President Barack Obama, in criticizing Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s conquest of the Crimean Peninsula, described Putin as standing “on the wrong side of history.” This curious and arresting phrase has become a frequent cliché among western liberals.
It is testimony to their self-confidence, and to their belief that they have accurately read the deeper currents and inevitable direction of human affairs. These, in the view of the president and his supporters, point inexorably toward greater cooperation between peoples; a decline in attachment to particularist ethnic, national or religious histories; and a decline in the use of force to settle disputes between states.
The unspoken assumption behind all this, of course, is that being on the right side of history also means accepting the unmatched dominance of the U.S. in global affairs, and in turn the unchallengeable domination of the U.S. by people supporting the particular progressive world view of the president and his supporters.
That is, Obama and his supporters use the word “history” to refer to themselves.
The problem with all this is that in the last five years, many players on the world stage have learned that if “history” and “Obama” are synonyms, being on the wrong side of Obama is a not particularly uncomfortable or worrying place to be. So the threat of it has rather less impact than the president might hope or assume.
This is not a marginal point. Rather, it is the key factor defining the direction of strategic affairs globally, and in the Middle East in particular.
Let’s examine the record:
In the Middle East, declining respect for being on the wrong side of the United States is the single factor which underlies the direction of events in the key conflict zones of the region.
In Egypt, the current de facto administration of General Abd al Fattah al-Sisi came into being on July 3, 2013, as a result of a military coup against a U.S.-supported Muslim Brotherhood government. Sisi as of now appears to command immense popularity among the Egyptian population.
He has paid no apparent price for directly challenging the will of the U.S. administration. He is likely to win the Egyptian presidency this year and to set in motion another long period of de facto military rule in Egypt. He is also in the process of reviving Cairo’s relations with Russia.
In Syria, an anti-American dictatorship is holding its ground, despite ostensible U.S. support for its overthrow, and despite the dictator Assad’s responsibility for the deaths of over 140,000 of his countrymen over the last three years. Iranian and Russian aid to the Assad regime have proved decisive. Bashar Assad was smart enough to stick with allies who would stick by him.
In Iran, the regime has stage-managed the emergence of a supposed “moderate” president. The true powers in that country, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, have as a result obtained sanctions relief. This in turn is enabling them to continue to develop their missile program and uranium enrichment capacity undisturbed. They are also proceeding apace with their program of regional outreach, and are currently aligned with the dominant forces in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
But even among the supposed allies of the U.S. in the region, it has become apparent that defying the will of the patron carries no particular price. The Saudis united with their Gulf allies to crush an Obama-supported uprising against the emir of Bahrain in 2011.
More recently, the Saudis have pursued their own policy of arms supply to Islamist and jihadi rebels in northern Syria. In February, it became clear that the kingdom intends to supply Chinese-made shoulder fired anti-aircraft systems to rebel elements in Syria. This is in direct contravention of U.S. wishes.
Washington evidently (and justifiably) fears that such systems could end up being used against western targets. The Saudis are going ahead anyway.
So what do General Sisi, Bashar Assad, the Iranian mullahs, the Saudi monarchy and of course Vladimir Putin all have in common? They are all on the wrong side of “history” (i.e., the wrong side of the U.S. administration and its supporters). And they have all come to the conclusion that this doesn’t matter, and they will experience little difficulty in pursuing their wishes regardless.
Which brings us to the latest interactions between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It appears that the administration believes that even if no-one else much listens anymore, surely the small state of Israel can be frightened and bullied into getting on the right side of “history.” Hence the thinly veiled threat in Obama’s recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, according to which failure to reach an accord with the Palestinian Authority will lead to Israel’s facing international isolation and the closing of the “window” for a peace deal.
All this is quite surreal, of course, given the very obvious insurmountable gaps between the sides, because of the PA’s insistence on the “right of return,” rejection of mutual recognition between the sides and rejection of defensible borders for Israel. These stances lie behind the PA’s rejection of Secretary Kerry’s framework for continued negotiations.
But the U.S. administration should also understand that Israeli determination to act in their country’s own self-defined interests is no less deeply rooted than that of the other players on the global stage noted above.
Israelis remember that they buried 1,100 of their own citizens in the period 2000-2005 because of a mis-reading of history and the consequent placing of trust in an enemy committed to their demise. They will be unlikely to rush to repeat the experiment. The waving of the bogeyman of increasing isolation will not induce them to do so.
As for inducements to get on the right side of “history” – the president might note that all the players noted above, Israel included, are operating on similar lines. These involve the protection and assertion of clearly defined national interests, the use of force where deemed necessary, the judicious backing of allies and the effort to deter enemies.
Those who operate along those lines most effectively will get to write the history, in which they will portray themselves as the natural and inevitable victors. Those who fail to do so will find that efforts to equate their own preferences with the natural tide of human events will be a subject for the increasing derision of their peers, and probably also of history.