allied itself with the military which presented an opportunity to depose the US-backed Qatar-Brotherhood-Turkey alliance.
In conclusion, the writer states the Obama administration must benefit from events in the region over the past years. This requires it to first sustain its strategic allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Egyptian army). It should also focus on closing the gap with them and among them, because closer ties will positively impact US interests in the region.