When Barack Obama first moved into the White House seven years ago, he promised a new foreign policy that would restore the world’s respect for the United States while making it possible for Americans to focus on nation-building at home. He began the process of extricating the United States from the region during his first term by ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he inherited from his predecessor. Supporters hailed Obama’s strategy, while others insisted that the vacuum would lead to regional chaos.
Today, three and a half years after his re-election, the 44th president of the United States took another major step toward shrinking America’s regional footprint when the White House confirmed that the United States Fifth Fleet will leave Manama, Saudi Arabia, by the end of the year.
The move comes sooner than expected, in the midst of talks between American officials and their counterparts from the United Arab Emirates regarding the possibility of moving the American base to Dubai. However, late last week Gulf Cooperation Council members, led by Saudi Arabia, rejected the American proposals, including, say administration sources, the last-minute intercession of President Obama in a phone call with Saudi Interior Minister Mohamed Bin Nayef. Washington was left with no choice but to withdraw from the resource-rich Persian Gulf, a region that was often referred to as an American lake.
Secretary of State John Kerry made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to explain the move. “President Obama has long vowed that America would move toward energy independence,” Kerry said on This Week With Jake Tapper. “And the re-deployment of the Fifth Fleet is proof that he’s made good on his promise. We value our long history with our partners in the Persian Gulf. But between Canada, Brazil, and our own reserves in North Dakota and elsewhere, we simply don’t need to be committing resources and our military personnel halfway across the world to protect foreign oil. Our men and women in uniform are coming home.”
The withdrawal was sharply criticized by top Republican lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the leading candidates for the 2016 nomination. “I applaud the White House’s enthusiasm for energy independence. But the reality is that the United States depends on Persian Gulf oil for less than 20 percent of its energy needs,” said Rubio. “We are in the Gulf to ensure the viability of American trade with partners like Europe, China, and India, who unlike us depend on the free flow of Gulf oil. With this move, the Democrats have shown once again that they are bad for American business and the economy.”
“The administration is trying to put a good face on a disaster,” said former CIA Director David Petraeus. “This was a decision made in Riyadh, not Washington. This White House long ago compromised its position in the region when it lost the confidence of the Saudis over its hapless Iran policy.”
Petraeus has become an increasingly vocal critic of the Obama Administration since the June publication of his book The End of the American Moment in the Middle East, which details his commands in Iraq and Afghanistan and explains why he ultimately accepted responsibility for the Benghazi scandal that captured the headlines in the weeks before the 2012 election. The Sept.11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate that cost the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, forced the resignations of U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, White House spokesman Jay Carney, and Petraeus.
In his book, Petraeus wrote that the Saudis, Jordan’s former monarch King Abdullah II (now a senior fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House), and former Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (recently sentenced to a 10-year prison term by the same judiciary he previously used to attack his rivals) had all expected the White House to change course after the 2012 U.S. presidential elections by fully supporting the Sunni majority against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The idea, wrote Petraeus “was to set Iran’s regional project back by bringing down their one Arab ally once and for all. Instead, the administration let the Syrian civil war linger even after the CIA had confirmed reports that Assad had turned chemical weapons against the rebels in Homs. Assad camped out on the Mediterranean coast in the historical Alawite heartland where, working with the Iranians and Russians, he continued to destabilize the region, including the tragic spillover of the Syrian war into Lebanon. When Iran tested a nuclear device in August 2014, the White House lost the Saudis once and for all.”
Shortly after Obama’s re-election in 2012, senior White House aide Valerie Jarrett conducted negotiations with representatives of Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, who rejected the Obama Administration’s so-called grand bargain. The White House sought to convince then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give sanctions more time to work. But when outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaked to reporters that the White House was hoping for a Netanyahu defeat in that country’s January 2013 election, top officials in Netanyahu’s security Cabinet concluded Israel was on its own to deal with Iran.
The Israel Defense Forces’ May 2013 raid on parts of the Iranian nuclear program, including uranium-enrichment facilities at Natanz, Qom, and Fordow, seemed to have proven successful. Some defense experts argued that it looked as though Israel set back the program by more than two years. Yet images alleged to have documented the devastation caused by the attacks turned world opinion against Israel. Both the United States and the European Union dropped sanctions against the Iranian regime, which allowed Tehran to rebuild its nuclear weapons program more quickly than had been expected. When Iran tested its nuclear device, the Saudis took matters into their own hands.
With the aged Saudi monarch King Adbullah incapacitated, Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, the relatively youthful 53-year-old Mohamed bin Nayef, jumped over a generation of potential rivals to become the de facto ruler in Riyadh. He pushed for a more energetic regional policy that would operate without American assistance and sometimes actively exclude it. Washington offered only mild protests when Saudi Arabia annexed Bahrain after Shia militants, believed to have been backed by Iran, killed an American naval officer in a Manama bar.
Nayef’s diplomatic outreach extended to some unlikely figures, including Israeli Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, said to be one of his closest confidantes among world leaders. Their relationship, Arab and Israeli sources say, is premised not only on their mutual fear of Iran, but also the Muslim Brotherhood, which governs the Islamic emirates of Jordan and Syria, and governed Egypt before the military coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi. Nayef also reached out to Saudi’s erstwhile Sunni rivals in Qatar to cement a strategic relationship between the two Gulf powers. Their bilateral accord was perhaps facilitated by the massacre in Brussels of an official Qatari delegation, a terrorist attack that is believed to have been the work of a Hezbollah assassination team. The Riyadh-Doha agreement would come to include the formation of a multinational Middle East task force, the so-called Sunni Consortium, with the largest contribution of forces coming from Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt.
European Union officials as well as American defense experts have expressed reservations about whether the Doha-based Consortium fleet, comprising the Turkish and Egyptian navies, is capable of providing the same level of security that the Americans had ensured for nearly half a century. “We’ll miss the Americans,” said one senior Arab official in Riyadh. “But when we needed them most, there was just no one to answer the phone at 3 a.m.”
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).