Posts Tagged Barack Obama
On December 4, I spoke at a new forum devoted to articulating a “grand strategy” for Israel, led by former Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Arad. The day was devoted to understanding the strategies of other states, and I drew the assignment to characterize U.S. strategy. What follows is description, not prescription.
Let me begin with an observation which may seem paradoxical, given the amount of attention we lavish on the Middle East and the fact that I’m a Middle East expert. The Middle East is not a region of overriding U.S. interest. The value of what it produces, excluding oil, is small, and its militaries are largely weak and ineffectual. This limits both the promise and the danger inherent in the region, which traditionally figured somewhere in the middle or lower end of U.S. strategic concerns. The United States was prepared to expend much blood and treasure to put Europe and the Pacific rim on the track to peace and stability. It has never accorded the Middle East the same worth, and the usual approach has been to try to preserve U.S. interests in the region on the cheap.
The United States has four core interests in the Middle East: the free flow of oil, the security of Israel, countering terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that would allow Middle Eastern pathologies to spill over and endanger the world. On occasion, some have tried to add the promotion of human rights or democracy to this short list of interests. When that has happened, under the impetus of a Jimmy Carter or a George W. Bush, it’s lasted for a few years, and then dropped off. Democracy and human rights are nice-to-haves for the United States. They are not need-to-haves.
Some might imagine that it is (or should be) a U.S. objective to keep all other powers out of the Middle East. In fact, at no point has the United States believed that upholding the four core U.S. interests requires the exclusion of other powers. Europe, Russia, and China dish out aid, do business, sell arms, and support clients. The United States tolerates their presence, because its own presence is so dominant, and because considerable parts of the Middle East aren’t worth the costs of competing.
To preserve its four core interests, the United States has traditionally adhered to four basic strategies. I’ve given them names for the sake of convenience, but they are my names, and you won’t find them in any American document. They are: delegating, delinking, pairing, and flipping. I’ll explain each one in turn, but what they all have in common is that they are meant to achieve U.S. objectives at the lowest possible cost.
Delegating. Most great empires that have dominated the Middle East had to do so by putting boots on the ground—or, if you want to go all the way back to antiquity, sandals on the ground. The Romans, the Ottomans, and the British—to name a few—incorporated the region in their imperial systems by garrisoning it. The United States has traditionally preferred a different and more economical approach, seeking to dominate the region through allies, clients, friends, and proxies. The United States sells arms, conducts diplomacy, shares intelligence, runs some special ops, launches cruise missiles (and now drones)—everything short of landing the American soldier in full battle gear. When that soldier has been deployed, it has been in extraordinary circumstances, and has had the character of an aberration. The 1958 intervention in Lebanon, the 1982 dispatch of Marines to Beirut, the 1991 Gulf war—these were all short-lived interventions with narrow purposes.
The 2003 Iraq war, along with the Afghan war, were dramatic deviations from the norm—uncharacteristic attempts at nation-building. 9/11 broke the continuity of the American approach, culminating in George W. Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom.” He openly acknowledged that it constituted a sharp departure from traditional U.S. policy, and we are now in the midst of a reversion to the norm. The usual American approach has been to back its friends from a distance, to provision them to fight battles on their own, and to use its technological advantages to deal with threats at a distance. What is the right distance? I commend to you the article in the current GQ entitled “Confessions of a Drone Warrior.” The ideal distance, it turns out, is a hangar somewhere in Nevada. That’s the American way, and it becomes ever more attractive as technology advances.
The bedrock of these U.S. ties is now cooperation in the “war on terror.” 9/11 demonstrated that mass-casualty terrorism against Americans could shift U.S. opinion, distorting cost-benefit analysis in decisions to use force. To avoid a slide back into the region, the United States does everything necessary to keep Al Qaeda wannabes on the run and on their heels. Whenever the United States puts this one boot in, it is precisely in order to keep the other boot out.
Delinking. This second strategy seeks to separate the two areas of endemic conflict, the Israel-centered system and the oil-centered system. After 1948, the Saudis would regularly threaten that U.S. support for Israel could damage U.S. relations with Arab oil producers. Despite this, the United States managed to keep both Israel and the Saudis in tow. But in 1973, in response to an Arab-Israeli war, the Arab oil producers imposed an oil embargo on the United States, driving prices sky high, forcing the United States to ration gasoline, and prompting a recession.
