Hillary Clinton's Middle East Legacy
Most of the time foreign policy barely registers on the radar screens of American voters. That's why it's easy for Hillary Clinton fans to promote the false notion that she was a first-rate Secretary of State despite her four-year string of failures.
"I've done what was possible to do," Clinton told reporters just hours before she resigned.
Apparently, it was not possible to strengthen our relationships with allies like Britain, Israel, Canada, Mexico, Poland, and the Czech Republic, but easy to throw the Middle East into turmoil.
Clinton's reset with Russia has been a diplomatic disaster.
The State Department pivot to Asia is a retreat from events that are spinning out of control in the Middle East. Attempting to contain China at the very time our navy is being downsized will result in increased Chinese assertiveness (see here, here, and here) and a further erosion of the trust our friends in the Asia-Pacific region have in us.
In America, Hillary Clinton is touted as a global champion of women's rights. Yet the Arab Spring that took place on her watch has set Muslim women's rights back fifty years in newly-formed Middle East governments dominated by Islamic fundamentalists.
When the U.S. engages in sustained military activity, as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, public interest in foreign policy is heightened somewhat. However, when we launched cruise missiles and used A-10 ground attack aircraft, B-2 stealth bombers, AV-8B Harrier jump-jets, and both F-15E and F-16 fighters in a brief war against Libya in 2011, few Americans bothered to ask why.
The State Department offered a flimsy, largely unsubstantiated justification for U.S. military intervention in Libya, and many people accepted it.
The U.S. role in destabilizing Libya, along with the secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) raids across North Africa authorized by John Brennan -- Barack Obama's then-Deputy National Security Adviser, and now his nominee to head the CIA -- have increased uncertainty in the region.
According to a recent book co-authored by former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb and former Green Beret Jack Murphy, entitled Benghazi: The Definitive Report, a JSOC attack on the Islamic group Ansar al-Sharia days before September 11, 2012 may have triggered a retaliatory strike against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
Michael Kelly, writing for Business Insider, has reported the possible involvement of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens in the covert movement of heavy weapons from Libya to Syrian rebels. Stevens, along with three other Americans, was killed in the Benghazi attack, deaths that Hillary Clinton failed to prevent.
Early in the Syrian uprising, Hillary provided cover for Bashir Assad, calling him a "different leader" and citing "many in Congress" who believe Assad "a reformer." Clinton's reference to Congress was a nod to then-Senator John Kerry, a frequent visitor to Syria, who as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said "Syria is an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region."
Later, when it became impossible to disguise the fact that Assad's idea of reform was to slaughter his opposition, Clinton was unsuccessful in convincing the White House to provide protection or overt support for Syrian nationals opposed to Assad's murderous dictatorial regime. The death toll there is now over 60,000 people and still rising.
After four years of predictably unproductive diplomatic overtures toward Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has just rejected an American proposal for direct one-on-one talks regarding the Persian uranium enrichment program. By going all-in on its race to produce nuclear weapons, Iran's theocratic Shia leaders are betting that they can dramatically change the scope of the deadly gambit they initiated in 1979.
American involvement in, and reaction to the unfolding of the Arab Spring was the result of a major unannounced Middle East policy shift.
David Ignatius, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote that the Obama administration placed a "cosmic wager" on the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, gambling that the governments that replaced the rulers forced from power in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya would enhance U.S. interests in the region.
So far, Egypt's new president Mohammed Morsi has pledged to abide by Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and cooperate with Israel over security in the Sinai Peninsula. Last November, Morsi brokered a truce between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
On the other hand, Mr. Morsi's long history of fervent opposition to America, his enthusiastic embrace of Islamic totalitarianism, and his rabid anti-Semitic rants are troubling. Hoping for the best, our State Department continues to send F-16 war planes, M1A1 tanks, and considerable financial assistance to Egypt, conducting business as usual after throwing Morsi's secular predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, under the bus.
The Real Conflict in the Middle East: Sunni versus Shia
When the world thinks of the Middle East beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it tends to think of oil and the wealth it creates for its producers and users. Oil fuels the growth of developing nations and sustains the economies of countries that already support significant populations of middle-income people.
However, to Islamic jihadists, oil wealth is merely a means to an end. Their goal is to establish a global Islamic regime (dar al-Islam) governed by sharia law. That regime would be incomplete without control of Jerusalem.
The conflict between Israel and Palestinians is now a largely a contrived subterfuge. Peace was possible in the summer of 2000 when Bill Clinton convinced Ehud Barak to accept a two-state, land-for-peace agreement at Camp David.
Yasser Arafat was not permitted to accept this arrangement because it did not require Israel to surrender complete control of Jerusalem, and would have undermined the Islamic pretext used to rally world opinion and justify future wars against Israel like Arab nations waged in 1967 and 1973.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been successfully exploited to mask the real power struggle in the Middle East, which is between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, or more precisely, between Sunni Arabs and the Persian Shia who dominate Iran.
Any discussion of conflict in the Middle East that does not take into consideration the enmity between Sunni and Shia states would be tantamount to ignoring the role of Catholics and Protestants in the dispute over the fate of Northern Ireland.
To be sure, there are disagreements within each of the two major branches of Islam, but none as great as the theological dispute over the identity of the legitimate successor to Mohammed, which is the root of the quarrel between Sunni and Shia sects.
