Obama’s Mideast Vacuum

Another “total disaster” if you want my opinion.
March 26, 2015 7:21 p.m.

An abiding goal of President Obama’s foreign policy has been to reduce America’s role in the Middle East, in the belief that it would lead to greater stability and serve U.S. interests. Has a policy ever been so thoroughly repudiated in so short a time? Mr. Obama has succeeded in his retreat, but the vacuum he’s left has produced a region on fire that is becoming a broad Sunni-Shiite war.

That’s the context for this week’s meltdown in Yemen, which has now escalated with the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies. This follows the rout of a U.S.-friendly government by Houthi militias that belong to the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam and are backed by Iran. What had been a proxy war is in danger of becoming a direct Saudi-Iran conflict.

The Saudi-Gulf Arab intervention is a significant risk, not least of a prolonged guerrilla war. The Saudis have a capable air force, but their ground forces can’t sustain a long fight. Egyptian troops may also participate, but Egyptians well remember how they were bloodied when they last took sides in a Yemen civil war in the 1960s.

The Saudi strategy isn’t clear but one goal seems to be to restore the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in at least part of the country, especially in the south around the port of Aden and including the air base at al-Anad. That won’t end the civil war, but it would prevent either an Iranian proxy or an al Qaeda offshoot from dominating a nation on its southern border.

It’s safe to say the Saudis would never take such risks if they hadn’t given up on the U.S. as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. This resembles their intervention into Bahrain in 2011 to put down a rebellion by its Shiite majority against the Sunni government, but the risks are greater in Yemen.

Iran has denounced the intervention, and Russia has also objected. Tehran probably won’t intervene directly, but you can bet it will supply the Houthis with arms and military advisers. It will try to bleed the Saudis and their allies for as long as possible at a relatively low cost. Tehran’s ultimate goal would be to neutralize if not destabilize the Gulf regimes as part of its plan to dominate the region.

As for the U.S., it needs to abandon its studied retreat and help the Saudis. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the intervention on Thursday, and the White House says the U.S. plans to provide logistical and intelligence support. This is the right side to support, but for a change Mr. Obama should do what it takes to help an ally win.

This should include a warning to Iran that the U.S. will assist the Saudis in stopping Iranian flights that arm the Houthis. Iranian flights over Iraq to Syria helped Assad survive at a crucial moment, but all the U.S. did was complain. This time Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps needs to be told its flights run the risk of being shot down.

Yemen is the home of al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, which has targeted the U.S. homeland more than once. The U.S. had run a drone war against AQAP from San’a until the Houthis made that impossible last week. Helping restore the Hadi government would restore that base of operations, while showing the Saudis and our other allies in the region that we’ll back them in a fight.

All of this also makes Mr. Obama’s obsession with a nuclear deal with Iran seem increasingly out of this world. The President seems to think he can strike a nuclear bargain as if it has nothing to do with the region’s strife or Iran’s advances. But the looming pact has facilitated that turmoil and is bound to make it worse.

Israel and the Sunni Arabs are convinced that the deal will leave Iran able to build a bomb more or less at a time of its choosing. They also believe the U.S. has refused to help them depose Syria’s Bashar Assad because Mr. Obama doesn’t want to upset Iran during the nuclear talks.

This in turn has made the Sunni Arabs reluctant to help against Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq. Which has forced the Iraq government to rely on Iran and Shiite militias to lead the fight against ISIS. The Iraqis finally asked the militias to back off this week in return for U.S. bombing help in the battle to retake Tikrit from ISIS.

It’s not too much to say that America’s traditional allies in the region fear that Mr. Obama wants to cast them aside and create a new U.S.-Iran alliance.

The temptation in some American circles, including in parts of the right, will be to let the Sunnis and Shiites kill each other until they get tired of it. But that’s what the same sages said about Syria’s civil war, which proceeded to spill into Iraq and midwife Islamic State, which is now gaining adherents around the world. The damage to U.S. interests from a radical takeover of the Gulf states, by either Sunni jihadists or Shiites loyal to Iran, would be even worse.

When the world’s only superpower retreats willy-nilly, bad things happen. Much like Jimmy Carter in 1979 after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Mr. Obama needs to reassess his failing foreign policy before the mayhem spreads even further.



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