U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday his visit to Israel was meant to be a reassuring one. He is here to make it clear to Israelis that America stands behind them and will ensure their security, even though the neighborhood has become tougher.
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What President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to hear was Obama making a firm commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to cushion the shock waves that could result from Syria’s disintegration.
It is premature to assess whether Peres and Netanyahu were satisfied by the promises made by the visitor, who asked for time for diplomatic negotiations with Iran and demanded that Syrian President Bashar Assad guard his chemical weapons.
The visit comes at a time when the United States is withdrawing from its deep involvement in the Middle East, amid the growing fear of Israel and other regional allies that America will abandon them to radical Islamic forces.
America entered the region with all its might, as its dependence on oil imports increased. But following the development of new oil and natural gas production methods in North America, the United States is gradually freeing itself of reliance on external energy sources.
In a few years it will become an oil exporter. The Middle East is still important, but it is less vital than it was a decade or two ago.
America has tired of the wars in the Middle East that consumed its resources and robbed its attention in the past decade, without resulting in a decisive victory. Obama has already pulled the U.S. Army out of Iraq, and will take it out of Afghanistan this term. The old regional order, with its reliance on secular military dictatorships and pro-American monarchies, has collapsed under the revolutions of the Arab Spring and the strengthening of the region’s Islamic movements.
The United States has discovered it cannot control these upheavals, and it doesn’t want to get involved in civil wars like the one in Syria. It prefers to stand by and see who wins.
Under these circumstances, pressure on Israel will increase. Until now, Israel has benefited from American safeguards in the region that have bolstered its deterrence capability, helped to safeguard the peace accords with Egypt and Jordan, and protected it from distant regional powers like Iran and Iraq. And when Israel is worried, or when it feels that its security concerns are not being given the attention they deserve in Washington, it has a tendency to take risks and use military force to perpetuate the strategic status quo.
Obama is projecting very different images domestically and overseas: He is trying to draw his country inward while telling his allies in the Middle East that, despite what they may be witnessing, the United States is just as committed to them as ever.
This attitude is reminiscent of Richard Nixon. In 1969 Nixon laid out the American foreign policy strategy that came to be known as the Guam Doctrine or the Nixon Doctrine, which made it clear that Washington would no longer undertake the defense of the free nations of the world. That was the first step toward an eventual American withdrawal from Vietnam, and Nixon, who had to sell the idea to his allies in Asia, assured them that everything would be fine.
The best way for Israel to ensure that the Americans remain committed is to threaten some unilateral action that would drag in the United States. That’s exactly what Netanyahu did Wednesday in his public appearances with Obama. He kept on talking about Israel’s right to defend itself. In rough translation from diplo-speak, that means, “If you don’t take action to get Iran to thwart its nuclear project, we will be forced to act alone − and you’ll suffer the consequences as much as we will.”
In the meantime, Obama has no clear-cut solution to the Iranian problem, or to the disintegration of Syria. He’s also finding it hard to bring his influence to bear on the political crisis in Egypt and to assuage Israeli concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood is planning to annul the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. So he’s playing for time by reassuring Israel, by whispering sweet nothings of unconditional love and support into the ears of the Israeli people, and by publicly referring to the prime minister by his nickname.
And there’s a good chance it will work. With every passing day, Israel becomes less capable of taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities by itself, while its dependence on the United States for military superiority just keeps growing.