You've Got a Friend

One of the reasons why president Obama can't let Benjamin Netanyahu stand in the way of Iran's nuclear ambitions is because he needs Tehran's troops to fight ISIS.  Today the long awaited offensive against ISIS in Tikrit reeled off with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the lead, if not in actual command.  Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal explains that Iran will be supplying the men and leadership.  The US will be waiting by the phone to supply air support if requested.  The phone has not rung.

At the Pentagon on Monday, Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman, said the U.S. wasn’t providing assistance in the fight to retake Tikrit. The U.S. hasn’t conducted airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces and didn’t provide advice in planning the attack, officials said.

“We are fully aware of the operation, but the Iraqis did not request our support for it,” Col. Warren said. “Our presence in Iraq is at the request of the Iraqi government. We are there to advise them, to assist them, to support them, when they ask for it.”

Though he  claims he has top billing, the president appears to be an extra in this operation.  But Obama will accept whatever bit-roles are thrown his way because he needs Iran to get him out of the jam caused by his feckless withdrawal from the region. ISIS  flourished in the resulting vacuum and daily humiliates the president with publicized outrages. With Obama powerless to prevent it, he needs someone who can pull him out of the quicksand.

But as the Daily Beast notes the price will be steep. "The bargain for making a deal with Iran, these critics say, has allowed Iran a free hand to assert dominance in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen." Having spent years campaigning against American military action Obama has essentially left himself no other choice but to rely on  someone else.  "Such an approach is also politically unfeasible due to American war weariness and scepticism of any mission with shifting goalposts.

And Iran is charging him an arm and a leg for yanking him out of the hole.  Yemen, next-door-neighbor to Saudi Arabia has now been partitioned between an Iranian client state which has as its capital Sana'a -- from which the GCC embassies have evacuated -- and Aden, to which they will be moving as the new capital of Sunni recognized Yemen.

Obama's own efforts to establish "moderate rebel" forces in the region have ended in ignominious defeat, having accomplished nothing but showcase his pitiful incompetence. One of the main Obama-backed groups has just folded up and joined the enemy.

BEIRUT (Reuters) – One of the main western-backed rebel groups announced on Sunday that it had dissolved itself and joined a larger Islamist alliance, weeks into a battle which saw it lose ground and men to more powerful al Qaeda insurgents. Hazzm is one of the last remnants of non-jihadist opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria, much of which has been seized by the Nusra Front and Islamic State, an offshoot of al Qaeda that controls roughly a third of Syria.

All hope of independent action is fading fast. Micah Zenko at Foreign Policy is calling the debacle Obama's Bay of Pigs in the Desert. The Obama administration has effectively destroyed its own credibility, by the ample display of stupidity, possibly past the point of recovery. As a Brookings Institution article puts it "If America leads, will anyone follow?"

even if the United States is still willing and able to lead, and even if other major powers accept that it does so, Washington will likely confront the growing problem of followership. President Obama made clear in his 2014 West Point speech that future interventions by the United States in overseas conflicts will be a function of the willingness of “partners” to lend a hand. In fact, Washington has always depended to some extent on other nations to supplement its efforts, but the question for the future is whether this operating principle remains feasible.

Who wants to join the club where Obama's the leader of the band? Not unless you want a knife in the back. The late Russian oppositionist Boris Nemetsov speaking from beyond the grave in a September, 2013 Foreign Policy article said: "Obama is a Hollywood actor, a weak man with no balls. Nobody should ever expect him to help Russians seeking civil freedom." Whether this is true or not, there seems little doubt that some perceive him in this way and in consequence are reluctant to follow him. All that may be left to Obama is meddlesome intervention in Third World countries like Colombia and the arbitrary exercises of presidential power at home, where he remains powerful.  There he can indulge his sense of importance.  But in Tikrit the Iranians aren't even asking for his help.

