Off the coast of Yemen and at the UN Security Council we are seeing the strategic endgame of Barack Obama’s administration. And it isn’t pretty.
Since Sunday, Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen have attacked US naval craft three times in the Bab al Mandab, the narrow straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. The Bab al Mandab controls maritime traffic in the Red Sea, and ultimately control the Suez Canal.
Whether the Iranians directed these assaults or simply greenlighted them is really beside the point. The point is that these are Iranian strikes on the US. The Houthis would never have exposed themselves to US military retaliation if they hadn’t been ordered to do so by their Iranian overlords.
The question is why has Iran chosen to open up an assault on the US?
The simple answer is that Iran has challenged US power at the mouth of the Red Sea because it believes that doing so advances its strategic aims in the region.
Iran’s game is clear enough. It wishes to replace the US as the regional hegemon, at the US’s expense.
Since Obama entered office nearly eight years ago, Iran’s record in advancing its aims has been of uninterrupted success.
Iran used the US withdrawal from Iraq as a means to exert its full control over the Iraqi government. It has used Obama’s strategic vertigo in Syria as a means to exert full control over the Assad regime and undertake the demographic transformation of Syria from a Sunni majority state to a Shiite plurality state.
In both cases, rather than oppose Iran’s power grabs, the Obama administration has welcomed them. As far as Obama is concerned, Iran is a partner, not an adversary. Since like the US, Iran opposes al Qaeda and ISIS, Obama argues that the US has nothing to fear from the fact that Iranian controlled Shiite militias are running the US-trained Iraqi military. So too, he has made clear, that the US is content to stand by as the mullahs become the face of Syria.
In Yemen, the US position has been more ambivalent. In late 2014, Houthi rebel forces took over the capital city of Sana’a. In March 2015, the Saudis led a Sunni campaign to overthrow the Houthi government. In a bid to secure Saudi support for the nuclear agreement it was negotiating with the Iranians, the Obama administration agreed to support the Saudi campaign. To this end, the US military has provided intelligence, command and control guidance and armaments to the Saudis.
Iran’s decision to openly assault US targets then amounts to a gamble on Tehran’s part that in the twilight of the Obama administration, the time is ripe to move in for the kill in Yemen. The Iranians are betting that at this point, with just three months to go in the White House, Obama will abandon the Saudis, and so transfer control over Arab oil to Iran. For with the Straits of Hormuz on the one hand, and the Bab al Mandab on the other, Iran will exercise effective control over all maritime oil flows from the Arab world.
It’s not a bad bet for the Iranians, given Obama’s consistent strategy in the Middle East.
Obama has never discussed that strategy. Indeed, he has deliberately concealed it. But to understand the game he has been playing all along, the only thing you need to do listen to his foreign policy soulmate.
According to a New York Times profile published in May, Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes is the president’s alter ego. The two men’s minds have “melded.”
Rhodes’s first foreign policy position came in the course of his work for former congressman Lee Hamilton.
In 2006, then president George W. Bush appointed former secretary of state James Baker and Hamilton to lead the Iraq Study Group. Bush tasked the ISG with offering a new strategy for winning the war in Iraq. The ISG released its report in late 2006.
The ISG’s report contained two basic recommendations. First, it called for the administration to abandon Iraq to the Iranians. The ISG argued that due to Iran’s opposition to al Qaeda, the Iranians would fight al Qaeda for the US.
The report’s second recommendation related to Israel. Baker, Hamilton and their colleagues argued that after turning Iraq over to Iran, the US would have to appease its Sunni allies.
The US, the ISG report argued, should simultaneously placate the Sunnis and convince the Iranians of its sincerity by sticking it to Israel. To this end, the US should pressure Israel to give the Golan Heights to Syria and give Judea and Samaria to the PLO.
Bush rejected the ISG report. Instead he opted to win the war in Iraq by adopting the surge counterinsurgency strategy.
But once Bush was gone, and Rhodes’ intellectual twin replaced him, the ISG recommendations became the unstated US strategy in the Middle East.
After taking office, Obama insisted that the US’s only enemy was al Qaeda. In 2014, Obama grudgingly expanded the list to include ISIS.
Obama has consistently justified empowering Iran in Iraq and Syria on the basis of this narrow definition of US enemies. Since Iran is also opposed to ISIS and al Qaeda, the US can leave the job of defeating them both to the Iranians, he has argued.
