Obama the Hedgehog Must Now Become a Fox

by Robert E. Hunter

In fighting and succeeding to gain congressional approval of the agreement to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, President Barack Obama has proved to be a very able hedgehog. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” as Isaiah Berlin used to say. Obama indeed knew the “one big thing” he most needed to know, rolled himself into a ball, and warded off an army of determined opponents. In so doing, he has taken the first, difficult step toward repairing (if that is the right word) the frightful damage that his predecessor did in the Middle East and to US interests by invading Iraq a decade ago and shattering what passed for order and stability throughout the region.

Thus full credit goes to Obama and shame to many of his opponents, including those in the Republican Party who simply want him to fail at something important, whatever damage that would do to the United States, and those who are responding less to an analysis of US interests than to the views of foreign leaders, notably in Israel and Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

Despite votes still to come in Congress and recognizing that there can be “many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip,” Obama does now seem to command the votes in the Senate to ensure his victory. When the process is truly done, the president and his team, ably led by Secretary of State John Kerry, are due congratulations. The president will have earned “his place in the history books” regarding a part of the world that so often poses the toughest foreign policy challenges.

But not so fast. It is far from clear that the nuclear agreement with Iran will lead toward a resolution of the host of critical issues, challenges, and threats that still engulf the Middle East and promise to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. It can be hoped that Iran will continue its slow progress toward reemerging into the outside world and that it will prefer to play a positive role and reap the economic and political benefits rather than just pocketing the progressive reduction of sanctions and pursuing self-interested business throughout the region.

History argues for the former. Yet, to his credit, Obama has not bet either the nuclear deal or his reputation on that becoming true. His critics continue to yammer, take out full-page ads in major US newspapers, and even now urge the administration to “commit to a policy of coercive diplomacy.” But in seeking to move beyond confrontation, Obama has almost surely put himself on the side of the argument more likely to prevail and he has done what is needed to protect US interests if that judgment proves to be wrong.

Playing the Fox

So why “not so fast?” Although a president can succeed in some things by successfully playing the hedgehog, in others he also has to be the fox. That is certainly true in the Middle East. It is not enough to “know one big thing” (a nuclear agreement with Iran and positive developments that could flow from it). A leader must also to know other “many things.” Here, neither he nor his administration has yet demonstrated enough of the needed knowledge (the same applies to the previous Bush administration). It thus follows that Obama has not acted in the Middle East on sufficient “needed knowledge,” from the beginning of his administration until the present.

For instance, even in the unlikely event that Iran were to become the most responsible nation in the entire Middle East—“responsible” as defined in the West—it plays only a small part in the region’s turmoil. Iran had no role in the 9/11 bombings, nor did it support the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Indeed, it cooperated with the United States in overthrowing that regime and has an even greater interest than we do in a stable, Islamist-limited Afghanistan. Iran played no role in the turbulence in Egypt, which is of such concern to so many today, or in Libya, where the West funked the follow-through to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Although Iran is pursuing its own interests in Iraq, it did not cause the overthrow of the old Sunni minority regime. And while it supports Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite minority in Syria, it did not start the trouble there.

Nor, for that matter, did Iran initiate the civil war in Yemen, and it certainly has had no role in the birth and growth of Wahhabi-sponsored terrorism that has taken its most extreme and threatening form in the so-called Islamic State. That responsibility lies with Saudi Arabia, or at least with rich Saudis who are granted complete license to act by the government in Riyadh, with only weak and ineffectual push-back from Washington.

If Iran does back off on some of the activities the West finds objectionable—notably its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its hostile statements about Israel—that would only take us part of the way to a regional future that meets the minimal requirements of locals (who have had enough of turmoil) and outsiders (who would like to see a region with some promise of greater stability).

As of now, however, there is no evidence that the Obama administration has plans to take on this mass of “fox” issues. Nor is it moving in a helpful direction.