The president who is publicly nursing his wounded honor in anticipation of Benjamin Netanyahu's speech is also the same president pathetically hanging on Tehran's rulers every word, like a waiter expecting a tip. The Iranians themselves have characterized Obama as 'desperate to reach a nuclear deal', as if he were some loathesome toady. All the same he is counting on them to beat ISIS, having made a hash of his own efforts. What a crazy situation it is when an American president's fortunes depend on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

But no one -- even the president's political opponents -- should think they can afford the luxury of schadenfreude. By outsourcing operations to Iran Obama is giving up the last shreds of American freedom of action in the region.  He is thereby opening the door to a great danger. The battle for Tikrit and Mosul beyond holds tremendous potential for unleashing a wave of atrocities against Sunnis. Simon Tisdall of the Guardian writes:

According to reports reaching the Institute for the Study of War from Tikrit on Sunday, most residents who can afford it have already begun to flee north to Mosul and east to Kirkuk, with only the poorest left behind. Isis fighters, meanwhile, were said to be holding “an unspecified number of civilians as human shields” in Tikrit and other cities.

Western analysts are also worried the offensive could further strengthen Iran’s formidable grip on Iraq’s government and security forces at a time when Tehran seems poised to make a strategic breakthrough by cutting a historic nuclear deal with the west.

There are indications that ISIS and al Qaeda are beginning a rapproachment with Saudi Arabia the better to emphasize their newfound role as Sunni protectors against the Shi'ite menace. A Saudi Arabian diplomat long held by al-Qaeda in Yemen has been freed, perhaps as a gesture that direction. ISIS line of argument will be simple: Obama cannot protect either the Sunnis or you. Throw in with us: it's your only chance.

John Robb argues that "ISIS isn't the long term problem, Saudi Arabia is." The militant Sunni Jihadi groups are an extension for the Battle for Saudi Arabia. Therefore the defeat of ISIS in the region cannot but force these disruptive tendencies back into the Kingdom.

In reality, Saudi Arabia is extremely fragile and much of the chaos we see in the Middle East is due to the way Saudi Arabia avoids falling to pieces. Worse, we are largely to blame for this. We go along with this charade, and our willingness to play along is doing much of the damage. ...

Saudi Arabia is a particularly expensive dissipative structure because it is extremely rigid, anachronistic, and unchanging. To maintain this archaic structure despite the titanic forces of globalization trying to pull it apart, it must export an incredible amount of disorder (entropy) into the surrounding region.

While one can take this idea too far there is some validity to the notion that the battle for Tikrit and Mosul, now out of Obama's hands, must sooner or later become the struggle for Mecca and Riyadh. Henry Kissinger, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, explained the linkage in traditional geostrategic terms. Kissinger argued that Obama had already ceded the Bomb to Iran; and that the next inevitable step was the Sunni acquisition of their own nuclear device. Kissinger told the Senators  that the recent regional void has been filled by Iran, and that increase in stature inevitably brought nuclear capability in its wake:

One result is that significant geographic spaces have become ungovernable, or at least ungoverned.

Iran has exploited this turmoil to pursue positions of power within other countries beyond the control of national authorities, such as in Lebanon and Iraq, and while developing a nuclear program of potentially global consequences. Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort, buttressed by six UN resolutions, to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability through an agreement that sets a hypothetical limit of one year on an assumed breakout. The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.

In the response to subsequent questions by the Senators Kissinger added that Iran's rivals would soon follow. "If the other countries in the region conclude that America has approved the development of an enrichment capability within one year of a nuclear weapon, and if they then insist on building the same capability, we will live in a proliferated world in which everybody—even if that agreement is maintained—will be very close to the trigger point." The Washington Post's editorial board added that this meant the Saudis and their allies would arm once Iran did.

Mr. Kissinger didn’t say it, but those other nations include Saudi Arabia, which can buy a bomb from Pakistan; Turkey, which won’t sit by and let Shiite Iran dominate the region; Egypt, which has long viewed itself as the leading Arab state; and perhaps one or more of the Gulf emirates, which may not trust the Saudis. That’s in addition to Israel, which is assumed to have had a bomb for many years without posing a regional threat.

This is the context in which Netanyahu makes his plea.

The administration has compounded the initial error of precipitate withdrawal from the region by covering it up with a series of ill-advised fixes, each rather than mitigating the original mistake have just made it worse. Now, with the president clinging to the generosity of Iran as his only hope, Western interests in the region hang by a thread. His own legacy teeters by the narrowest of margins. One can appreciate the resentment and dread with which Obama regards the approaching footsteps of Netanyahu.

In a sense Obama has a right to be angry with the Israeli Prime Minister, who threatens to disrupt his carefully constructed, beautifully spun "deals". Everything the president is and perhaps ever was consists of a carefully controlled narrative. Now that narrative is close to being falsified. Was there ever a person in such desperate straits?


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