Obviously, Iran won’t do the US’s dirty work for free. So Obama has paid the mullahs off by giving them an open road to nuclear weapons through his nuclear deal, by abandoning sanctions against them, and by turning his back on their ballistic missile development.
Obama has also said nothing about the atrocities that Iranian controlled militia have carried out against Sunnis in Iraq and has stopped operations against Hezbollah.
As for Israel, since his first days in office, Obama has been advancing the ISG’s recommendations. His consistent, and ever escalating condemnations of Israel, his repeated moves to pick fights with Jerusalem are all of a piece with the ISG’s recommended course of action. And there is every reason to believe that Obama intends to make good on his threats to cause an open rupture in the US alliance with Israel in his final days in office.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s phone call with Secretary of State John Kerry Saturday night made this clear enough. In the course of their conversation, Netanyahu reportedly asked Kerry if Obama intended to enable an anti-Israel resolution to pass in the UN Security Council after the presidential elections next month. By refusing to rule out the possibility, Kerry all but admitted that this is in fact Obama’s intention.
And this brings us back to Iran’s assaults on US ships along the coast of Yemen.
Early Sunday morning, the US responded to the Houthi/Iranian missile assaults by attacking three radar stations in Houthi controlled territory. The nature of the US moves gives credence to the fear that the US will surrender Yemen to Iran.
This is so for three reasons. First, the administration did not allow the USS Mason to respond to the sources of the missile attack against it immediately. Instead, the response was delayed until Obama himself could determine how best to “send a message.” That is, he denied US forces the right to defend themselves.
Second, it is far from clear that destroying the radar stations will inhibit the Houthis/Iranians. It is not apparent that radar stations are necessary for them to continue to assault US naval craft operating in the area.
Finally, the State Department responded to the attack by reaching out to the Houthis. In other words, the administration is continuing to view the Iranian proxy is a legitimate actor rather than an enemy despite its unprovoked missile assaults on the US navy.
Then there is the New York Times’ position on Yemen.
The Times has repeatedly allowed the administration to use it as an advocate of policies the administration itself wishes to adopt. Last week for instance, the Times called for the US to turn on Israel at the Security Council.
Tuesday, the Times’ published an editorial calling for the administration to end its military support for the Saudi campaign against the Houthis/Iran in Yemen.
Whereas the Iranian strategy makes sense, Obama’s strategy is nothing less than disastrous. Although the ISG, like Obama are right that Iran also opposes ISIS, and to a degree, al Qaeda, they both ignored the hard reality that Iran also views the US as its enemy. Indeed, the regime’s entire identity is tied up in its hatred for the US and its strategic aim of destroying America.
Obama is not the only US president who has sought to convince the Iranians to abandon their hatred for America. Every president since 1979 has tried to convince the mullahs to abandon their hostility. And just like all of his predecessors, Obama has failed to convince them.
What distinguishes Obama from his predecessors is that he has based US policy on a deliberate denial of the basic reality of Iranian hostility. Not surprisingly, the Iranians have returned his favor by escalating their aggression against America.
The worst part about Obama’s strategy is that it is far from clear that his successor will be able to improve the situation.
If Hillary Clinton succeeds him, his successor is unlikely to even try. Not only has Clinton embraced Obama’s policies towards Iran. Her senior advisors are almost all Obama administration alumni. Wendy Sherman the leading candidate to serve as her secretary of state was Obama’s chief negotiator with the Iranians.
If Donald Trump triumphs next month, assuming he wishes to reassert US power in the region, he won’t have an easy time undoing the damage that Obama has caused.
Time has not stood still as the US has engaged in strategic dementia. Not only has Iran been massively empowered, Russia has entered the Middle East as a strategic spoiler.
Moreover, since 2001, the US has spent more than a trillion dollars on its failed wars in the Middle East. That investment came in lieu of spending on weapons development. Today Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in Syria reportedly neutralize the US’s air force.
US naval craft in the Bab el Mandab have little means to defend themselves against missile strikes.
The US’s trillion dollar investment in the F-35 has tethered its air wings to a plane that has yet to prove its capabilities, and may never live up to expectations.
Israel is reasonably worried about the implications of Obama’s intention to harm it at the UN. But the harm Israel will absorb at the UN is nothing in comparison to the long-term damage of Obama’s embrace of the ISG’s disastrous strategic framework has and will continue to cause Israel, the US and the entire Middle East.