US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrives in Jeddah next Monday, May 12, to attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council defense ministers, the first for an American defense chief in six years. This prolonged absence reflected the Obama administration’s military disengagement from Middle East affairs and the political estrangement that ensued between Washington and the region.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak commented in a lecture Thursday, May 8, at the Washington Institute for the Near East: ”The American administration changed its objective from no nuclear military Iran to no nuclear military Iran during the term of this administration.”
The impression received in Middle East capitals is that Barack Obama has adopted the old slogan of, “Apres moi, le deluge!” – intending to leave his White House successor after January 2017 an Iran that is fully capable of manufacturing a nuclear weapon.
It is this proposition that Saudi King Abdullah and Israeli Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu are on no account ready to accept, because it allows Barack Obama to end his two-term presidency faithful to his ideal of keeping the US unburdened by military involvement.
Disengaging the US military from the Middle East and its troubles leaves Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel free to devote himself to implementing the president’s guidelines for shrinking America’s ground, air and naval forces. The White House brooks no resistance to this goal.
On April 8, the House Armed Services Committee rejected by a vote of 61:0 the administration’s 2015 budget proposal, because of the sharp reductions in the military spending clauses. The Committee submitted its own draft proposal instead.
In a swift response, Hagel sent the Pentagon spokesman to make things clear “We stand firmly behind the president’s budget as submitted,” he said.
The region’s geopolitical climate has been radically affected in its most sensitive parts as a result of reduced US military activity and the administration’s refusal to grapple with the most pressing Middle East anxieties.
Only last week, the Revolutionary Guards naval chief boasted that Iran could easily sink a US aircraft carrier in less than a minute. This may not be factually correct, but even this hollow taunt at the expense of the US military could only have come from the certainty that Washington will not rise to the challenge or interfere with Iran’s ascent to nuclear threshold status.
This same certainty gave Syria’s Bashar Assad the chutzpah to use chemical weapons against rebel forces at least 30 times in the nine months since President Obama backed away from his threat to destroy those poisonous weapons by force.
The UN report that 92 percent of the Syrian regime’s chemical substances have been destroyed to date has made the world body a laughing stock. No wonder, Assad had no qualms about calling a presidential election for June 3 and so assuring himself of another seven years in office, in the face of universal condemnation of the atrocities he has committed against his people.
Even the Palestinians found the cheek to put the lid on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s indefatigable effort to bring them to the table for a comprehensive peace with Israel and a state of their own, by going partners with the unrepentant Hamas terrorists.
Al Qaeda, too, after concluding that America was no longer the threat it was, in recent months pumped an estimated 100,000 fighters and terrorists into various corners of the Middle East – fanning out from Syria and Iraqi into Jordan, Sinai, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the while absorbing increasing numbers of jihadi volunteers from the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, Italy and the Palestinians.
The US defense secretary’s mission to Jeddah next week is not to unveil an Obama administration policy reset and assure the Gulf members states that the American shield remains in place. On the contrary, he will try and persuade their leaders to dance to Washington’s tune – with little hope of success.
Hagel in fact received his answer in advance from Saudi Arabia, in the form of the largest military exercise ever seen in the Gulf region, under the title of Operation Saif Abdullah (Sword of Abdullah) with more than 130,000 soldiers.
Around the centerpiece of Chinese-made DF-3 nuclear missiles (NATO-designated CSS-2), commanding officers from all the Gulf emirates except Qatar took part in the war game for the first time, as well another first, Egypt.
This exercise gave Washington three messages: a) The Gulf nations are ready to fight Iran; b) They are prepared for this armed conflict to be nuclear; and c) They no longer rely on America for a military and nuclear shield – only on themselves.
“The Saudi military exercise was a goodbye wave to America,” wrote The National, a leading United Arab Emirates newspaper on May 6 in its story on the exercise. Washington counts the UAE as one of its most loyal economic and military Gulf allies. Yet this story would not have seen the light of day without being sanctioned by its ruling family.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II is likewise reviewing his military cooperation with the US against Bashar Assad, in the light of al Qaeda’s recent probing raids against his borders from Iraq and Syria.
debkafile’s military sources report that Washington has begun using bases in Jordan for a belated project to train Iraqi army officers and men for future military operations against al Qaeda, which has by now overrun large areas of western and central Iraq.
Even so, the king has suspended for now the joint Jordanian-US project to create a buffer zone in southern Syria for moderate Syrian rebel units to occupy and secure the Jordanian and Israeli borders.
This has left the Israeli Golan border exposed to attacks by Syrian army and Hizballah forces, which are using this opening to gradually advance south.
Hagel, when he visits Amman next week, has little expectation of persuading King Abdullah to go back to fully supporting military operations against Assad from northern Jordan.
After Amman, the defense secretary travels to Jerusalem. He is due to arrive exactly a week after Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice tiptoed out of Israel Friday, May 9. Her two day visit and talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – mainly on the Iranian nuclear issue – ended without any kind of press statement or even a notice of her departure.
Hagel, too, can expect to find Jerusalem’s resistance to the Washington’s regional policy on a par with that of Riyadh, the Gulf and Amman.