While we have focused on the Olympics and presidential politics, strategic security for America and its key Middle East allies has deteriorated significantly. Israel and friendly Arab states feel increasingly pressured, yet see little White House leadership.
This is not a question of a new threat here or there, but a confluence of adversity fundamentally altering Middle Eastern reality. Inevitably, whoever wins the presidency will face urgent international threats to US interests. Indeed, oil prices are so important to global economic recovery that instability and conflict in the Levant could well contribute to another recession.
Most immediately, in Egypt, Sunday’s forced “retirement” of top military officials, including Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi, epitomizes the shift. Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, also purportedly rescinded a military decree that had sought to restrict his powers.
How this unfolding struggle will play out is unclear, but the stakes are enormous. Already, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has descended into anarchy since Hosni Mubarak’s fall last year, and is now a terrorist thoroughfare and Hamas missile-testing ground. Israel had earlier consented to Egyptian troops moving into the Sinai, but the situation only deteriorated. On Aug. 5, for example, Bedouins attacked an Egyptian base, killing 15 soldiers, and then tried but failed to infiltrate into Israel.
While increasing Egypt’s Sinai deployments seemed sensible in the near-term, what happens when and if the terrorist threat is eliminated? Will Egypt’s forces largely return to the Suez Canal’s west bank, or will “land for peace” (the Camp David Accord’s central element) be gutted? If the increasingly assertive Morsi government grows stronger and more radical, Israel may find it has traded land for nothing.
While terrorist threats from the Sinai are palpable risks, a large Egyptian military presence, especially under an Islamicist government, would reprise the dangerous era before the Six Day War.
Chaos is also evident on Israel’s northern flank. Syria’s civil war is now largely a surrogate conflict pitting Russia and Iran against the Sunni Arab world. (Turkey’s position is complicated, with visions of a role reminiscent of Ottoman days, in competition with both Iranian and Saudi interests. Certainly Ankara wants a friendly regime in Damascus, and does not want hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding its territory.)
While Assad’s defeat would be welcome, what kind of regime would follow — one dominated by radical Islamicists even more devoted to Israel’s destruction?
Then there’s the risk that Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile will fall into the wrong hands. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, for example, could well gain access to these weapons, with frightening implications.
In Libya, the assassination of officials who defected from Khadafy’s regime continues apace, most recently on Aug. 10 in Benghazi. This hardly signals stability in Libya’s new government, or that more conflict can be avoided.
The news from Iran remains uniformly grim, as neither sanctions nor diplomacy slow its headlong rush toward nuclear weapons. Dangerous as a nuclear Tehran would be in the best of times, the threat becomes more acute as the entire region dissolves into acrimony and uncertainty.
President Obama’s withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq has allowed its government to fall increasingly under Iran’s sway, with dangerous ramifications especially for the friendly Sunni regimes on the Arabian Peninsula. And Yemen remains a cauldron of instability, despite the administration’s self-congratulations for removing the Saleh regime.
Just beyond Iran, in Afghanistan, Obama’s desperation to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban, including the release without condition of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay, continues. US and NATO forces are in peril even from supposedly friendly Afghan troops, and the impending timetable for US withdrawal is a clear signal to all Afghans, friend and foe alike, already changing the balance of power for the worse.
If Obama wins, of course, every likelihood is that he will simply continue the McGovernite “come home, America” policies that have contributed so significantly to the Middle East’s deteriorating security situation. If our adversaries calculate that the White House is to remain in limp hands, the pace and scope of challenges to America and its allies will only increase.
If Mitt Romney wins, he’ll face threats he simply must counter even while striving to correct the last decade’s economic-policy mistakes.
This is why leadership and character are so important in assessing presidential candidates. No one can foresee all the international crises ahead in the next four years. But we can certainly decide who has the judgment and resolve to make hard choices on America’s behalf. The contrast has rarely been clearer than between Romney’s calm confidence and Obama’s weakness and indifference to national security.
John Bolton is a former US ambassador to the United Nations
This op-ed first appeared in the New York Post.