Since then, a basic principle of U.S. strategy has been to delink the Israel-centered and the oil-centered systems, in order to block any chain reaction across the Middle East. It achieved that, first, deliberately, by brokering an Egyptian-Israeli peace that made another big Arab-Israeli war unlikely; and second, inadvertently, by standing by while Khomeini overthrew the Shah, leaving the Saudis and others no choice but to shelter in America’s bosom. Remember that delinking assumes linkage—that the link is real and so has to be broken. The average U.S. policymaker believes in linkage, and many of them think that the fastest way to delink the two systems is progress toward “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians. Even a process that doesn’t produce a final agreement has the ongoing effect of lowering the profile of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the oil-centered system.
Pairing. This consists of finding two adversaries whose rivalry is destabilizing, and knocking their heads together or plying them with incentives to bring them under one American umbrella. Until the Iranian revolution, the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia, perennial rivals, constituted the “two pillars” of U.S. influence in the Gulf, which Washington kept in careful balance. After 1979, Israel and Egypt constituted the stabilizing duo in the Eastern Mediterranean. By definition, pairing means creating an unnatural alliance of wary partners—creating a triangle in which the United States forms the long side. A well-constructed triangle will leave the outsider twisting in the wind. The Egypt-Israel pair did that to Syria, and the Saudi-Iranian pair once boxed in Iraq.
The Iranian revolution broke up the crucial pairing in the Gulf, and one of the endemic problems of U.S. strategy has been the difficulty of forging an alternative. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia and Iraq paired against Iran, but that ended disastrously when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s left the Saudis isolated. The removal of Saddam was supposed to make Iraq amenable once again to pairing with the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs. But a Shiite-dominated Iraq was destined to remain aloof from Saudi Arabia, and open to the influence of Iran. Absent a pairing for the Saudis and Gulf Arabs, the United States has had to play the role of the other half, in a costly way.
Flipping. Which brings me to the fourth strategy. Flipping involves engaging an adversary and turning him around. The classic instance was Egypt, which had been a militantly pan-Arab, stridently anti-American Soviet client state, and which the United States flipped into its own orbit. The idea is to focus on that state which is most disruptive of your interests, and slowly drive it to the conclusion that it can’t afford to remain outside the American tent. Why flipping? Containment is hard to preserve against erosion, and it tends to punish peoples more than their rulers. Regime change is risky and fraught with unintended consequences. Flipping isn’t easy, but when it works, it’s regarded as the most economical of all outcomes.
Much fog surrounds the Iran plan of the Obama administration, but the United States could be trying to solve its endemic problem in the Persian Gulf by flipping Iran. The nuclear deal could be an opening to a wider dialogue with Iran, which would bring Iran into some sort of strategic relationship with the United States, on terms no one can predict. In this scenario, the United States would seek to repeat the flipping of Egypt—this time, without a war to facilitate the last stage. Flipping presumes that for every Nasser there is a Sadat (read: Ahmedinejad, Rouhani), and that everyone has their price. It also presumes that the United States can drive down the price by a mix of incentives and threats. No one in the Obama administration dares hint today that this is the longer-term strategy, but it’s no doubt hiding in the back of many minds.
On the basis of what I’ve just outlined, it is useful to think of the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East not as a retreat (or “appeasement”) but as an effort to get back to what worked for the United States in the past. It is a nostalgic project. And as we know from public opinion polling, that is just what Americans want. They wish to go back to the good old days, when a few clever people in pinstripe suits and a few well-placed intel assets could keep the Middle East on the back burner where it belongs.
There is much to be said for the argument that American obsessing about the Middle East has been a distraction from more important agendas. But preserving the four key interests I mentioned earlier requires an ongoing and determined effort to play a skilled game. The United States claims it intends to remain engaged in the Middle East. As it repositions itself, the credibility of that claim is sure to be tested.
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Provocative assessment of US Middle East policy by the always insightful Martin Kramer. http://t.co/un60932DJC
— Robert Satloff (@robsatloff) December 10, 2013
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 2.
Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”
It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”
The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.
Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain.
For example, last February he visited London and said this (Hague beaming at his side):
When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain—our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship—there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that.
In June, Kerry (again with Hague at his side) stressed the “special relationship,” which he declared to be “grounded in so much—our history, our values, our traditions. It is, without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship.”
