US lurching toward Middle East quagmire

M K Bhadrakumar

Published November 28 2012 on Indian Punchline  

Barack Obama’s second term as president hasn’t yet begun, but it is going to be a tumultuous one as far as his Middle East policy is concerned. Whether he could disengage the US from the Greater Middle East with the ease that was hoped for in order to “rebalance” in Asia seems increasingly doubtful. To be sure, Asian countries are also watching the Middle Eastern events and the quagmire the US is getting into.

Hardly has the Gaza conflict been halted in an uncertain ceasefire that may or may not hold, Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi has walked into the eye of a storm that has been brewing for some time, which pits the Muslim Brotherhood against the rest on the domestic political arena.

And Morsi happened to be Obama’s main interlocutor during the Gaza crisis. The two statesmen apparently held several long, unpublicized telephone conversations and Obama has warmed up to the “moderate” Islamist leader. However, the Saudi establishment daily Asharq Alawsat has featured a sarcastic report on Obama’s dalliance with Morsi, which Riyadh thoroughly disapproves.

The Saudi apprehension is that Obama is going too far, too fast with the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas the ground reality is that the US is indeed unable to decide whether to back Morsi to the hilt in the present upheaval on Tahrir square or to dump him or to mark time and simply go by the “wind factor”.

The White House is not saying anything, the state department has said the minimum necessary, the benevolent American media strives to project Morsi as a reasonable man while the American embassy in Cairo tweets in sympathy with the protestors on Tahrir Square. Is it a fair division of labour or is it a matter of running with the hare and hunting with the hound? Time will tell.

But all this may turn out to be a picnic if the tidings from Saudi Arabia are taken into account. For all purposes, it seems, King Abdullah is “clinically dead” and a formal announcement may follow in a couple of days. This is, again, according to Asharq Alawsat, which should know what it is reporting.

So, the Saudi succession story is about to commence. In the opinion of most experts, this is not going to be an orderly succession since the ground rules are unclear and it is virgin territory, and if so, it is anybody’s guess what may happen if and when some three or four thousand princes plunge into palace intrigues.

For all purposes, Saudi Arabia is going to be deeply immersed in its domestic issues for a while. What happens now to the Saudi drive for a “regime change” in Syria? And the Sunni-Shi’ite schism that the Saudis have been promoting? Or, the Saudi strategy of “containment” of Iran? Or, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan where the stirrings of democratic empowerment are already apparent? There are no easy answers. Earlier today, a Saudi diplomat was murdered in Yemen.

The paradox is that Obama is on the right track in contemplating a transformative Middle East policy for the US. Turning and turning in the old groove, US policy is at a dead end and its regional influence in this strategically vital region is on the decline.

But the US’ so-called allies aren’t going to let Obama have an easy time if he begins to talk with Iran or to accept the Muslim Brotherhood as the US’ legitimate interlocutor. (To my mind, he is hundred percent right in doing so.) Not only the Saudis, even the Emirates is upset. The oligarchs of the Persian Gulf are plain worried about their future — caught between (Shi’ite) Iran and (Sunni) Islamism and Obama giving primacy to the US’ long term interests.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.





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