The biggest news of the day from the Middle East may not be the announcement of another truce in the Gaza war. We’ve seen that before, and then seen Hamas violate the truce immediately. (In case this one holds, it is worth noting that it is identical to the prior truce proposal from Israel, which Hamas rejected, namely an unconditional halt to the fighting and an agreement to discuss other matters later.) No, the most significant news of the day is a dramatic signal of our allies’ total lack of faith and even respect for the Obama administration. The New York Times reports:
Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior American officials said, in a major escalation of a regional power struggle set off by Arab Spring revolts.
The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing Washington, leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied to American diplomats that their military played any role in the operation, the officials said, in what appeared a new blow to already strained relations between Washington and Cairo.
Former ambassador and undersecretary of state Eric Edelman observes that “it is a stunning vote of no-confidence in the administration and the fact that they apparently launched additional strikes today (after unnamed administration sources said it was ‘unhelpful’) serves to underline the point.”
Our allies understand the regional battle between Iran and its allies on one side (supported by Turkey and Qatar) and Israel and the Sunni states on the other. As the New York Times recounts, “Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt last year, the new government and its backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched a campaign across the region — in the news media, in politics and diplomacy, and by arming local proxies — to roll back what they see as an existential threat to their authority posed by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.” And of course, they understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is simply a branch of Iran’s terror network.
What these powers understand is that every small confrontation (e.g. Libya, Gaza) has ramifications for the region as a whole within the framework of this religious and regional struggle. Israel and these partners of necessity have found common interests in fighting back against Iranian hegemony and terror. And the United States?
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute remarks, “I suspect that the UAE and Egypt have given up on the Obama administration, the same refrain you hear from pretty much every capital.” She adds, “They know full well we’re neither going to address Islamist extremism in Libya (or Syria or Iraq), that we’re not going to confront Qatar (even though the Emiratis have been trying), and that the United States is no longer an ally to be relied upon.” She continues, “In other words, it’s Egypt and the UAE and Israel and others against our enemies while we sit on the sidelines and golf.”
Unfortunately, the Sunni states are no replacement for U.S. political, economic and military power — if we choose to use it. Edelman cautions, “It is one thing for the Egyptians and UAE to fly missions against the Libyans who have no means to retaliate. Iran, however, is another kettle of fish entirely with significant air defenses and missile forces that could launch retaliation.” They, along with Israel, can perhaps keep things from unraveling entirely in the region, and the threat of Israeli military action still poses a threat to Tehran. But what we are missing is U.S. leadership and a U.S. strategy for eliminating the Islamic State and pushing back on Iranian aggression. Until we evidence that, we should expect more freelancing from our allies. And if the administration is now miffed that these countries are acting in their own self-interest, wait until an Iranian nuclear capacity unleashes a nuclear arms race in the region.