Today's Middle East is arguably more volatile and more dangerous than it has been for centuries. The rise of Islamic State and the prospect of a nuclear Iran each represent an unprecedented threat to global security. All the while the West appears increasingly at a loss as to what to do about any of this. Britain and America's influence in the region has weakened, and this newly emerging reality looks set to create some strange and previously inconceivable alliances.
Reports have been emerging from Middle Eastern news agencies of a secret meeting recently held in Jordan. What was particularly intriguing about this previously unpublicized gathering was that it reportedly brought together Israeli diplomats with those from Arab countries that officially have no dealings with the Jewish State; we can assume that figures from the Gulf countries were among those in attendance.
All the more interesting, it is being widely reported that the meeting was essentially convened to plan for a Middle East from which America has more or less retreated. Other reports claim that some of the Sunni states expressed openness to entering into security cooperation with Israel. If true, this indicates just how concerned the Sunni states are about the rise of a nuclear Iran, and just how little faith they have in U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy for negotiating Iran's nuclear program away.
Of course, we don't know that the approach adopted by Obama will outlive his presidency. But the worries of many of America's traditional allies in the region are clear. If America does continue to retreat from the Middle East, the vacuum left behind will quickly be filled by others. That could lead to an entire region that looks much as Iraq does today. Since Obama pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq at the end of 2011, the country has been lost to a tug-of-war between the Iranian-backed, Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and the Sunni Islamists militants who are now largely expressed through the Islamic State.
No one would deny that Iraq went through some dark days during the era of former U.S. President George W. Bush. But following the surge strategy launched in 2008, order was being restored, and it looked like there might be good reason for optimism. Now, as the Obama administration increasingly disengages from the Middle East, the region is slipping into turmoil, hurtling from one crisis to the next. Desperate times indeed call for desperate measures, and if the Gulf states are now reaching out to Israel, we know just how desperate things have become.
The policies pursued by Obama in the Middle East have either simply failed, or worse, they have completely backfired. Take the airstrikes against ISIS that we were told would turn back the advancing jihadist tide. The recent fall of Ramadi makes clear that this approach isn't working. And then there is the administration's strategy on Iran, which was supposed to restrain Iranian ambitions and prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. But the negotiations now look well on their way to achieving the opposite.
At the very time that Washington is pushing for reconciliation, the Iranians have been showing signs of becoming more belligerent, not less. By harassing international shipping along the Strait of Hormuz, as they have been in recent weeks, the Iranians are sending a pretty clear message - just in case the message of "Death to America" that continues to echo out across the public squares of Tehran wasn't clear enough.
Worse, it is not only the Iranians that have read the West's negotiation stance as a sign of weakness. No longer believing that the Obama administration will stop Iran, the Saudis are now threatening to develop their own nuclear capabilities and match those of Iran. The very negotiations that are meant to be preventing nuclear proliferation in the region may now be about to trigger a nuclear arms race in one of the most unstable parts of the world.
As the Gulf countries have dramatically increased their spending on military hardware, it is also worth remembering that back in 2010 it emerged from WikiLeaks that the Saudis were preparing to allow Israel to use their airspace for a strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure. It's always been fashionable to complain about American heavyhandedness in the Middle East. But under president Obama we are beginning to see what the alternative might look like.