Although Persians have tried to expand their influence in the region by funding and arming militias like Hezbollah, training Hamas militants, and pulling on the strings of puppet states like Syria and Lebanon, they are greatly outnumbered by Sunnis.
Outnumbered though they may be, the influence of Persian Shia would rise considerably if, 1,376 years after the original Muslim conquest of the Old City in 637 AD, and 826 years after Crusaders surrendered it to Saladin in 1187, Iran was instrumental in recapturing Jerusalem.
As a sidebar, it's interesting to note that Saladin, a Sunni of Kurdish ancestry, rose through the ranks of the Egyptian-based Shia Fatimid Caliphate until he managed to take control of the government in 1171 and realign it with the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad.
Iranian Shia leaders believe that Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, born in 869 AD, is the Twelfth Imam, the male descendant of the founder of Islam, Muhammad. They believe that he did not die, but was hidden by God in 941 and will reappear from his Occultation to create a perfect global Islamic caliphate after the world has fallen into chaos.
It does not require a great stretch of imagination to understand why Iranian leaders might believe that by acquiring nuclear weapons, they could induce global bedlam and summon al-Madhi, the ultimate savior of all humanity.
Although the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, has issued a fatwa stating that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam, the Shia doctrine of taqiyya (lying for the purpose of promoting the faith) essentially renders that fatwa null.
The Obama-Clinton Pro-Islamic Shift
There is more to the refusal of President Obama to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel than simply following past precedent. Prior American administrations have declined to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital because they wanted to avoid taking sides in peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinians.
This does not appear to be President Obama's motive.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama declared that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." However, heading into his second term, the gap between President Obama's rhetoric and reality on the ground is growing wider.
The nominations of John Kerry for Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense signal a shift in President Obama's position on Jerusalem, and suggest an intention to further tilt American Middle East foreign policy in favor of Sunni Islamists.
Mr. Obama's pro-Islamic policies during the last four years have certainly not hurt him politically. He won 69% of the Jewish vote in the last election despite bullying Israel, being openly disrespectful of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and declining an invitation to visit Israel during his first term.
President Obama has clearly done his political math. The Muslim population in the U.S. has tripled during the last decade to almost 3 million people and will continue to grow. Globally, there are approximately 14 million Jews and 1.6 billion Muslims, 90% of whom are Sunni.
It would be difficult to underestimate the lengths that very wealthy and devout Sunnis would be willing to go to influence American foreign policy in the Middle East. No investment would be too great if it resulted in America standing down as Al Saud patiently maneuvers to gain control of Jerusalem, which along with Mecca and Medina, are the three holiest sites in Islam.
A Nuclear Wild Card in the Middle East
A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a very serious threat, not only to Israel, but to its Arab neighbors as well. Everyone but Chuck Hagel seems to have gotten the memo declaring that the official policy of the Obama administration is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons rather then attempt to contain it afterwards.
George Kennan-style containment is at best a temporary damage-control measure when two rational parties are involved. It is a suicidal strategy when one of the parties is led by fanatical Twelvers who are actively working to bring about Armageddon.
Last September -- well before Iran's recent announcement that it has begun installing advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear plant -- Mr. Netanyahu told the U. N. General Assembly that by the summer of 2013, Iran could have enough highly enriched material to produce a single nuclear bomb.
If Israel feels compelled to act alone to prevent its annihilation -- with or without the tacit approval of the U.S. -- and manages to set back Iran's nuclear weapons program, there would be ancillary global side benefits, including postponement of possible Saudi Arabian plans to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent, most likely via Pakistan.
Direct U.S. involvement in a successful military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would benefit Israel, but perhaps even more important to the Obama administration, it would also benefit Saudi Arabia by at least temporarily defanging the Kingdom's most powerful rival in the region.
Delaying Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would help ensure that any near-term conflict that might arise in the region would remain limited to the use of conventional weapons or shadow clashes like the suspected 2012 Iranian cyber-attack that corrupted 30,000 computers at Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil company.
The prospect of mushroom clouds rising over the Middle East understandably makes oil importing nations very uneasy.
If, however, Iran -- the fourth largest exporter of oil in the world -- does manage to acquire nuclear weapons, at minimum it can be expected to threaten the use of that capability to pull Iraq under its nuclear umbrella. According to a recent article in the Washington Times, Iraq is now the world's third largest oil exporter and has the potential to surpass Saudi Arabia.
Control of Iraq would give Iran game-changing influence over oil exports to a very long list of countries that includes China, members of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Africa.
The global consequences of a successful oil related power-play by a nuclear armed Iran could be staggering.
Judging by the constant flow of criticism of Israel from the U. N., much of the world would shed crocodile tears if Israel were to disappear and Jerusalem reverted to Islamic custody, as long as the flow of oil from the Middle East remained reasonably priced and uninterrupted.
If world opinion -- and not deeply held principles -- guides U.S. foreign policy during the next four years, oil will continue to flow to the nations that demand it, even if it means the dissolution of Israel.
Assuming that Hillary decides to run for president in 2016 and is questioned about her roll in the unraveling of the Middle East, will she once again say "What does it really matter at this point?" And if she does, will American voters who have little interest in foreign policy and even less in the fate of Israel agree with her?
Thomas Archimedes Oakes is a pseudonym. The author is an unaffiliated analyst who wishes to remain anonymous.