And in September, when Britain’s parliament voted down a motion to join the U.S. in the use of force in Syria, Kerry rushed to declare the “special relationship” intact:
The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has often been described as special, essential. And it has been described thusly, quite simply, because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament, and it will be for long afterwards after that vote. Our bond, as William [Hague] has just said, is bigger than one vote; it’s bigger than one moment in history. It’s about values. It’s about rules of the road, rules by which human beings try to organize their societies and offer people maximum freedom and opportunity, respecting rights, and finding a balance in a very complicated world. And we have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain, and we are grateful for that.
Quite early, the Obama administration earned a reputation in British public opinion for showing insufficient respect for the “special relationship,” and Kerry may see his mission as repairing that impression. But then the Obama administration stands no higher in Israeli public opinion, and Kerry sees no need to do any work of repair (and a few things he has said have heaped insult on injury).
President Obama does refer to the “special relationship” with Israel, but coming from him, the phrase means a bit less than it once did. That’s because he’s upgraded Britain to something even higher. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain in May 2011, he and British prime minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London Times that included this sentence: “Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.” (The headline: “Not Just Special, But An Essential Relationship.”) Suddenly, the word “essential” started cropping up in references to the relationship with Britain (see also two of the Kerry quotes above). “Essential” is now the new platinum card in relations with the United States, and Britain alone holds one. (That’s why having Britain on board the Iran deal was so important to the Obama administration, and it’s why Hague was assigned the role of setting Israel straight: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.” How pleased he must have been to categorize Israel among the world’s “anybodies.”)
Still, while Obama may have promoted Britain, he didn’t demote Israel. And as John Kennedy made clear more than fifty years ago, the two belong in a league of their own. Just what makes a “special relationship”? It’s more than democracy—the world is full of democracies. It’s not “shared values,” since American values are widely shared around the world. What compels the United States openly to acknowledge two “special relationships” is that two foreign states embody old cultures to which the American public feels profoundly and uniquely indebted.
Given that debt, the U.S. government assumes the obligation to show a bit of respect and work a little harder to make its case, when its biggest-knows-best policies impinge on the interests of those two states. When they dissent, as Britain did over Syria and Israel now does over Iran, it’s their privilege to do so and still win American praise as “special” friends who are entitled to speak their minds freely. For an example of how it’s done, see the Kerry quote above, following the British balk on Syria. So far, there’s no equivalent for Israel over Iran.
The U.S. government’s recognition of a “special relationship” doesn’t create a fact, it acknowledges a debt felt deeply by the American people. John Kerry apparently doesn’t fully grasp that reality in regard to Israel. But then, little in his Mideast diplomacy suggests that reality constrains him anyway.
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The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:
What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.
Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?
Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.
Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.
2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.
“Not worth five cents”
What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.
Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:
President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…
We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…
If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…
The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”
Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.
Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.
I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….
I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.
The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.
The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.
After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing.
There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.
“Too big for business as usual”
In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.
In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”
Views differ differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, should it conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.
And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:
Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.
As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”
That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has urged that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”
Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on September 17.
Michael J. Totten, probably the most widely read blogger on the Middle East, has just published an interview with me, conducted in September.
I sought out Martin Kramer in Jerusalem because I knew he would give me an analysis well outside-the-box on Iranian nuclear weapons. He’s a scholar, not a politician or pundit. And while he certainly has his opinions, he doesn’t conveniently fit into anyone’s ideological box.
I was not disappointed, and I don’t think you will be either. What he has to say is different from anything you’ve read from anyone in the media, including me.
MJT: I assume you read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic this summer. He asked dozens of Israeli decision-makers and analysts if they think Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities, and the concensus seems to be that the odds are greater than fifty percent that it will happen before the middle of summer in 2011. What do you think?
Martin Kramer: It’s in Israel’s interest to convince the world that the decision-makers are leaning in that direction. The idea is to prompt somebody else to take action, in particular the Obama administration. So there’s a debate about whether or not Jeffrey has been spun.
MJT: Yes, and he mentioned that himself.
Martin Kramer: The whole purpose of spinning Jeffrey Goldberg—assuming that’s what happened—was to prod the United States into taking a more forward position. Americans are taking a forward position already, but the idea here would be to multiply the effect.
