A Zero-Sum Game

This is Martin Kramer’s contribution to a roundtable on “Obama in the Mideast” organized by Lee Smith for Tablet Magazine. Other contributers: Elliott Abrams, Ramin Ahmadi, Andrew Exum, Dore Gold, Robert Malley, Lokman Slim, and Jacob Weisberg. Read in full here and here.

“Power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” Thus spoke Barack Obama to the U.N. General Assembly last September. This must rank with George W. Bush’s “bring ’em on” as an invitation to America’s adversaries to defy it. Bush later expressed regret that he said his words, noting that “in certain parts of the world they were misinterpreted.” Obama likewise may rue having spoken his.

In the Middle East, power is a zero-sum game, domination by a benevolent hegemon creates order, and the regional balance of power is the foundation of peace. It’s the pax Americana, and while it may be stressful to uphold it, the alternative is more stressful still. And as the impression of American power wanes, we are getting a foretaste of “post-American” disorder. A struggle has begun among the middle powers—Iran, Turkey, and Israel—to fill the vacuum. Iran floods Lebanon with rockets, Turkey sends a flotilla to Gaza, Israel sends an assassination squad to Dubai—these are all the signs of an accelerating regional cold war. Each middle power seeks to demonstrate its reach, around, above, and behind the fading superpower.

The response in Washington is to huff and puff, imposing settlement “freezes” and “crippling” sanctions. This is the illusion of power, not its substance. The Obama Administration is bringing the United States out of the Middle East, to a position from which it believes it can “contain” threats with diplomacy, deterrence, and drones. As the United States decamps, its allies will feel insecure, its enemies emboldened. The Middle East’s stress test has begun.