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Old Foes, New Allies?

First published on Jerusalem Post

During the past few months, we have witnessed what can only be perceived as a strategic change in U.S. foreign and defense policy. Part of the strategic change is expressed through new alliances, but mainly in reassessment of military needs and capabilities as well as the will to combat terrorism. If past goals were to win the battle against global terrorism on their turf, it would seem today’s goals are to contain and engage by ethnic divide.

The United States has changed the range of threats it faces; if in the past 15 years Iran and the Hezbollah were at the center of the threat matrix, which also included global jihad groups and rogue states, today they are viewed by the U.S. intelligence comunity as a threat only to U.S. allies and maybe a potential partner in fighting these organization and reigning in these regimes in the name of stability.

Article by Reuters and other major media outlets indicate the U.S. has conducted secret talks with Iran dating back to March 2013 behind the backs of their key allies in the region, specifically Saudi Arabia and Israel. The revelation of these contacts has exposed a crisis of confidence expressed through drastic statements by those affected, including the threat of a self sustained attack against the Iranian nuclear program made by Israel and a halt to cooperation in counter-terrorism operations made by the Saudi government. The US government responded by well place leaks to the media, making its own statements and threats regarding the Palestinian negotiations and re-exposing Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks. The issue of the involvement of high ranking Saudi officials in the attacks has been discussed in the past, raising questions about the current timing of the reemergence of the issue. Recently, the Saudi monarchy has awarded a $3 billion grant to the Lebanese military, almost twice its annual budget, with the condition that it not be spent on US hardware.

The issue of the United States alliance with Saudi Arabia is also relevant to the ongoing Syrian civil war. Prior to September 2013, the U.S. has demanded that Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, be removed from power, and has even considered the use of power to punish the Syrian regime for the use of chemical weapons. That position has been coordinated with the Saudis and includes the training and arming of moderate rebel forces. However, U.S. reluctance to use force and the halt to supplies of technological means to rebel forces, because of the fear that the supplies would fall into the wrong hand, has pushed the Saudi leaders to announce the formation a joint group for most Islamic organizations (excluding ISIL and Jahabat a-Nusra). The change in US strategy has also led to the west turning its back on its pre-condition to unseat Assad.

Another change is the U.S. approach towards Hezbollah. The past few months have seen an increase in reports in Middle Eastern media outlets such as the Kumaiti Al-Rai and al-Anbaa, regarding contacts between the US government and the Hezbollah organization. Some of these reports go as far as to describe direct talks between the two. Moreover, during the summer months, there have been several reports regarding indirect CIA warnings to Hezbollah of pending attacks against it. Finally, U.S. State Department spokespersons have reiterated that they have no objection to Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization, taking part in a new Lebanese government if it contributes to the stability of the state. This response is in opposition to an earlier statement dating back to the previous government formation in June 2011.

Towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the United States has come to understand and reluctantly accept the fact that it cannot reach a military decision in its theaters of operation. One has only to observe what is happening today in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise in radical Islamic activity, in order to comprehend the failure of U.S. strategy. Even though superior in both intelligence and military capabilities, recent U.S. governments have been incapable of translating battlefield achievements to successes in state and diplomatic arenas. It is possible that arrogance and naivety associated with obsession for democracy have led to these failures and the collapse of moderate regimes. Whereas Iraq is witnessing the strengthening of Islamist forces, including the recapture of territories, Afghanistan will probably share a similar fate with the Taliban retaking control of the country. Similar events have transpired in Egypt, where instead of supporting the ousting of an extreme Muslim Brotherhood government by pro-Western forces, the U.S. has opted to punish those forces for using non-democratic methods.

Another indication of the weakening of the U.S. is its reluctance to use military force or impose a viable threat to renegade countries. Two distinct examples are North Korea and Syria. The lack of military threat towards the North Korean nuclear program has encouraged the Pyongyang regime to conduct a number of nuclear experiments, continue to develop its ballistic missile capabilities, and raise the level of threats and tension towards South Korea. On the Syrian front, the Obama administration is wise enough to deliver an actual threat towards Syria that at least achieved an agreement to disarm its chemical weapons. However, this should be viewed as a failure as the disarmament deal does not include Syria’s biological weapons and program, there are no guarantees all chemical weapons will be destroyed, and most importantly, a recognized government has gone unpunished after using weapons of mass destruction.

In conclusion, its inability to reach a military decision and political weakness have led the Obama administration to change its approach towards the Middle East and strategic partners. From a policy of full involvement and attempts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the United States is shifting to a policy of containment and disengagement. From supporting and encouraging moderate and friendly regimes, it has modified its goal to seeking new alliances that share a common fear of radical Sunni Islam. The United States under the Obama administration hasn’t learned from the mistakes of the first Afghan war in the 1980’s and wrongly believes that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is the proper approach to foreign policy. Are we at the gateway to a new global conflict similar to 1913 during the first presidency of Woodrow Wilson? History will be the judge.