The violent reaction around the world against Israel’s intervention in the Turkish Flotilla has cooled down but the ramifications of this incident will continue to spread. We may well look back at this incident as the beginning of a new unstable period in the Middle East.
The old American posture in the Middle East was based on two major tenets:
- Israel as America’s first and foremost ally in the Middle East and
- Reliance on Saudi Arabia as the geo-strategic center of the Middle East surrounded by allied Egypt, Iraq & Jordan
America’s military venture into Iraq made this geo-strategic center virtually impregnable. With a strong center, the Gulf emirates of Bahrain, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar were able to develop their own business friendly economies and societies.
In to this stable situation stepped the Obama Administration with its own initiatives and plans. President Obama believed that the anger of Muslims against America was a grave danger and his number one priority was to become friendly to Muslims. But he did not propose to do so by becoming more friendly with Saudi Arabia, the religious center of Sunni Islam. Instead, he chose a three-pronged strategy:
- President Obama announced his plan to withdraw from Iraq.
- He anointed Turkey as his main ally in the Middle East.
- President Obama made it his mandate to create peace between Palestinians & Israel. Apparently, his belief was that solving this crisis will win America friends all over the Muslim world.
The Middle East, America and the World have now begun to realize the long term ramifications of this Obama strategy.
The Middle East
The Middle East can be thought of as four distinct areas:
- Turkey to the north-west, a strong non-Arab emerging power with dreams of being the successor to the Ottoman Empire which ruled the Middle East;
- Iran, another strong non-Arab emerging power with its own history of ruling the Middle East. The Middle East has been subject to the military and cultural struggle for dominance between Iran & Turkey for centuries;
- Core Arab Middle East of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Jordan;
- Gulf Emirates of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi & Dubai with their history of negotiating their survival by becoming suzerains of the dominant military power in the region.
Before, the only danger to Middle Eastern stability came from the ambitions of Iran. But as long as American forces remained in Iraq, there was little Iran could do to the Core Middle East. In fact, the ambitions of Iran made the American role in the Core Middle East even more secure and necessary. Under American military umbrella, the Gulf Emirates became economically advanced and rich.
President Obama’s anointment of Turkey as America’s core ally changed the Middle East situation. The new Turkey wishes to become the successor to the Ottoman Empire, the empire that occupied and ruled the Core Middle East for centuries. This new Turkey signalled its ambitions in the Core Middle East by its support of the Turkish Flotilla into Gaza and its vituperative condemnation of Israel’s military intervention.
In doing so, Turkey has changed the geopolitical calculus of the Middle East. It has awakened Iran to a new & formidable challenge to Iranian ambitions from a historical enemy. In addition, the Core Middle East has been awakened to a renewed sense of danger from an old empire that ruled them with an iron hand.
This disquiet can be seen by the statement by Hamas that Turkey should get involved in Gaza in cooperation with Egypt. This is from Hamas, the major beneficiary of the Turkish flotilla. Turkey is fine but Hamas cannot survive without Egypt, the giant neighbor of Gaza. This Hamas statement demonstrates the deep concern that Turkey has aroused in Egypt.
Look at the map below. If Turkey can create such concern in far away Egypt, how deep must be the concern of Iraq, Syria, Jordan & Saudi Arabia?
(source – wikipedia)
Iraq as America’s Tibet
Look at the map above. America’s military presence in Iraq provides America with a controlling position in the Middle East. From Iraq, America can neutralize the expansionist intentions of both Iran & Turkey. America can protect the oil fields of the entire region and it can dominate the Persian Gulf from the land as well as from the sea.
The last military venture that yielded so many benefits was China’s occupation and annexation of Tibet. Without Tibet, China had no presence and no hope of a presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran. With Tibet, China instantly became a power that influences Iran, Afghanistan & Pakistan. Today, America has to plead with China to support the sanctions against Iran. Israel has to seek China’s support against Iran. All this is due to China’s occupation of Tibet.
We think America’s military venture into Iraq is as important to America as China’s venture into Tibet has proved to be for China. But there is a huge difference between the two.
America’s venture into Iraq has brought stability, democracy and hope for economic growth to Iraq. In contrast, the annexation of Tibet by China has been a disaster for the Tibetan people, a disaster that has been described by the Dalai Lama as cultural genocide.
How important is American presence in Iraq? The best way to answer the question is to visualize a post-American Iraq and Middle East.
The Middle East after America leaves Iraq
The World remains focused on Iran as the main post-America problem for the Middle East. We think that the real instability in the Middle East is likely to come from Turkey. This was the topic of a Washington Post article which quoted Henri Barkley of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about Turkey’s leaders “They want to be the big kid on the block. They have essentially a very inflated sense of their own importance.”
We think the next few years will see an increased level of competition between Turkey and Iran for influence in the Core Middle East. As long as American forces remain in Iraq, this struggle will remain muted. But once American forces leave Iraq, the gloves will be off. Iraq will become the theater of a real struggle for supremacy in the Middle East. It is likely that Iraq might end be split between a Shia Iraq dominated by Iran and a Sunni Iraq dominated by Turkey.