But I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to all the people Jeffrey talked to, and there are a lot of variables that we don’t know yet. The timeline is open to question. The intelligence is also being debated. So while I wouldn’t put a percentage on it, plans are definitely on the table. If the United States doesn’t act, the moment will come when a decision will have to be made. We don’t know what the arguments will be or in which ways the calculations will shift between now and then. Israel has the option, though, and it’s on the table. I wouldn’t say the odds are greater than fifty percent, but it’s a credible option.
MJT: What do you think Iran would actually do with a nuclear bomb?
Martin Kramer: The Iranians have a structural interest in creating doubt and uncertainty in the Persian Gulf. They have a larger population than any other Gulf state, and they don’t have the share of oil resources that Saudi Arabia has. So their first objective would be to create a climate of uncertainty.
Now, the Persian Gulf has been—since the United States took over from the British—a zone that is essentially under an American security umbrella. It is as crucial to American security as Lake Michigan. The United States doesn’t use most of the oil coming out of the Gulf, but its allies do, so the stability of the Gulf has been associated with a steady flow of oil and a price that moves within a predictable range.
Iran wants to create uncertainty there because oil is the only thing it has. Iran has nothing else—some carpets and pistachio nuts, and that’s it. Their population continues to grow, their needs continue to grow, and their grand ambitions continue to grow. So this, I think, is the first thing they would do with it. All it takes is to create a crisis or a succession of crises.
Iran knows it can’t wrest sole hegemony in the Gulf from the United States, but it wants to create a kind of dual hegemony shared with the United States. Nobody knows where the lines would run, but they wouldn’t run just five to ten miles off the coast of Iran into the waters of the Persian Gulf. Iran would like to see its share extend to both sides of the Gulf, to effectively create a kind of push and shove between the United States and Iran.
A lot of people on the Arab side of the Gulf will say they feel Iran’s breath on their faces. The United States is there now, but the British were there once, too, and now they’re gone. The Persians are always there and will always be there. So we’ll see a lot of hedging. Iran would be perceived as the rising power and the United States a declining power.
Don’t assume that in the Persian Gulf they don’t hear what we say about this. Obama was famously photographed holding a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s book The Post-American World during the election campaign. And don’t assume they don’t hear Americans talking about imperial overstretch.
MJT: You’re talking about the Arabs here.
Martin Kramer: Yes, the Arabs. And this creates a dynamic where if Iran also has nuclear weapons they will increasingly hedge. Things they allow Americans now—such as basing rights for operations in the Persian Gulf and beyond—will become more and more difficult to negotiate if Iran opposes them. So we would see an erosion of the American position in the Persian Gulf.
I think Iran is a lot less interested in justice for the Palestinians than in establishing their command over the gulf they call Persian.
MJT: We call it the Persian Gulf, too.
Martin Kramer: For reasons of geographic exactitude and custom. But Americans don’t mean it should be dominated by Iran.
Martin Kramer: The Iranians do. That’s the longer term objective. And like I said, they’re less interested in justice for the Palestinians than they are in this. They remind me a bit of Saddam Hussein. He said at one point that he would burn half of Israel, yet turned around and instead burned a lot of Kuwait. He wasn’t as interested in being admired by the Palestinians as he was about controlling resources. The Gulf is always very much a resource game. So that would be the first objective of the Iranians. But, of course, Iran also wants to wage proxy wars elsewhere.
MJT: They do have interests in the Levant [the Eastern Mediterranean].
Martin Kramer: They have interests in the Levant, but there’s nothing here that can solve their fundamental problems, which is the mismatch of population and resources. Their game in the Levant is to get around America’s flank. They see Israel as an extension of America, but it’s not their primary area of interest.
Obviously, though, they have an ideological interest here, and they’re willing to fight Israel to the last Lebanese Shiite, but it’s an open question how much they’d be willing to sacrifice themselves directly.
So that’s why I think Iranian nuclear weapons are a world problem as much as, or even more than, they are an Israeli problem.
MJT: The Persian Gulf is certainly more of a world problem than an Israeli problem.
Martin Kramer: Israel has to take it seriously, though. After listening to Iran’s discourse, Israel can’t rule out the possibility that even a small faction could get their finger on the trigger.
