As Jennifer noted yesterday, the latest WikiLeaks revelations definitively refute Barack Obama’s “linkage” theory: that Israeli concessions to the Palestinians were necessary to persuade Arab states to oppose Iran’s nuclear program. But what the documents reveal about the profound strategic misconception behind this theory is frightening.
The list of Arab states urging America to bomb Iran, and the forcefulness with which they urged it, is astonishing. It includes Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates; virtually the only exception was Qatar. Clearly, no Israeli concessions were needed to persuade these countries that strong action against Iran was desirable.
But both Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush insisted that this behind-the-scenes urging wasn’t enough; they needed Arab states to go public with it. As CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid told UAE officials in 2007, “we need our friends to say that they stand with the Americans.”
If Bush had any strategy for achieving this goal, it doesn’t emerge from the reports I’ve seen. But Obama did: linkage. If America showed that it’s on the Arabs’ side by extracting Israeli concessions, the theory went, then Arab states would no longer be reluctant to stand publicly beside the U.S.
But the idea that “soft power” could solve a quintessentially hard-power problem is a profound misconception, because the issue wasn’t the Arabs’ view of Washington as too pro-Israel; that never stopped them from supporting America if it served their interests before.
The real issue was their fear, given the visible reluctance to attack Iran displayed by both Bush and Obama, that if they publicly urged America to bomb Iran, and then America didn’t do it — they would be left alone to face the wrath of a nuclear-armed neighbor. And no amount of arm-twisting directed at Israel could possibly assuage that fear.
Indeed, only one thing could have done so: a clear American determination to attack Iran. You needn’t look far to find the model; it’s the one used by the first President George Bush in the Gulf War.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Arab states also initially refused to publicly back American action against Iraq. The day after the invasion, the Arab League even passed a resolution warning against outside intervention in the conflict.
But Bush, ignoring the verbiage, took swift action to assure Iraq’s neighbors that America wouldn’t leave them to face Iraq alone. Within a week, two naval battle groups had deployed to the area and more than 80 fighter jets had begun patrolling Saudi Arabia’s border. More forces arrived subsequently.
Only then did he start forming his coalition to invade Iraq. And with their protection assured, nine Arab states ultimately joined it.
Today, too, Arab states won’t publicly support attacking Iran without the surety that America will follow through. Nor can you blame them: they’re the ones who will have to live with a vengeful nuclear neighbor if America punts.
But you can certainly blame Washington for the delusion that gestures on an unrelated issue would suffice to allay a well-grounded existential fear — and be deeply worried that American leaders could misread the situation that profoundly.