Over the last five years, President Obama has placed a big bet on Moscow and Tehran. He tacked away from the United States’ historic allies in the Middle East — Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — to create a space for the Russians and the Iranians in the regional security architecture. Again and again, that wager has come up craps.
The Iranian nuclear deal was supposed to usher in a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations. Instead, it has spawned a Russian-Iranian alliance. The most powerful ground troops working with the Russian air force to save Syrian President Bashar Assad are under the direct control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards — who also wield inordinate influence, directly and through proxies, over the forces besieging Mosul. In consequence, the Russian-Iranian alliance is well on its way to building a corridor of subservient states stretching from Tehran to Beirut.
Obama has turned a blind eye to the long-term risks of this corridor, because he hopes that Tehran and Moscow will work with him to build a concert system in the Middle East: a club of nations that, united in their enmity to Al Qaeda and Islamic State, will cooperate to contain the worst pathologies of the region.
As the president suggested immediately after signing the Iranian nuclear deal, the club was even supposed to help with challenges beyond Islamic State. “[B]uilding on this deal,” he said, “we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative … in resolving issues like Syria or what’s happening in Iraq, to stop encouraging Houthis in Yemen.”
But Tehran has not moderated — and now the Houthis, with Iranian missiles and no doubt with Iranian encouragement, are launching missiles at U.S. ships in the Red Sea.
Obama is not the first American president to make such a gamble on a longstanding adversary. In 1953, when President Eisenhower assumed office, he, too, sought to stabilize the Middle East by coopting the leading anti-Western power of the day – Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Eisenhower believed that making Egypt a partner in regional security would soften Nasser’s behavior and entice him to organize the Arabs behind the West in the Cold War.
Believing that the association of the United States with Zionism and British imperialism was poisoning American relations with Middle Eastern Muslims, Eisenhower worked to prove to Nasser that the U.S. would help him achieve his nationalist goals, even if those came at the expense of British and Israeli interests. Thus, for example, Eisenhower brought enormous pressure on the British to withdraw their troops from Egypt, where they had enjoyed a continuous presence for many decades.
This policy came to its logical conclusion 60 years ago this week, when, at the climax of the Suez Crisis, Britain, France and Israel launched coordinated attacks against Egypt. Eisenhower’s opposition to his allies was extreme. Working in parallel with the Soviet Union, he brought the British economy to the brink of destruction and demanded that the invaders stop in their tracks and evacuate Egypt immediately. The United States’ allies buckled under the pressure.
Eisenhower’s policy handed Nasser the victory of his life, and the Egyptian leader’s reputation in Arab politics skyrocketed to mythic heights. How did he repay the American president for his support? By becoming more radical, more anti-Western and more pro-Soviet.
Nasser’s rise, like that of Russia and Iran today, had a profoundly destabilizing effect on the Middle East, leading, among other results, to regime change in Syria and Iraq, and the deep penetration of the region by Soviet power.
Richard Nixon, Ike’s vice president, recounted in the 1980s that about a year before his death Eisenhower admitted that his support for Egypt was his major foreign-policy mistake. “[S]aving Nasser at Suez didn’t help as far as the Middle East was concerned. Nasser became even more anti-West and anti-U.S.,” Eisenhower said. He also affirmed, Nixon wrote, “that the worst fallout from Suez was that it weakened the will of our best allies, Britain and France, to play a major role in the Middle East or in other areas outside Europe.”
Eisenhower came to realize that Israel was the United States’ truest friend in the Middle East and that courting adversaries is a very risky business. It is too late for Obama to learn that lesson, but not for his successor, who will have two examples not to live by.