Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.—Pericles (Athens, c. 430 BCE)
America hasn’t been invaded since 1812, and after the Civil War (which only peripherally involved other nations), all of its wars were fought on battlefields comfortably far away. The Imperial Japanese came the closest to striking America at home, but were not able to follow up their successful attack on Pearl Harbor with an invasion. Americans have been almost uniquely isolated from the rest of the world, and especially the tribal complexities of the Middle East until very recently, and in general they still tend to be remarkably ignorant about them. Even presidential candidates.
Andrew McCarthy noted recently that Donald Trump, for all his attitude, has trouble distinguishing his ass from a hole in the ground in this connection. Some of the other candidates, like Bernie Sanders are not much better. And Hillary Clinton, while she certainly is better acquainted with the players, may or may not be on the right team.
Here in Israel, security is the number one issue in politics, for obvious reasons. The US hasn’t reached that point yet, although its enemies are pushing it harder and harder. But the American in the street and some in Congress are often less well-informed than even The Donald.
Not that the Middle East is simple. Several years ago I asked the late Barry Rubin why Shiite Iran was helping the Sunni Hamas in Gaza, while it opposed the ideologically similar Muslim Brotherhood. This was despite the fact that Iran’s deadly enemy Saddam Hussein was close to both Hamas and the PLO. Arafat famously took Saddam’s side in the first Gulf war and got Palestinian guest workers kicked out of Kuwait, and the families of Hamas suicide bombers received stipends from Saddam. Rubin just laughed and said that when I understood that I would understand the Middle East.
The broad Sunni-Shiite struggle is reflected in American politics, too. Historically, the US has been on the Saudi (Sunni) side, a result of the Saudis’ massive purchases of influence with American politicians and academic institutions. Sometimes working through oil companies and sometimes by promising huge sums of money (payable after a politician leaves office) as in the case of Jimmy Carter and the Clintons, the Saudis seemingly locked up the US. Even the supposedly tough Israel lobby couldn’t beat the Saudis when they went head to head (as happened when the US sold AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s).
When Barack Obama was elected, everyone expected that he would maintain the cooperation with the House of Saud like Reagan, Clinton and the Bushes. But in a move that shocked many, Obama turned against the Saudis and toward Iran, making a deal that greatly strengthened the Islamic Republic in its bid to replace the US-Saudi axis as the dominant power in the region.
One explanation for this shift in policy is that Obama seems to have bought into the 2006 Iraq Study Group report, lock, stock and barrel. The report argued that in order to stabilize the Middle East, the US had to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by creating a Palestinian state in the territories, and engage with Syria and Iran. The report was wrong-headed, both in its misunderstanding of the objectives of Iran and its acceptance of the idiotic ‘Linkage Theory’, in which the root cause of Mideast problems is Israel’s occupation of territories captured in 1967. In any event, it became the keystone of his foreign policy.
To be fair to the authors of the report (one of which was Obama advisor Ben Rhodes), they may not have intended to translate ‘engagement’ as ‘surrender’. But that is how Obama sees it, with his ideology of apology, his belief that most of the world’s ills are due to the use of Western, particularly American, power. He wishes to engage in order to withdraw.
America’s abandonment of the Middle East is a major change in a policy that has been more or less constant since the end of the Second World War. It will probably be the one thing that students of history 50 years hence will know about the presidency of Barack Obama, in addition to the fact that he was the first ‘black’ president. But we will see the fruits of the deal much sooner, probably within the next five years, in the form of a regional war in the Middle East, a massive increase in worldwide terrorism, and perhaps even ‘man-made disasters’ in the US.
Although Hillary Clinton endorsed the Iranian nuclear deal and claims to favor ‘engagement’ with Iran, she did not actively campaign for it. She did not take part in the negotiations with Iran; she was replaced by John Kerry in February 2013, and the initially secret channel with Iran was opened in March of that year. Maybe she stepped down in advance because she did not want to participate in this process.
Why wouldn’t she? Well, the Clinton Foundation had recently received $25 million from Saudi Arabia, and multiple millions in grants and speaking fees from other Gulf states worried about Iran. Bill and Hillary Clinton have reported to have been paid over $125 million (and there may be more payments that were unreported) by companies and foreign governments since 2001, many in the Middle East. She is certainly in the Saudi corner.
She also might be smart enough to realize that nothing good can come from the deal, and doesn’t want to be associated with it when the fallout hits the fan.
She has been very guarded about what her actual policies would be if elected, and she is not – how can I put this delicately – someone known for excessive truthfulness anyway. From an Israeli point of view, some of her connections, like Sid Blumenthal, Thomas Pickering and of course Huma Abedin are troubling. And there is a long list of more-than-questionable things said and done by Ms Clinton in connection with Israel over the years.
The coming presidential election will be immensely important, because it may not be too late to reverse the course set by Obama. As an Israeli, I care that the American president be one that will reassert power in the Mideast – and one that will support Israel. And as an American, I want one that understands the danger that the civilized world faces from expansionist Islam of both the Sunni and Shiite variety, and who will keep America safe from the very real threats that Obama pretends not to see.
That certainly isn’t Trump, Clinton or Sanders. It might be Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Choose wisely.