America’s first adventure abroad provides an interesting perspective on dealing with our friends and foes today. The Barbary Wars were fought by Presidents Jefferson and Madison to defend free trade against renegade Islamic powers. Pirates based in three Ottoman possessions demanded tribute from merchant vessels. The US fought two wars against the Barbary States with this result, according to Wikipedia: ‘The war brought an end to the American practice of paying tribute to the pirate states and helped mark the beginning of the end of piracy in that region, which had been rampant in the days of Ottoman domination’.
There is a theme here of Presidents (Jefferson and Madison) unafraid to act, dealing with Muslim troublemakers. Free trade was something that needed defending back in 1810, and it is today.
Straying from old allies
President Obama campaigned in 2008 with a promise to remake US foreign policy, and he kept the promise. Unfortunately, we turned away from old friends. Any list of top US allies back then would include Israel, the UK, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
- Israel has been our most reliable ally in the Middle East. The ill-will between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama was visible for years, and just this week the US failed to veto an anti-Israel resolution in the UN Security Council. A headline in the New York Times two days ago ran thus ‘For Obama and Netanyahu, a Final Clash After Years of Conflict’.
- What can the Egyptians think? The US encouraged the revolt against our long-time client President Mubarak as part of Arab Spring. The result was that two governments fell, thousands died, and Egypt today is back where they started, but poorer and less stable.
- Great Britain has been our partner for nearly a century in a ‘special relationship’, but we elected a President whose grandfather was imprisoned and tortured by the British in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. You might guess President Obama’s affection for Great Britain was limited. Obama moved the Churchill bust out of the oval office, and early in his first term passed British nuclear secrets to the Russians without the permission or knowledge of the British, this in return for Russian signature on an arms treaty.
- Saudi Arabia’s first king sealed a partnership with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia was firm through ten Presidents, but the Saudis now have lingering disagreements with the US on topics like oil prices, Syria, Yemen, and Obama’s romance with Iran. An article published by the Council on Foreign Relations summarized: ‘differences may lead the kingdom to conclude that it can no longer rely on a security arrangement with the United States’.
Who are the new friends to replace relationships that were decades old? Iran?
Syria and Deterrence
US influence dominated the Middle East for 40 years. Today, at least for the moment, we are without much influence. During the 1976 war the threat of US action deterred Russia from supporting an attack on Israel. Then, when a US President threatened consequences he was believed; but Obama’s threats on Syria had no credibility. Obama drew a red line. Russia and Iran were not deterred, and today they control events completely. The US did not participate in the evacuation talks on eastern Aleppo, and as I write this the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran are meeting in Moscow to decide the future of Syria, without the US.
Obama owns the tragedy in Syria. He tried to influence events in Syria but was completely out-maneuvered by Russia and Iran. The US encouraged the revolt against Assad but were unwilling to support it effectively. Help that the Syrian rebels needed was never delivered, and as a result there is Aleppo and the agonies of the Greek islands and Angela Merkel. There is Charlie Hebdo. Is the Norwegian Nobel Committee having second thoughts?
Those who hate us must be encouraged. Much of our influence in the Middle East is lost. The Chinese inflict the torture of a thousand cuts on us in the Western Pacific. The Philippines, long faithful allies, thumb their noses at us. Even the Australians hesitate to support us. In the midst of all this, our military is asked to do more with less.
There is one success – relations with Cuba are restored. Ironically, that may have helped doom Secretary Clinton’s Presidential campaign, because it annoyed the Cuban exile community in Florida.
The other possible success is the exit from Iraq. Obama promised it in his campaign, and he accomplished it. The problem is that stability was not maintained, and ISIS arrived. Of course, ISIS came in from Syria. Today, US troops are back in growing numbers, helping to re-conquer Mosul. Not a good result.
My advice: the new President has some good advisors; let’s hope he makes good use of what they tell him.