That does not mean that Obama’s nonproliferation ambitions were unworthy or that diplomacy should be abandoned. It does mean that the president must pay more attention to creating the conditions for diplomacy’s effective use.
The president appears to have assumed that engineering U.S. retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan would immediately strengthen his hand in dealing with other foreign crises. How else to explain his unshakable confidence in his ability to accomplish his early far-reaching global agenda?
The American experience in the wake of Vietnam argues otherwise: The savings and respites brought by strategic retreats come slowly. The uncertainty and crippling doubts they spread among allies manifest themselves immediately and get resolved in the heat of crisis management.
So the president had to dispatch B-2 stealth bombers to fly over Seoulto reassure Japan and South Korea — and not just those two nations — that the United States would be there to protect them in case Kim Jong Un went beyond his unexpected verbal tantrums.
And after the latest round of international talks with Iran produced only new stalemate, Obama gave final approval last week to a $10 billion arms sales package for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), each of which opposes Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel termed the arms package a “clear signal” to Iran. But the message was intended more for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — who has made no secret of his disenchantment with Obama’s leadership — than for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian media have derisively dismissed the announcement of the sales as “an incitement to regional conflict.”
Hagel is due here in the Emirates on Wednesday to arrange the final details of the complicated arms deal, whose negotiations have not been friction-free and which may wind up reducing Obama’s room to use diplomacy for nonproliferation.
This is an unwieldy, lopsided package that will be difficult to manage coherently. The individual pieces make sense of a sort for each of the three nations. But cobbling them together as a political package to defuse opposition from Israel and on Capitol Hill to the Arab states’ purchases is about tactics — and fairly cynical ones at that.
The Pentagon will provide Israel with V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor troop transport aircraft, KC-135 refueling planes and surface-to-air missiles. These are weapons that each increase Israel’s ability to mount a raid on Iran — even though Obama has leaned heavily on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid that. Such supplies now inadvertently weaken the only containment strategy that Obama has consistently practiced in the Middle East — the containment of Israel.
The administration will also have to manage the strategic slight it has inflicted by having declined, for now, to provide the Saudis and the Emirates with stealthy attack missiles, while calling on them to develop “the capabilities” needed “to address the Iranian threat,” in the words of an administration official speaking anonymously to the New York Times in Washington.
The UAE, in particular, deserves better treatment than that. It has supported U.S. foreign policy from Afghanistan to North Africa with troops, money, aircraft and the sober responsibility of an ally that can be trusted. But under the Pentagon’s “single-release” policy, any weapon sold to the Emirates must be made available to Saudi Arabia and the four other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, not all of whom clear the same threshold of trust.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE had asked for the latest and most powerful stealthy precision-guided air-to-surface AGM-158 missile
, also known by the acronym JASSM. But they are being told they will have to settle for a less sophisticated “stand-off” missile, probably the AGM-88, according to U.S. sources.
The AGM-158 missile would be particularly effective in knocking out Iran’s air defense and hitting deeply buried, heavily reinforced nuclear installations if war came. But it has been sold abroad only to Australia and Finland. Israel reportedly has developed its own stealthy missile.
This is what what happens when policy has to be made on the run in response to cascading crises. Messages about intentions get blurred to allies and adversaries alike, and uncertainty about U.S. leadership grows. It is a lesson worth absorbing.
The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.