It’s a world problem, though, and the world has to ask itself if it can tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran deliberately creating uncertainty, instability, and doubt surrounding the great reservoir of the world’s energy. If a coalition ever comes together to stop Iran, this will be the reason.
MJT: What do you think will happen in the Levant if Iran builds a bomb? Will wars with Hezbollah and Hamas be more or less likely, and peace with the Palestinians more or less likely?
Martin Kramer: Those are two separate issues.
MJT: Yes, but they’ll both be affected.
Martin Kramer: Right. It will certainly create a situation where there would be an expectation among the supporters of Hezbollah and Hamas that Iran would act to come to their defense by using its nuclear capabilities to threaten Israel, but I’m not sure Iran wants to do that. We saw during the last Lebanon war that the timing of the crisis was not to Iran’s liking. The Iranians would not have chosen the summer of 2006 to have Hezbollah in a crisis with Israel.
MJT: They were angry about it.
Martin Kramer: They view the Levant as an arena that can be integrated into their larger strategy, not so they can support a strategy that has been independently formulated by Hezbollah. Hezbollah doesn’t deliberately formulate an independent strategy, but Hamas certainly does.
If Iran decides to take the route that Israel and Japan have taken—either nuclear ambiguity or being one screw away from having a bomb—it would be less subject to moral extortion by the extremists in the Levant who would act unilaterally and expect Iran to come to their aid. So an ambiguous scenario wouldn’t increase the possibility of warfare, but if Iran becomes an explicit and open nuclear state, that’s a different story. Even the United States and the Soviet Union went on nuclear alert over an Arab-Israeli war [in 1973]. But you never know. Knowing in advance that it could lead to that kind of escalation, there might be mechanisms which would kick into action before things reached that level.
I do think a nuclear Iran creates a dynamic where Israel, from a strategic point of view, is compelled to keep a tight grip on Jerusalem and a large swath of the West Bank for the simple reason that it creates a deterrent to an Iranian attack. If all our strategic assets are concentrated on the coastal plain around Tel Aviv, we’re vulnerable. An Iranian ayatollah, Rafsanjani, has already noted that Israel is vulnerable to one strike. So how to we change that calculation?
A big country like the United States disperses its assets across a vast continent when facing nuclear adversaries. A small state can’t do that. But within this small state is a prime Muslim holy place, the liberation of which is championed by the Iranians, and it’s in Jerusalem.
So if Israel faces a real nuclear adversary that threatens its destruction and has Islamic fervor as the basis of its ideology—one that holds up Jerusalem as a symbol—it will make all the sense in the world to concentrate every strategic asset it can right next to it.
The Israeli leadership has built a duplicate command center in Jerusalem exactly like the one it has in Tel Aviv in the Ministry of Defense. So why stop at the top brass and the political leadership if you know that over the long term we’ll face a hostile nuclear adversary? It makes sense to load up Jerusalem with strategic assets which would themselves serve as a deterrent to a future exchange. And it’s a lot easier to do than position submarines in the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean.
So the long term effect would be to make Jerusalem central to Israel not only for political and cultural reasons, but also for strategic reasons. That doesn’t mean all kinds of arrangements can’t be made on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians about the day-to-day running of the city.
In the past, Israel was concerned about holding the Jordan Valley as its eastern front against an invading conventional army. In a nuclear scenario Jerusalem itself would become crucial to preventing an adversary from striking a decisive blow which would render it no longer viable as a state. The idea is to persuade that adversary that even if there is a strike against Israel’s concentration of population, Israel will still remain viable.
MJT: It sounds, though, like this would make resolving the conflict with the Palestinians much more difficult.
Martin Kramer: Yes.
MJT: I figured we’d agree, but can you explain why you think that’s the case?
Martin Kramer: If there’s a shift of Israel’s assets from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the struggle over real estate up here becomes even more acute. There will be less leeway for Israeli concessions. Concessions are difficult to make in any case. Local security issues can be, in one way or another, finessed, but once they play out in this mega arena of confrontation between nuclear states, flexibility diminishes quickly. It would create tremendous pressure on Israel to maintain its right to decide the future of different pieces of turf close to the city.
In the past we had the idea that in order for Israel to remain viable we had to settle the Negev Desert and the Galilee because they have large Arab populations. That was never for religious reasons, it was always for strategic reasons. A nuclear Iran would create strategic calculations for Jerusalem that weren’t there before. There were always other strategic calculations for Jerusalem, but this would create a powerful new one. What would the Israelis and Palestinians discuss at the table once that became a factor?