The combination of Iran & Shia Iraq will put enormous pressure on neighboring Bahrain (with 60% Shia Population) and on Kuwait. The next step would be pressure from the south on the southern Shia regions of Saudi Arabia.
The combination of Turkey and Sunni Iraq will put enormous pressure on Syria to toe the Turkish line. The next step would be to pressure Saudi Arabia from the north.
Saudi Arabia, the center & the jewel of the Middle East, will be subject to this pincer movement from both the north and the south. Who will Saudi Arabia turn to? Egypt is behind Saudi Arabia and remains underdeveloped with a weak military. Jordan is too small and weak to count.
Ironically, Israel is the only country that can act as the military protector of the Core Middle East once America is gone. Is this why Saudi Arabia, Jordan & Egypt have refrained from criticizing Israel in harsh terms about its intervention in the Turkish flotilla?
The Islam Issue & the Palestinian Problem
We believe that President Obama has made two major blunders in his formulation of Middle East policy. First blunder was to assume that Islam, as a religion, is the crux of America’s problem. We believe that Islam the religion is the medium through which anti-American struggle is waged but Islam the religion is not the main problem.
Just look at the Middle East. Every country we have discussed is Muslim. Turkey and the Core Middle East are all Sunni Muslims. But these are different ethnicities. The Core Middle East is Arab but Turkey is not. Arabic & Turkish are completely different languages with different cultural and ethnic roots. Iran is ethnically Persian and not Arab. Its language is Indo-European and totally different from Arabic ethnically and culturally.
Getting closer to Islam the religion would not help America navigate the ethnic, cultural and historical quagmires of the Middle East. In fact, we think America is trusted because America is a foreign country with a foreign religion. We think every Middle Eastern country wants and would want America to stay in the Middle East as long as America itself does not want to stay for ever.
The second blunder has been President Obama’s focus on the Palestinian issue. Frankly, no leader in the Core Middle East cares much about the Palestinians. They simply don’t want the Palestinian problem to become visible in the news media. This is because this issue resonates in the so-called Arab street even though no portion of the Arab-street has any desire to make any sacrifices to the Palestinian cause.
Frankly, the Palestinian issue seems to be more alive in the hearts and minds of the Obama Adminstration than any leader in the Middle East. Any one of the rich Oil countries in the Middle East can solve the poverty and economic hardships of the Palestinian people. They don’t want to because they do not care and because they think the issue remains a millstone around Israel’s neck and a real impediment to a potentially expansionist Israel.
As far as Gaza is concerned, Egypt can solve it by offering to take over Gaza. We believe Israel would be happy to hand over Gaza to Egypt. Egypt has no such intentions because Egypt already has a terrorism and extremism problem inside Egypt. They have no wish to assimilate Hamas into Egypt and create a domestic monster.
There was no reason whatsoever for President Obama to step into the Palestinian issue. But he did and he did it in the dumbest way possible by making Israel the public enemy of the Peace Process.
The Reality of Israel
Israel remains the most publicly hated country in the Middle East. But it remains the most necessary country in the Middle East. Ironically, the military dominance of Israel may be one of the stabilizing constants of the Middle East.
Think of post-American Middle East. If Turkey invades neighboring Syria, which is the only country Syria can look to for help and protection? Saudi Arabia & Jordan are too weak. The only possible answer is Israel. Frankly, Israel would have no choice but to intervene militarily to protect Syria from Turkey. Because Turkish occupation of Syria would bring the Turkish army to Israel’s doorstep, something Israel cannot accept.
If Iran invades Kuwait or Bahrain after America leaves Iraq, which country has the military power to intervene before Iran occupies these emirates. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan? No. Again the only answer is Israel. Is this why the Gulf Emirates maintain friendly relations with Israel?
A smart Israel could end up playing the role England played in continental Europe. With its dominant navy and strong military, England could intervene into any continental European conflict when needed. Israel with its dominant air force and strong military can do the same in the Middle East. England was always the outsider the way Israel is in the Middle East. England never had any intention to stay in continental Europe as an occupier. This is why England was trusted by the smaller European countries. Israel has no intention to stay in any other part of the Middle East as an occupier. This is why Israel may end up being trusted by the smaller Middle Eastern countries.
England made sure that none of the main continental powers of Germany, France and Russia ever became strong enough to dominate continental Europe. England did so by diplomatically and occasionally militarily. Israel needs to make sure that neither Iran nor Turkey become strong enough to dominate the Core Middle East.
The question is whether Israel is crafty enough or diplomatically skilled enough to play this role. To fulfill this role, Israel needs to grow into a more mature society and shed its almost craven emotional dependence on publicly visible American goodwill.
The Obama Administration for its part has to recognize that Israel is fundamentally its most important ally in the Middle East and the only ally that can always be counted upon. Once he recognizes it, President Obama needs to make this known clearly, unambiguously and publicly.
This is the only way for the Obama Administration to extricate itself from its current Middle East policy. If it does not, we fear the Middle East will become chronically unstable and possibly find itself in a region wide ethnic and military conflict within a decade of America’s departure from Iraq.
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