Paying for the Agreement

Matters could prove to be even worse. In order to buy support for the Iran deal, the president, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, has given major hostages to fortune. Thus, given Israel’s concerns about Iran, not just about a bomb but also about Teheran’s potential as a major-power competitor in the region, Obama and Kerry wrote lengthy letters to reassure Israel’s supporters in Congress. They laid out an extensive package of military and other security support that goes far beyond what Israel could conceivably need for its security, itself a key US commitment. In particular, while so far denying Israel the most enormous US bunker-busting bombs—though some of Israel’s US supporters are urging this be done—the US is providing a smaller bunker-busting weapon that could still enable Israel to launch a unilateral military strike on Iran if it should decide to do so.

It is always folly for a major nation to put its security interests in pawn to decisions taken elsewhere, given that an Israeli attack on Iran would inevitably draw in the United States and do major damage to US interests and people. During the Cold War, British and French nuclear arsenals were designed for this purpose—to make sure that the US could not sit-out a major European war with the Soviet Union—but that was an entirely different matter: there was solid agreement within the Western alliance about the Soviet threat.

The US is also increasing its security cooperation with Arab states of the Persian Gulf. This cooperation includes a major increase in weapons sales—which, of course, brings huge revenues to the US—far beyond what could ever be needed to deal with any plausible military threat from Iran, which will remain second- or third-rate compared to its Arab neighbors across the Gulf.

Missing in this effort to buy off Israel and Gulf Arab states is any requirement that the relationship with these countries be two-way. Although not formal allies of the United States (that status applies only to NATO ally Turkey in the region), partnerships are supposed to work in two directions. Yet Israel requires much of the United States while continuing to defy a succession of US administrations with its building of settlements in the West Bank, which are major impediments to any possible progress on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insulted American leaders (Secretary of State Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, and President Obama) at least three times on this score. This has happened in direct opposition to the US contention that Israeli-Palestinian peace is a critical aspect of working toward a more stable region and hence promoting US interests.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states do sell oil to us and other Western countries—they have no choice!—and they do buy expensive Western weapons. But they continue to permit the spewing of Wahhabi hatred and provide massive funding for Sunni extremism. These activities pose the most immediate threat to Western interests in the Middle East by supplying the basic underpinning of the Islamic State and contributing to the flow of migrants from the Levant into Europe. And although these same Gulf Arab countries continue to support the destabilization of Iraq and Syria while seeking the overthrow of the Alawite apostate, al-Assad, they have done virtually nothing to aid the refugees. They have not admitted them to their countries or put up money to succor them in their suffering.

There has been at least one more deleterious consequence of the White House effort to buy off Israel and the Gulf Arabs: accepting their narrative that Iran is, if not the root of all evil in the region, at least a long-term menace that has to be contained, formally if possible. Obama’s and Kerry’s letters to members of Congress endorse this case, although in many aspects it is open to dispute. This has already created a group-think that will make adjusting relations with Iran difficult if Teheran radically changes its relationship to the outside world, including the United States. In US thinking and discussing of possible security processes and structures for the Persian Gulf region, this approach has ruled out any possible role for Iran, whatever it does in the future: rigidity is the name of the game, just as it was in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But that standoff was with a far more powerful competitor, and it took decades to gnaw away at the certainties of confrontation once they became firm in national politics and psychology.

Of course, the United States is not the only country challenged by this mess. Our European allies have also lagged behind, beginning with their failure to follow through in Libya and their assumption that Uncle Sam will “take care of” trouble in the Levant and beyond.

But to the degree we do have a continuing interest in the region, for all of our traditional and newer reasons, we can’t get things right unless this administration begins to “think and act like a fox” and not just like a hedgehog. It may be too late for President Obama to get this right. He would have to begin by understanding that he has a problem, that his tight circle of advisors has isolated him from “the known knowns” that, as president and commander-in-chief, he needs to know.

At the moment, none of the candidates for president in 2016 has demonstrated the ability to do any better. Indeed, US presidential campaigns do not demand these skills of competing candidates. Thus, for now, we have to hope that President Obama, the successful hedgehog, will finally understand that, in the time left to him as chief executive, regarding the Middle East he must also think and act like a fox.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.