William Buckley Jr. once wrote that Henry Kissinger will be remembered a hundred years from now more for his masterful two volumes on his years as national security advisor and secretary of state than for his actual tenure in those positions.
Buckley’s comment comes to mind as we watch American policy evolve in the Middle East.
Kissinger, writing about American policy during the Cold War, argued that the core principle of America’s approach to the region was not only to support our ally Israel but to ensure that the moderate Arab countries -- Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, did not desert America and move to the Soviet side. Unlike Zbigniew Brzezinski, who concluded that the key to keeping Arabs on our side was pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue, Kissinger believed, correctly in my view, that what the Arabs wanted was American strength and loyalty to its allies.
In other words, they wanted a dependable partner, and accepted that it also meant American support for its Israeli ally. If they saw an America weakening before the Soviet challenge in the region, these moderates, more exposed and vulnerable because of American weakness, would find other ways to protect themselves. In other words, they would appease the Soviets rather than stand up to them.
What Kissinger argued then is more than relevant today. The players are somewhat different; the threat to U.S. interests does not come from a communist superpower but from an extreme Islamic regime in Iran. But the allies of America remain the same, as do their concerns.
And make no mistake about it, our allies are fearful because they are wondering, in light of America’s twists and turns and indecisiveness, whether they can count on the historic protection which has been inherent in the relationship with the U.S.
We see it particularly in Saudi Arabia’s strange behavior of late. First, after finally getting a seat on the Security Council, the Saudis stunned the international community by turning it down, the first time that has happened. It was attributed to Saudi displeasure with the U.N. on a number of issues.
Then, a Saudi official announced that they were pleased that the U.S. and Iran were engaged in dialogue. This could sound like a rational statement, but could also signify the beginning of a Saudi softening toward Iran because they feel they have no choice. And then came a Reuters report that Prince Bandar, former Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., had warned of a Saudi shift away from the U.S. because of a more uncertain American posture in the region.
We see the questioning of American leadership in Egypt as well, most recently highlighted by the visit of a Cairo delegation to Moscow to look for a “more balanced” set of foreign relations.
Let’s be forthright: None of the issues in the region about which America is accused of weakness is clear cut. But when a pattern starts to emerge, it becomes harder to explain away.
Many friends of America in the Middle East begin to consider that loyalty to America may not pay off.
For example, in Egypt, where the U.S. was accused by the military and many supporters of the military of cozying up to the Muslim Brotherhood. And in Syria, when the U.S. failed to act in time when rebels were taking on the brutal, pro-Iranian Assad regime and where American assistance might have led to a victory by moderate rebels. Instead, we dithered and the rebels were increasingly dominated by Al Qaeda types while Bashar Assad regained strength.
And it is seen with regard to Iran, where to some there is a sense of American desire to avoid conflict at all costs revealed in their melting before President Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive without any concrete evidence that Iran was ready to give up its nuclear program.
None of these stories is over. There is still much America can do to retain and reinforce its credibility. Most of it will depend on whether American policy vis-à-vis Iran results in Iran actually abandoning its nuclear initiative. If we succeed, then the tide in the region can turn once again in America’s direction. If we fail, all bets are off.
For Israel, the playing out of this process is obviously critical on many levels. Much as Kissinger had argued, despite Arab rhetoric against Israel, the moderates and Israelis had and continue to have common interests.
Both want strong American leadership; both want America to be there in their struggle with radicals in the region. In the old days, it was the Soviet clients, Iraq and Syria. Today it is Iran and its allies, Syria and Hezbollah.
Let us hope that U.S. leadership will recognize what is at stake here for America’s interests and for those of our allies, indeed for the well-being of the entire world.