How Obama can help bring the Middle East back from the brink

The people of the world can live together in peace.  We know that is God's vision.  Now that must be our work here on Earth.

President Obama, Cairo, June 4th 2009

Detached from bold strategy, eloquent words are only a distraction.

Nearly five years ago, President Obama addressed an assembly of Cairo students and promised a ‘new beginning’ in America’s relationship with the Muslim world. Full of confidence and faced with an adoring crowd, Obama promised things would be better. The President’s speech offered an overarching promise -- a more hesitant America would facilitate a more hopeful Middle East.

But that was 2009.

Now, a harder reality is displacing former hope.

Syria is defined by chaos. Iraq and Lebanon are on the verge of civil war. A modern day sectarian holocaust beckons. In order to prevent this catastrophe, America must act with urgent expediency.

First, Obama must reverse the regional trend of political strategy pursued via proxy - use of terrorist groups to serve state agendas. This is a disease that afflicts US allies and enemies alike.

Petrified by Iran’s seemingly inexorable rise, the Sunni Arab kingdoms are increasingly throwing caution to the wind. They’re retrenching into the embrace of base sectarian (il)logic - Shiites are the enemy. Consider the House of Saud. At present, Saudi Arabia is funneling money and fighters to the Syrian rebellion. While a good measure of this support flows to more-moderate groups, hyper-sectarian jihadists are also beneficiaries. It isn’t just the Saudis. Qatar operates another major supply train to radical formations, as do donors from the UAE. We’re seeing the consequences of these callous choices. Moderate rebel forces are rapidly being displaced by their extremist counterparts.

Then there’s Iran.

Desperate to maintain their Assad-born portal to Hizballah, the Iranians have gone all in against the Syrian rebellion. To make matters worse, the essence of the Iranian regime means that Ayatollah Khamenei has few qualms about the wholesale slaughter of Syrian Sunnis. As Martin Chulov reports, Hizballah commanders similarly have little doubt that their Syrian efforts are both ordained and existential –Sunnis are the enemy.

Obama’s policies have helped energize these contesting hatreds. The Sunni Arab kingdoms have come to believe that Obama lacks the resolve to deter Iran and that they must thus fill the vacuum. Conversely, the Iranians have come to believe that American timidity offers their revolutionary project an unprecedented opening.

It shouldn’t be this way. For a start, Obama must reassure the Sunni monarchies of his commitment to their security. Sending Hagel and Kerry on PR trips isn’t enough. In the same vein, diplomacy via CNN has caused a depreciation of high level trust. To stop the rot, Obama must assert his commitment to the longstanding US ‘security umbrella’. Obama must assert that he hasn’t acquiesced to an Iranian nuclear weapon (the outcome US allies most fear). Subsuming all of this, Obama must regain his credibility. Only then will he have a chance of persuading American allies to move away from their jihadist flirtations.

At the same time, Obama must get over Rouhani. Regardless of whether the interim nuclear deal is folly or political mastery (only time will tell), the President cannot tolerate an unrestrained expansion of Iranian extremism.  Obama must accept that which US Intelligence will have ensured he already knows- that Rouhani has little control over the hardline Revolutionary Guards. Obama must send a clear message to Tehran -- that if necessary, he will use force to defend American interests. As Dexter Filkins explains, Iran pays close strategic attention to the confidence of American power.

Yet Obama can’t limit his attention to the grand power struggle between Iran and the Sunni kingdoms. Because of the emotive history that defines its nature; Islamic sectarianism is self-perpetuating and unbound from geographical limitation. So follows the physical reality; the more bloody sectarianism becomes in one place, the further afield it spreads and the worse regional security then becomes. In Lebanon, sectarian tensions are exploding. Opponents of Iran are once again openly assassinated. Attacks targeting Hizballah and Iran are also a regular occurrence. In Iraq, Sunni fury at the perceived sectarianism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has incubated the revival of a ferocious transnational insurgency. As the ISW’s Jessica Lewis explains, the new insurgency is capable and determined.

Again however, Obama has remedial options.

In the run up to the looming Geneva II conference (concerning the Syrian Civil War), Obama should draw scrutiny towards Hizballah intimidation tactics in Lebanon. At Geneva, the worst possible scenario would be one in which Assad purchases the legitimation of his regime under the pretense of an anti-terrorism unity with the west. Such an outcome would only catalyze Iranian centered extremism.

The President should forge a new understanding with Prime Minister Maliki -- caveating renewed US security support on Maliki’s transition away from political persecution and towards national reconciliation.

Obama should provide greater aid to regional institutions that confront terrorist organizations. For example, Obama should join with Saudi Arabia’s recent increase in aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces. In addition, Obama should ramp up US Military/Intelligence operations against transnational jihadist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). At a basic level, organizations like ISIL are the committed adversaries of regional stability. More than that, they’re avowed enemies of humanity. They must find no safe haven.

Ultimately, Obama must build a comprehensive strategy that’s astute to an exceptional crisis. His Presidential responsibility does not afford him the luxury of easy choices. Just as the neo-conservatives failed in the folly of their inexhaustible arrogance, Obama’s legacy now rests in the choice to change course.