U.S. News & World Report

Obama Is Leaving A Vacuum in the Middle East

Former Senior Fellow

While the Obama White House attempts to spin the president's recent Middle East trip as a diplomatic success, in reality it provided more evidence of how irrelevant the United States has become to the byzantine politics of the region. The White House claims that President Obama orchestrated a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel after a period of tension. But the president's trip ignored three deeper and more profound subterranean shifts in Middle East power alignments to fill the void left by the American strategic departure from the region.

These three shifts include the realization of Kurdish ambitions for more autonomy across the area, the new Greek-Israeli-Cypriot relationship, and the commercial and diplomatic alliance of Saudi Arabia and Turkey as a counter to rising Iranian influence.

The spin managers claim President Obama helped Turkey and Israel repair broken diplomatic relations caused by Turkey's shipment of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza in 2010 and Israeli military intervention to stop the aid during which several Turkish aid workers were killed. Last week, Israeli President Netanyahu apologized for the attack and agreed to make payments to the families of the aid workers who were killed.

The two governments have agreed to restore full diplomatic relations, but this does not restore the military alliance between Israel and Turkey that had been a pillar of Israeli and Turkish national security policy. In any case, the rapprochement began unraveling even as it was being announced, as hardline Islamic elements in Turkey reacted negatively to the policy and the Erdogan government began backing away from it.

The president's trip missed the mark on what is actually going on in the Middle East right now. First, long term Kurdish nationalist efforts to achieve greater autonomy in the region are on the rise. While the long term historical consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq will not be clear for several decades (if that), one of the shorter-term affects has been the creation of a virtually autonomous Kurdish Republic in northern Iraq (the beginning of which predates the Iraq war of ten years ago) whose economy is booming and influence rising—a prosperous island of stability in a sea of regional chaos.

The precipitous American military and diplomatic withdrawal from Iraq ordered by the Obama Administration has limited what the United States could do to prevent the breaking apart of the Iraqi state, of which the Kurdish autonomous state is only one manifestation. The refusal of the Obama administration until recently to intervene to counter the dissolution of Syria as a state has allowed the Kurdish-Syrian minority in the northeast to form its own Kurdish semi-autonomous region, with the Iraqi-Kurdish state as a role model. The Turkish government has brokered a peace agreement with the militant Kurdish nationalist movement called the PKK, which brought to an end decades of civil conflict. Part of that peace agreement allows greater autonomy for the Kurdish minority within the Turkish state.

But it is in Iran that Kurdish ambitions are growing most militant. Following the Iranian Islamist revolution and ouster of the Shah, Iranian-Kurds began a separatist campaign from their redoubt in the northern mountains. The Kurds remain a fiercely secular force against the rising tide of Islamist sentiment in the Muslim world, and the Iranian clerics responded to this secularism and separatist movement by arresting and executing their leaders and fighters (many of whom are women). The conflict reached a climax on September 17th, 1992, when Iranian government agents arranged a meeting in Berlin with top leaders of the Iran-Kurds, supposedly to begin negotiations to resolve the conflict. The meeting turned out to be an ambush in which three Iranian Revolutionary Guards broke into the meeting and murdered four Kurds, three of whom were among the most powerful leaders of the rebellion.

The Kurdish-Iran movement declined after this incident until 2004—led by its new party called the Party for Free Life (PJAK)—and became active in pressing the Kurdish separatist agenda. The Iranian government has been unable to stamp out the movement because of its deep roots in the Kurdish community. The Iranians have accused the Turks of supporting the PJAK, while the Turks have made the same accusation of Iranian support for the PKK. While Ankara has made peace with its Kurdish minority, Tehran has not with the Iranian Kurds and that may be a source of instability in the region over the long term.

Second, in the absence of a stabilizing U.S. presence in the region, the bitter rivalry between the Ottoman Turkish Empire and the Persian Iranian Empire, which dates back centuries, is now reasserting itself. Turkey fears that Iranian adventurism and its development of nuclear weapons will destabilize the region, as do Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which is particularly vulnerable to Iran's adventurism. Between 10 and 15 percent of the population of the Saudi Kingdom is Shia (Iran is the center of Shia Islam) and they live in the oil rich northeast region closest to Iran.

The ease with which the Obama Administration dispensed with Hosni Mubarak during the uprising in Egypt after Mubarak had supported American policy for three decades shocked the Saudi royal family, which now realizes the United States is no longer a reliable ally and is making other arrangements to protect its interests. Saudi investments are pouring into Turkey to cement a Sunni alliance of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to counter growing Iranian influence.

The effective end of the Israeli-Turkish military alliance has set in motion a third realignment of interests in the region. Greece has had proper but cool relations with Israel since it's founding, and only established full diplomatic relations in 1991. Greek interests were aligned with Arab states, while Turkey saw its interests aligned with Israel. Turkish relations with Arab states warmed as the moderately Islamic government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan overtly supported the Palestinians and challenged Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank.

As Israeli-Turkish relations soured, both Greece and Israel saw a realignment of their interests, which encouraged a stronger relationship. Greece and Turkey have had tense and, at times, hostile relations for much of the twentieth century over many issues, but mostly recently over control of Greek Islands in the Aegean, over which Turkey has refused to acknowledge Greek sovereignty. In 1996, Greece and Turkey nearly went to war in one of these disputes, which was only stopped by last minute United States diplomatic intervention.

More recently, Turkey has disputed Greek claims over recent discoveries of large oil and gas deposits in Greek territorial waters, along with discoveries in Greek Cypriot and Israeli territorial waters. Over the past year, there have been more Israeli business delegations visiting Greece than during the previous five decades combined. The Israeli Embassy in Washington recently hosted a reception for Greek-American leaders, and the Greek-American community has recently highlighted the efforts of the Greek Orthodox Church during the Nazi occupation to protect Greek Jews.

The international system's equilibrium has grown increasingly fragile as the western alliance—which acted as a stabilizing force around the world—grows more inward-looking and less willing to take the lead in crisis management. Other countries take messages from what American political leaders say, how the U.S. government spends its money (or doesn't) on its international obligations, and how it responds to threats to its own interests. The message America's leaders are sending around the world to friends and adversaries alike is that by deliberate choice the United States has decided to withdraw from its leadership position in the international system.

No policy pronouncement by President Obama has more strikingly summarized America's new role than his promise to "lead from behind," an oxymoron if there ever was one. The accelerated U.S. withdrawal of its military forces from the Middle East and Central Asia, drastic DOD budget cuts—both those planned by the Obama Administration and unplanned through the sequestration debacle—and the confused and incoherent U.S. response to the Arab uprisings since 2010 have damaged regional actors' views of America's reliability and predictability.

To make matters even worse, the Obama Administration policy of the so-called Asia pivot made explicit to Middle East powers what had been implied earlier: that the U.S. had chosen to make an exit from the region. The Europeans, preoccupied with their economic crisis and governance problems, have continued to cut their defense and foreign aid budgets and are increasingly irrelevant to what is happening in the Middle East.

The international system abhors a vacuum and the vacuum the west has created in the Middle East is being filled by regional powers without the military, economic or diplomatic clout to drive the course of events to stabilize the regional structure of power—the best example of which is the debacle in Syria (which is now destabilizing Lebanon and Jordan). The subterranean shifts of power now spreading across the Middle East are increasing the risk of regional wars, which the United States will be unable to stop. Since World War II, the peace and stability of the world order has depended on a strong America in a leadership position, which is now unraveling by the deliberate choice of Washington policymakers. The price of these choices will be higher than even America's past critics and current adversaries understand.