Linkage is a big issue, but there’s a debate over which way linkage runs. Some say a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would make it much easier for the United States to deal with Iran. But I think the absence of a solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma places a high premium on Israel holding if not the totality of the occupied territories, at least a sizable bit of real estate around Jerusalem as a strategic reserve.
I say this as someone who has always believed there would be some way to compromise over Jerusalem, but when I see the prospect of a nuclear Iran on the horizon threatening Israel, I say to myself that I want as many of Israel’s strategic, demographic, industrial, and technological assets in and around the city as possible.
MJT: So what do you say to people who prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Iranian nuclear weapons?
Martin Kramer: I’d like to know more about how this is supposed to affect Iran’s calculations. I don’t think it will. I think they decided long ago that they want to have a hegemonic role enhanced by nuclear capability. A resolution of the conflict here wouldn’t deter them or persuade them from that ambition. On the contrary, they would believe that Israel would grow stronger and would be even more of a threat than it is today. They’re going to pursue this track no matter what.
The theory is that a resolution to the conflict would make it easier to mobilize Arab support.
Martin Kramer: But how much Arab support does the United States need that it doesn’t already have? Support from the Gulf Arabs is already guaranteed. They see Iran as a threat directed more at them than at anyone else.
MJT: They do.
Martin Kramer: The Arabs who could conceivably be swayed are the Arabs of Egypt and the Levant, but it’s difficult to envision a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would satisfy all of them. Quite a few formulas will alienate lots of them.
And the question is: are they really necessary? Is it that important to have the so-called Arab street? It’s extremely difficult to turn the Arab street into a strategic asset. Nasser tried to do it. Saddam Hussein tried to do it. Ahmadinejad is trying to do it. Erdogan is trying to do it. It’s flattering, I suppose, to have your poster on walls here and there, but nobody has found a way to turn that into something they can use, and I don’t think the United States has much prospect of doing so either. It’s an intangible.
A nuclear Iran, on the other hand, would be tangible. So I think linkage, in fact, runs the other way.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict only has a chance of being resolved if the Levant can be disconnected from the Gulf. So we have to deal with the Iranian issue first.
Look at the history of the Middle East since the creation of Israel to the present. We have had two separate periods. The first lasted from 1948 until the late 1970s. During this period we had a war between Israel and the Arabs every decade. The Gulf region was stable. The British were there. There was always a concern that the conflict between Israel and the Arabs might create a ripple effect in the Gulf, and it finally happened in 1973 when they cut off the oil.
Then the United States changed its policy. The Americans said they were going to support Israel so staunchly that the Arabs would despair of ever achieving victory and would therefore have no choice but to sign peace agreements. And that’s what happened.
Since 1973 there has been no state-to-state war in the Levant. We’ve had intifadas, we’ve had wars between Israel and non-state actors, but we haven’t had the devastation of a state-to-state war. And the oil hasn’t been shut off since then. The oil only gets cut off as an act of solidarity between states, not as an act of solidarity with the PLO, Hamas, or Hezbollah.
So we now have an architecture that works in the Levant, but the Gulf has experienced a succession of wars. The Gulf now destabilizes the region. It has seen the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the latest Iraq war, and who knows what’s to come. And we’ve seen that the instability in the Persian Gulf region has a ripple effect in the Levant. It goes the other way now, and it’s a consequence of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Israel is the stake that has been planted in the Levant. Because it’s powerful, it puts a high premium on rationality among all those who surround it. It serves as the basis for the security architecture.
When the British left the Gulf in the early 1970s, the Americans weren’t in a position to pick it up because they were busy in Vietnam. They had their dual pillars in the Gulf, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but one of them collapsed in 1979. And since that collapse, there has been no equivalent of Israel in the Gulf which the United States could use as a fulcrum around which to organize a region. So the pillar of stability has been the American deployment of its own forces again and again and again. They’ve put millions of boots on the ground, and it’s still not enough.
So here in the Levant we’re feeling the wash from the long-term destabilization of the Gulf. It is America’s primary interest to keep these as two separate regions. The regional hegemon needs to make sure there is no cross-contamination between them.
