Russia resets the Middle East

John Wohlstetter Author, “Sleepwalking with the Bomb”
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Make no mistake about it. President Obama’s decision to accept United Nations deliberation of a Russian proposal to mediate the dispute between the United States and Syria over chemical weapons signals a brand new era in the Mideast. And it will be an era when America’s influence in the region falls to historic lows. Russia’s influence is being restored to what it was when it looked the other way as Egypt and Syria invaded Israel on October 6, 1973.

Russia moved swiftly to flex its diplomatic muscle by warning the Obama administration that its offer to mediate the Syrian WMD affair is expressly contingent on a prior renunciation of the use of force by America, should Syria fail to comply. And it flexed military muscle by announcing that Moscow will ship advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran, as well as another nuclear reactor for Iran’s Bushehr plant.

President Obama’s spectacularly inept diplomacy regarding Syria is comparable to the historic, game-changing blunder President Eisenhower made in 1956, when he forced Britain, France and Israel to pull back from the Suez Canal, which they had retaken in response to the blatantly illegal seizure and nationalization of the vital waterway by Egyptian pan-Arab tyrant Gamal Abdel Nasser. And America’s influence in the region will be its lowest since 1945. To understand the disastrous choice Barack Obama has made, it is necessary to review the events that flowed from the Suez debacle.

U.S. policymakers rarely mention the Suez disaster. But the regional totalitarian terrors unleashed in the wake of Suez were comparable in kind, though not in scale, to the global totalitarian terrors unleashed by World War I and the Treaty of Versailles. In destroying the sclerotic European, Russian, and Ottoman empires, World War I and its aftermath paved the way for the rise of Soviet Communism, Nazism, Italian Fascism, Japanese militarism and myriad other nationalist uprisings. Suez spawned the Ba’athist takeovers of July 14, 1958 and 1963, which put secular regimes in power in Syria and Iraq, ousting the pro-French Syrian and the pro-British Iraqi regimes. Both countries built secular tyrannies modeled after Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin.

In 1970 Hafez Assad became Syria’s ruler, to be succeeded by his equally bloodthirsty though far less crafty son Bashar in 2000. Syria has sponsored numerous terrorist groups since the 1970s, most notably co-sponsoring the 1982 birth of Hezbollah, Iran’s prime terror surrogate. Syria also occupied Lebanon in 1975, capitalizing on the devastating civil war there, a rule that lasted until the March 2005 Cedar Revolution forced Syrian troops to withdraw in May. But Hezbollah re-established its influence in Lebanon after the stalemate in its 2006 war with Israel.

Saddam Hussein, a young Iraqi revolutionary, rose to absolute power in Iraq in 1976. Saddam’s Iraq also sponsored terror groups, but his prime efforts were three: 1) bringing a nuclear program nearly to fruition, only to be stopped by Israel’s 1981 bombing of the nuclear reactor which Saddam intended to produce plutonium fuel for atom bombs; 2) the 1980 – 1988 Iraq-Iran war, the first of two monster wars Saddam started, that inflicted one million casualties and featured their use of chemical weapons; and 3) the 1990 – 1991 Gulf War in which an allied coalition ejected Saddam from Kuwait, but failed to topple him — thus setting the stage for a decade of partly successful inspections of Saddam’s chem-bio programs and the fateful second war with Iraq in 2003, the calamitous insurgency that followed, the U.S. surge that restored order, and the 2011 Obama withdrawal that left Iraq to drift toward chaos and its government toward Iran.

The other big winners after Suez were Nasser and his superpower patron, the Soviet Union. Until his 1970 death, Nasser fomented serial Mideast wars, and helped support the 1963 founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Israel’s smashing victory in the 1967 Six-Day War discredited Nasser, but gave the PLO an opening to reinvent itself — in Western eyes, at least — as dedicated to freeing Palestinians, rather than its true mission of killing Jews or driving them out of the Mideast. The “L” in PLO stood for — and still stands for — taking Israel proper back from the Jews.

The Soviet Union was riding high, until in 1972 Egyptian president Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet troops. With the Soviets looking the other way, Sadat and Syrian’s Hafez Assad launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War. When Israel crossed the Suez Canal the Soviets tried to re-introduce troops into Egypt, but the U.S. resisted. A tense naval confrontation in the Mediterranean led to what President Richard Nixon called a “nuclear confrontation.”

American diplomacy stepped in to dominate the region’s efforts for the next generation. The Soviets were once again relegated to the diplomatic sidelines, reduced to supporting their client Syria.

Then came the next product of Suez: the twin radical Islamist coups of 1979. In February Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran. And in November came the seizure of 52 American diplomats as hostages by Iran, plus the little noticed seizure of Mecca by Wahhabi terrorists. The al-Saud clan retook, with French help, the Great Mosque and made a Devil’s bargain with the Wahhabi. From 1979 on the Khomeini Shia and Wahhabi Sunni clerics spread hatred of the West, a prime factor in the rise of al-Qaeda and the atrocities of September 11, 2001.

After 2001 America weighed in. Nation-building in Iraq fell apart upon Obama’s exit, when U.S. persistence had finally forged a fragile stability. Syria festered. Iran made steady progress toward joining the nuclear club, despite sabotage by America and Israel. In 2011 the Arab Spring unleashed a series of revolutions about which the U.S. could do little, upending pro-U.S. Egyptian rule in Egypt. Only the military’s countercoup tossed the Islamists out of power — as President Obama backed the Muslim Brotherhood. What little Team Obama did elsewhere also helped the Islamists. Libya, after deposing the tyrannical Muammar Gaddafi, descended into Hobbesian anarchy, which led to the debacle at the American consulate in Benghazi. President Obama’s failure to impose Draconian sanctions to help the Iranian Green Movement’s 2009 revolution overthrow Tehran’s mullahs threw away a rare opportunity to shape tectonic events. And constant Obama administration pressure against top ally Israel weakened alliance relations and encouraged Palestinian intransigence.

And now, this week, President Obama fumbled again. Having publicly proclaimed red lines against Syrian use of chemical weapons, telling the world “I don’t bluff” he then undercut his secretary of state several times. He found himself facing a massive bipartisan rejection of his proposed three-day military strike against Syria — which the president proclaimed was not intended to change the situation and his secretary of state proclaimed would be “unbelievably small, limited.” So he seized upon a Russian overture to oversee a supposed Syrian surrender of its chemical weapons arsenal, as the way to bail him out of a military mini-strike that he knew was overwhelmingly opposed by the voters.

And thus enter Russia, a consequential — even central — player in the Mideast at a level not seen since at least 40 years ago, possibly even since 1956. Such are the dismal wages of presidential fecklessness, in the form of serial flip-flops, evasions, fantasies and prevarications. Were SNL to have done the past month as a skit, it would have been pilloried for satirical excess.

In Federalist 85, Alexander Hamilton wrote: “A NATION, without a NATIONAL GOVERNMENT, is, in my view, an awful spectacle.” Penned in 1788, Hamilton’s warning has come true, 225 years later, in the self-induced paralysis that has marked two and a half years of President Obama’s utterly perverse Syria policies.

The sad fact is that voters last November saddled us again with a president whose presidency will by its end have inflicted immense, perhaps catastrophic damage on America and its allies. Much, perhaps most, of the damage will likely prove irreversible, with the reversible portion taking decades to undo.

It seems increasingly likely that when President Obama’s tenure ends midday on January 20, 2017, American global influence — not just in the Mideast but around the world — may well be at its lowest level in a century, since Woodrow Wilson took America into World War I on April 2, 1917.

John C. Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.