Obama’s Mideast Realignment

His new doctrine: Downgrade ties to Israel and the Saudis while letting Iran fill the vacuum left by U.S. retreat.

The Wall Street Journal

MAR 25, 2015

Let’s connect the dots.

Data point No. 1: President Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 and is preparing to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016, even while keeping a few more troops there this year and next than originally planned.

Point No. 2: The Obama administration keeps largely silent about Iran’s power grab in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, even going so far now as to assist Iranian forces in Tikrit, while attempting to negotiate a nuclear deal with Tehran that would allow it to maintain thousands of centrifuges.

Point No. 3: Mr. Obama berates Benjamin Netanyahu for allegedly “racist” campaign rhetoric, refuses to accept his apologies, and says the U.S. may now “re-assess options,” code words for allowing the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state over Israeli objections.

Taken together, these facts suggest that Mr. Obama is attempting to pull off the most fundamental realignment of U.S. foreign policy in a generation. The president is pulling America back from the leading military role it has played in the Middle East since 1979, the year the Iranian hostage crisis began and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. He is trying to transform Iran from an enemy to a friend. He is diminishing the alliance with Israel, to lows not seen since the 1960s.

Call it the Obama Doctrine: The U.S. puts down the burden, and Iran picks up the slack.

Perhaps the least disputed of these points is the notion that Mr. Obama is stepping back from the Middle East. He has repeatedly said as much, promising to “rebalance” our commitments by shifting forces to the Pacific. The U.S. still maintains substantial forces in the Persian Gulf, as it has done since the early 1980s. But the number of troops in Iraq has fallen from 142,000 when Mr. Obama took power to fewer than 3,000 today, after an interregnum of zero between 2011 and 2014. The number of troops in Afghanistan tripled to 100,000 in 2010 but has since fallen to 10,000 and is supposed to hit zero before the president leaves office. This will be disastrous and destabilizing, but it will allow Mr. Obama to claim that he “ended” the war. In reality, pulling out U.S. troops will only fuel the conflict.

A corollary to Mr. Obama’s vow to make the “tide of war” recede is his determination, if forced to fight, to employ air power alone. The U.S. took part in the NATO air campaign to depose Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but afterward Mr. Obama refused to send a peacekeeping force, a decision that has consigned the country to anarchy. Now Mr. Obama is launching airstrikes against Islamic State while refusing to commit to any ground troops—even though they are essential to ensuring the success of airstrikes.

This brings us to the second part of the Obama Doctrine. The U.S. has regarded Iran as its enemy since our embassy in Tehran was stormed and our diplomats taken captive. The Iranians have sponsored numerous terrorist attacks on American targets, in Lebanon in the 1980s and Iraq in the 2000s.

In response, successive U.S. presidents have backed Israel and Sunni allies, notably Saudi Arabia. Mr. Obama is bucking this foreign-policy consensus. He is offering Iran extraordinarily generous terms in the current negotiations, suggesting that he will lift sanctions if Iran merely slows down its nuclear-weapons program for a decade.

Mr. Obama is also doing little to contest Iran’s growing imperium in the Middle East, symbolized by the ubiquitous presence of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, which is charged with exporting Iran’s revolution. Tehran backs proxy militias such as Hezbollah, which has moved from its Lebanese base to support Iranian client Bashar Assad in Syria; the Badr Organization, which is leading the charge against Islamic State in Tikrit; and the Houthi militia that has taken over San’a, the capital of Yemen, and is now at the gates of Aden, a strategically vital port near the entrance to the Red Sea.

All U.S. officials will say in response is that Iran’s actions are “helpful” as long as they are not too “sectarian”—akin to praising Al Capone for providing liquor to the thirsty masses while piously expressing the hope that his conduct isn’t too criminal. Now the U.S. is even supporting the Iranian-directed offensive against Tikrit by providing surveillance flights and airstrikes for attacking forces.

The flip side of this shift toward Iran is a move away from longtime allies, most notably Israel, which views the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat. The president vowed to put some “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem, and boy has he delivered. His aides deride the Israeli prime minister as a “chickens—” and a “coward,” and Mr. Obama has exhibited more visceral anger at Mr. Netanyahu than he has at Vladimir Putin or Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Netanyahu has sometimes played into Mr. Obama’s hands—for example, by agreeing to address Congress without first running it by the White House and then vowing, in the closing days of his campaign, that there will be no Palestinian state while he is prime minister. What Mr. Netanyahu meant, as he later explained, was that the Palestinians have not shown a commitment to peace that would make him comfortable giving up further land in the West Bank at the moment. But by appearing to flip-flop on his pledge to seek a two-state solution—a bedrock of U.S. policy under Mr. Obama and George W. Bush—Mr. Netanyahu has provided ammunition for those in the White House who maliciously insist on painting him as a crazed warmonger and ethnic cleanser.

Will Mr. Obama succeed in pulling off his sweeping diplomatic realignment? He still has almost two years in office and considerable presidential prerogative to reorient foreign policy as he sees fit. Ironically, the biggest obstacle in his path may be the Iranian mullahs. If they reject his extraordinarily generous offer for fear of doing any deal with the Great Satan, the folly of his foreign-policy revolution will be brutally exposed.