The Obama administration, in its first and second terms, has committed strategic mistakes in the Middle East which will undermine U.S. national and security interests for many years, even under subsequent administrations after 2016.
The damage done is severe, and a remedy seems out of reach unless earth shattering changes are applied to Washington’s foreign policy—either under the incumbent’s administration or the next. The common core of U.S. strategic mistakes has been the perception of partners in the region since day one of the post-Bush presidency. While Bush’s narrative on backing pro-democracy forces was right on track, the bureaucracy’s actions betrayed the White House’s global aim. By the time the Obama administration installed itself on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009, little had been accomplished by the Bush bureaucrats in regards to identifying these pro-democracy forces and supporting them. When the current administration replaced Bush, however, civil society groups in the Middle East were systematically abandoned—aid to their liberal forces was cut off and engagement with the radicals became priority. The mistakes of the Bush bureaucracy became the official policy of the Obama administration.
Washington’s “new beginnings” in the region moved American Mideast policy in a backward direction on two major tracks. The first derailment was to partner with the Muslim Brotherhood, not the secular NGOs, in an attempt to define the future of Arab Sunni countries. The second was to engage the Iranian regime, not its opposition, in attempt to define future relations with the Shia sphere of the region. These were strategic policy decisions planned years before the Arab Spring, not a pragmatic search for solutions as upheavals began. Choosing the Islamists over the Muslim moderates and reformers has been an academically suggested strategy adapted to potential interests—even though it represents an approach contrary to historically successful pathways. In June 2009, President Obama sent a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader asking for “engagement.” This move, coupled with Obama’s abandonment of the civil revolt in Iran that same month, sent a comforting message to the ruling Khomeinists: The United States is retreating from containment and will not support regime change in Iran. That undeniably emboldened Tehran to go on the offensive in the region after less than a decade of status quo.
The nuclear program was boldly defended despite American and UN economic sanctions; Iranian penetration of Iraq deepened; support to Hezbollah escalated with a presidential visit to Lebanon by Ahmedinijad; and aggressive backing of pro-Iranian elements in Arabia was sustained. The Arab Spring revealed more assertive Iranian behavior as Pasdaran and Hezbollah militias were dispatched to syria in support of the struggling Assad regime. Across the region, the Ayatollahs increased their support to regimes and organizations bent on crushing civil society uprisings and also clamped down on their own oppositions—both inside the country and abroad. Tehran used Washington’s unending search for dialogue with the Ayatollahs as an opportunity to attack the exiled Iranian community inside Iraq, one of the best cards in the international community’s hands to pressure the Iranian regime. The tragedy of dismantling Camp Ashraf ran parallel to a systematic persecution of Iranian dissidents who rose in 2009 against the mullahs. U.S. retreat from Iran’s containment led to an unparalleled bleeding of the political opposition, the only long term hope for a real change in Iran.
The Obama administration’s abandonment of Iran’s people was made complete through Washington’s dangerous deal with Tehran. After months of secret negotiations and immediately after abandoning the Syrian opposition to vie for themselves against Iranian-backed Assad forces towards the end of the summer, the U.S. administration announced an interim nuclear agreement with Iran. To the astonishment of Iran’s opposition, not to mention Arab moderate governments, European countries including France, and a majority in Congress, the Obama administration began easing sanctions on Iran in return for a promise by the Khomeinist regime that it would lower its uranium production to an internationally acceptable level. Without any significant leverage on Tehran, having sidelined the Iranian opposition, the White House has no guarantees that Iran’s regime is backing off from nuclear strategic weaponry. Worse, Washington started almost immediately to transfer billions of dollars from “frozen accounts” back to the Iran regime’s coffers.
From an initial conceptual strategic mistake, the Obama administration moved to implement the most dangerous component of the new policy: Not only ending economic and political pressure, but sending financial support to a terror regime still on the offensive in the region. The hundreds of millions of dollars already received by the Ayatollahs can be, and actually most likely are being, recycled through the Pasdaran into subversive operations against the country’s liberal opposition, the Iranian exiles, Arab governments and U.S. interests worldwide. The “deal” will go down in history as one of the worst political acts in the West, second only to the signing of a piece of paper in Munich that claimed to be a deal to save the Peace. History has already taught the world, at a very high price, the consequences of dealing with devils.
Dr Walid Phares is the author of The Coming Revolution (2010) and of the forthcoming The Lost Spring (March 2014)