Obama's Mideast Missteps

Obama's Mideast Missteps

In Egypt and in Israel, the president has made bad situations worse.

As riots throughout the Middle East call into question both the utility of President Obama’s attempts to reach out to the Arab world and his administration’s claims to have vanquished Al Qaeda, the president himself has contributed to making a difficult situation even worse.

To begin with, despite the fact that the administration had warning of an impending Egyptian riot, the president hesitated before pressuring Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi to protect U.S. property and lives. As if that error of omission were not enough, the president then added one of commission when he described Israeli prime minister Netanyahu’s increasingly vocal concerns about an Iranian nuclear weapon as nothing more than “noise.”

With respect to President Morsi, it appears that the administration increasingly is treating him as if he were a political moderate rather than the hard-line Islamist he proclaims himself to be. It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood—to which Morsi belonged until he was elected and with which he continues to identify—is more respectable than the Salafist extremists who attacked U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East. But that hardly makes the Brotherhood respectable in the Western sense of the word. Morsi has made it clear, however, that he does not want or care to be judged by Western norms, whether regarding respectability or anything else.

Morsi has expressed no regrets about taking his time to order the police to quell the riots that damaged the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Indeed, he has defiantly said that his “patient” approach was the correct one, even though American lives may well have been in danger.

The Egyptian president continues to threaten to amend the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty, the cornerstone of whatever peace does prevail in the Middle East and the basis for the decades of military and economic aid that Washington has provided to Cairo.

Finally, when Morsi argues that American taxpayers supported Middle Eastern regimes that were hated by their people, he neglects to acknowledge that billions in economic aid were meant for those very same people. One wonders what he will next be prompted to assert—and more importantly do—since the administration continues to treat him with kid gloves.

Netanyahu’s inserting himself and his country into the middle of the American presidential election understandably has annoyed President Obama. But the president has not helped matters at all. Despite his soothing verbiage about standing by Israel, his less well-rehearsed comments betray a clear coolness not only toward Netanyahu but also toward the Jewish state. Israelis, even on the Left, were shocked by the Obama’s description of Netanyahu’s urgent warnings about Iran as so much “noise.” Nor could they be reassured when he called Israel one of many allies in the Middle East, leaving open the implication that in the event of a rupture with Israel, Washington has others in the region upon whom it can rely.

Ironically, it is precisely such an attitude that could bring about what the president, and a major part of the American national-security community in both parties, fears the most: a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran. Such a strike would only take place if the Israelis suffered a loss of confidence in American support, and that is exactly what the president’s comments appear to have brought about.

The lack of trust between the president and prime minister is an old story. It was exacerbated not only by Obama’s unflattering comments about Netanyahu to the former president of France but also by the fact that Obama has undercut the sanctions regime; Netanyahu has hardly been the only Israeli to notice that despite his taking credit for the much-vaunted economic isolation of Iran, the president exempted some twenty countries, including China, from the sanctions’ toughest bite.

For some time, those Israelis who opposed a strike seemed prepared to “give sanctions (such as they are) a chance,” on the grounds that Washington would stand by Jerusalem if matters with Iran came to a head. But by simply dismissing Israel’s existential concerns as mere “noise,” the president has undercut Netanyahu’s critics. It has become increasingly difficult for them to argue that Israel does not stand alone in its confrontation with the mullahs of Tehran, who wish to see Israel wiped off the map. Obama has made them feel very much alone.

The reality is that an Israeli strike on Iran is unlikely to have any long-term impact on the Iranian weapons program; there is no one Iranian target as there was when Israel struck a Syrian nuclear reactor in in 2007 or the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981. The Iranians have the wherewithal to recover from any Israeli strike and press ahead with even greater determination to develop and field a nuclear weapon. Indeed, even a U.S. strike is problematic, if only in terms of the political pressures that might bring a halt to a bombing campaign before it is complete.

Nevertheless, if Israel feels both cornered and abandoned and fears a second Obama term in office, it may well lash out at Iran anyway. The consequences for fuel prices, the U.S. economy, the safety of American forces, other government personnel and indeed citizens worldwide could be grave indeed.

Obama needs to redirect the force of his words and the power of his office. He needs to take a tougher line with Morsi and a smarter line with Netanyahu. America’s place in the Middle East is not nearly as weak as some might argue; there are still many countries, notably the traditional Arab monarchies, that have not backed away from their relationship with Washington.

But the region can only take only so many missteps by the White House. At some point, events could become so cataclysmic that nothing anyone in Washington will say or do will suffice to protect America’s long-standing interest in this volatile region.

Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.