The Decline and Fall of American Foreign Policy

American foreign policy is–to put matters bluntly–in free-fall. The United States is significantly less able to influence events around the world, it is not trusted or respected by allies, and it has undermined its negotiating position with Iran in the nuclear talks by making it abundantly clear that it is desperate for a deal. If you care about the state of American foreign policy, you should be very scared right now.

Let’s start with the recently concluded Israeli elections. Benjamin Netanyahu won, and that made the Obama administration mad. So the administration decided to work to delegitimize Netanyahu’s election by denigrating him at every turn, and openly speculating about reconsidering the American-Israeli relationship–to the point where the Obama administration stated that it may not be as willing as it was in the past to veto anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations Security Council. But if the intent of the administration’s anti-Netanyahu campaign was to get Israelis to rethink their support of their prime minister, the campaign may have failed:

Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, is hardly an advocate for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Eiland called on Mr. Netanyahu to cancel his speech to Congress this month, and he has criticized the prime minister’s strategy for fighting both the Iranian nuclear threat and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In last week’s election, he cast a ballot for someone else.

But in the days since, he and many other Israelis have been astonished by the unrelenting White House criticism that has helped sink relations between Washington and Jerusalem to a nadir not seen for more than 25 years. Even some who mainly blame Mr. Netanyahu for antagonizing President Obama over the last six years now see the scales flipped.

“Everybody understands this is part of the political campaign,” Mr. Eiland said of Mr. Netanyahu’s pre-election comments promising that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch. “To try and say: ‘I caught you; I heard you say something. Since that’s what you said, I’m going to make a reassessment,’ it sounds like, ‘Well, I have been waiting until you make such a mistake, and now I’m going to exploit it.’ ”

[. . .]

Israeli analysts are now suggesting that Mr. Obama and his aides might be overplaying their hand, inviting a backlash of sympathy for Mr. Netanyahu, and that they may not have clearly defined what they expected to gain diplomatically by continuing to pressure the Israeli leader.

The president’s harsh words have been deemed by some to be patronizing and disrespectful not only to Mr. Netanyahu but also to the voters who rewarded his uncompromising stances with a resounding mandate for a fourth term.

Recall that in 2008, Senator Barack Obama–and his supporters–said that an Obama administration would not do what the Bush administration supposedly did; enrage and alienate American allies. Now look at what is happening with the American-Israeli relationship.To be sure, Netanyahu’s comments about the prospects for a Palestinian state and his stated concern on election day that Arabs were going to the polls “in droves” and endangering his government did not help matters, but the Obama administration has taken the anti-Netanyahu campaign too far, and the backlash has set in. Netanyahu now looks like he is championing Israel against the Goliathesque United States, and the administration looks positively churlish on the world stage.

Speaking of alienating allies, the president of the United States apparently can’t be bothered to meet with the Secretary General of NATO when the latter is in Washington, and indeed, has never met Jens Stoltenberg, even though the latter requested a meeting with the president well in advance of his visit. This is, to say the least, incomprehensible. If the president had met with Stoltenberg, the two would actually have a lot to talk about–especially with all that is going on between Russia and Ukraine these days. Sometimes, one wonders whether the Obama administration has simply checked out mentally, when it comes to foreign policy.

Currently, the Middle East is going to the infernal regions in a remarkably ugly hand basket. There is a civil war raging in Yemen, and the consequences of that war are quite significant:

What began as a peaceful struggle to unseat a Yemeni strongman four years ago and then mutated into civil strife now risks spiraling into a full-blown war between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran over a country that lies at the choke point of one of the world’s major oil supply routes.

With negotiators chasing a Tuesday deadline for the framework of a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, it seems unlikely that Iran would immediately respond militarily to this week’s Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, analysts say.

But the confrontation has added a new layer of unpredictability — and confusion — to the many, multidimensional conflicts that have turned large swaths of the Middle East into war zones over the past four years, analysts say.

The United States is aligned alongside Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and against them in Yemen. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who have joined in the Saudi offensive in Yemen, are bombing factions in Libya backed by Turkey and Qatar, who also support the Saudi offensive in Yemen. The Syrian conflict has been fueled by competition among all regional powers to outmaneuver one another on battlefields far from home.

Not since the 1960s — and perhaps going back even further — has there been a time when so many Arab states and factions were engaged in so many wars, in quite such confusing configurations, said Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It’s so dangerous,” he said.