The regions used to be separate. During the British time, the Levant was run from London and the Persian Gulf from India. The Levant was called the Near East, and the Gulf was called the Middle East. These were two distinct zones. We’ve conflated them in the meantime, and it’s in the interest of the United States to disaggregate them again and to keep them disaggregated. Any attempt to project power from one into the other undermines the position of the regional hegemon. That was true when Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel, and it’s true when Iran sends missiles to Hezbollah. It’s always the radicals who do the bridging. The same was true with Nasser.
And it compels others to do the same. If Israel acts over the head of the United States against Iran, it will be just the latest example. It’s something the United States can’t afford. It means that every time we have a problem in the Levant, it will create problems for the United States in the Gulf, and vice versa.
MJT: How can the United States drive a wedge between the two regions?
Martin Kramer: That’s easy. The U.S. just has to say that it supports its Israeli ally to keep order in its arena, and the U.S. will take responsibility for keeping order in its arena. Just effectively divide responsibility. If the U.S. flags in its resolve to do that, it will be under pressure from those who are tempted to act outside their arena.
My friend Steve Rosen at Harvard once said it would be shameful if the United States were to leave it to Israel to do what it should do in the Gulf. The Persian Gulf is an area of world interest where America plays the guarantor role.
If Israel has to act as the guarantor in the Gulf, it will be a sign that America has dodged its responsibility.
MJT: The Gulf Arab states are not-so quietly hoping Israel will do it if the U.S. does not.
Martin Kramer: They’re looking for someone, anyone, to do it.
MJT: They’re the ones who should be the most worried. We don’t hear much about this from the Arab states in North Africa. They don’t have as many reasons to be concerned.
Martin Kramer: That’s a separate area altogether.
MJT: Egypt is sort of a bridge, though, isn’t it? Cairo sides to a certain extent with Israel against Hamas, and we know Mubarak isn’t thrilled about what’s happening in Tehran.
Martin Kramer: The main problem with Egypt is that its own regional role has been so much diminished. Not only can Egypt no longer project power beyond its borders as it did in Nasser’s days, it can barely control events inside its national borders as we’ve seen in the Sinai. Egypt clearly resents the rise of Iranian power. They don’t necessarily trust anyone as a counterweight. Their approach all along has been that they don’t want a nuclear Iran, but that the way to go about it is to de-nuclearize Israel as part of a grand bargain. They would achieve two goals at once. Both Iran and Israel would be cut down a peg.
MJT: Do you think that’s their sincere approach? Egyptian officials will say this in public, but what do they really think?
Martin Kramer: I think there’s no question they’d like the United States to play the role. They’d much rather have the U.S. take the lead than Israel. They know what everyone knows—the United States would do it much more effectively.
MJT: Of course.
Martin Kramer: There would be nothing worse than a botched or half-complete operation. There’s a very strong preference that the U.S. take care of this, among the Gulf Arabs and the Egyptians.
MJT: And, of course, among the Israelis.
Martin Kramer: It’s absolutely central to the strategy to maintain this division. And the only way to maintain it is for the United States to demonstrate tomorrow that it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons or to allow Israel to act unilaterally. The Gulf is a zone of American dominance, and the only way to assert that is to do what Carter did with the Carter Doctrine, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He said there should be no outside power or local power that is allowed to challenge the United States in the Gulf. And a nuclear Iran clearly crosses that line.
If even Jimmy Carter was compelled to issue a doctrinal statement in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan about the Persian Gulf, one would think that Barack Obama would see the need to do something similar. Obama should especially feel compelled to do so because there’s a question mark there. He should declare the Persian Gulf a nuclear-free zone. It’s too much to talk about the Middle East as a nuclear-free zone at this time, but the Persian Gulf is nuclear-free now, and it’s time for the United States to come out and say it should remain nuclear-free.
MJT: I have a hard time imaging Obama doing anything of the sort.
Martin Kramer: Yeah. Well.
MJT: But I suppose one never knows.
Martin Kramer: It would be an astonishing lapse if a man who promised to roll back nuclear proliferation watched proliferation develop in one of the least stable parts of the world, a place where the United States has only been able to maintain even a modicum of stability by a massive projection of its own forces. The region is of prime interest to the entire world for its energy resources. If it becomes nuclearized, it will be the one thing for which Barack Obama would always be remembered by history, and he would be remembered by history as a failure.