The Iranians are backing the Zaydi Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in Yemen, which is helping to destabilize an already fragile region. While the United States is not pleased about that, the Obama administration may not be able to pressure Iran all that much because to do so might jeopardize any nuclear deal with Iran (more on the administration’s dealings with Iran later). So other Arab countries have stepped into the void left by the United States to counteract the Houthi insurgency. The Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, believes that a “united Arab force” should counteract “regional security threats” like the one in Yemen. The conflict in Yemen runs the risk of turning into a larger proxy war between Arabs and Iranians. Eventually, American dithering in Yemen–and the deleterious consequences of American inaction–could force the Obama administration to take a firm stand against Iran, but if that happens, any hope for a viable and acceptable deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program could go out the window.

It is worth noting that the Obama administration cited Yemen as a model for how to do counterterrorism right. Even as Yemen continued to descend into utter chaos, the administration insisted that all was going according to plan. It takes a lot to get the folks at Vox to (a) inveigh against the Obama administration; and (b) write accurate pieces, but the Obama administration has apparently done the impossible by forcing Vox to come out with a clear-eyed article detailing just how bad the Obama administration has been when it comes to handling the crisis in Yemen.

And then, there are the negotiations with Iran over the country’s nuclear program. As mentioned above, the United States is positively desperate for a deal, and the Iranians know it, which helps give Iran the upper hand in negotiations. American diplomacy regarding the issue has apparently yielded the condition that Iran “would run no more than 6,000 centrifuges at its main enrichment site for at least 10 years, with slowly easing restrictions over the next five years on that program and others Tehran could use to make a bomb.” That hardly sounds like Iran has been permanently denied nuclear weapons. As the two sides may not reach a nuclear deal by the self-imposed deadline of . . . well . . . today, the talks may extend until June. The longer the talks are extended, the more time Iran has to work on producing a nuclear weapon. Knowing that they have the United States and its allies over a barrel, the Iranians have retreated from a key concession, stating that “they are no longer willing to ship their atomic fuel out of the country.” This, of course, serves to undermine efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The American negotiating stance in the Iran talks has hardly inspired confidence among American allies. Between the Obama administration’s handling of the Iran talks and its response to the crisis in Yemen, the Saudis have been alienated, and have decided that it is better for them to act alone than to wait for the Obama administration to adopt and implement a coherent policy addressing the nuclear buildup in Iran and the Yemeni civil war. This is, of course, a remarkable slap in the face for the United States:

“Taking matters into our own hands is the name of the game today,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former adviser to the government. “A deal will open up the Saudi appetite and the Turkish appetite for more nuclear programs. But for the time being Saudi Arabia is moving ahead with its operations to pull the carpet out from underneath the Iranians in our region.”

With the approach of a self-imposed Tuesday night deadline for the framework of a nuclear deal between Iran and the Western powers, the talks themselves are already changing the dynamics of regional politics.

The proposed deal would trade relief from economic sanctions on Iran for insurance against the risk that Iran might rapidly develop a nuclear bomb. But many Arab analysts and diplomats say that security against the nuclear risk may come at the cost of worsening ongoing conflicts around the Middle East as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Muslim allies push back against what they see as efforts by Shiite-led Iran to impose its influence — often on sectarian battle lines.

[. . .]

“The Americans seem nonchalant about this, like, ‘This is your sectarian problem, you deal with it,’ ” Mr. Khashoggi said. “So the Saudis went ahead with this Yemen operation.”

[. . .]

“There is a disbelief in the Arab world that these negotiations are only about the nuclear file, and a frequent complaint here is that we are kept in the dark, we are not consulted,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “The U.S. is much less trusted as an ally, as an insurance policy towards the security threats facing the governments in the region, and so those governments decide to act on their own.”

Again, recall that this alienation of allies and loss of American prestige was not supposed to happen, now that the big, bad George W. Bush administration is no longer in office and the Obama administration is. But here we are. Incidentally, now that there is a very real danger that Iran will have a nuclear arsenal, the Saudis have stated that they too may work to obtain nuclear weapons. Thus, an arms race begins in the region. I suppose that I might feel a little better if the Obama administration decided to be as tough on Iran as France is. But I’m not betting that this is going to happen.

It is, of course, possible for American foreign policy to recover from the wounds that have been inflicted upon it by Obama administration mismanagement. But it will take a lot for American prestige and influence to rebound, and for the United States to become a major and respected player again in world affairs. As things currently stand, the Obama administration seems content to oversee ongoing foreign policy/national security catastrophes playing out in various regions of the world. If you aren’t having sleepless nights over the state of American foreign policy, you are either not paying attention, or you are pleased by the loss of American power and influence throughout the world.

UPDATE: Cross-posted.