Debate Magazine

Lessons from Netanyahu and Cameron for American Allies

Posted on the 31 May 2015 by Shahalexander

At the Japan-US Dialogue hosted by the Global Forum Japan on March 11, Professor Isao Miyaoka and Professor Yuichi Hosoya, both from Keio University, mentioned some theoretical concepts of the alliance. Particularly, the risk of being embroiled in partners’ affairs and being abandoned by others is critical. Usually it is assumed that a stronger ally exploits a weaker ally when there are perception gaps about threats. However, James Holmes, Associate Professor at US Naval War College mentions that things completely the opposite can happen. While a weaker ally wants to make use of the power of the alliance hegemony as much as possible to maximize its national interests, a stronger ally does not want to run the risk of confronting the challenger, as Corcyra 。。did to Athens during the Peloponesian War (“Thucydides, Japan and America”; Diplomat; November 27, 2012).
The above mentioned Thucydides quotation by Holmes presents quite helpful aspects to understand how to arrange the relationship between the United States and the allies. Particularly, recent disagreements on Iranian nuclear threats between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama give important lessons for policymakers around the world. Despite sore relations with Obama, Netanyahu shares common understanding of Middle East security with American policymakers who are strongly concerned with White House appeasement to adversaries. On the other hand, British Prime Minister David Cameron enjoys a very friendly relationship with Obama, and even called “bro” by him. However, serious policymakers are critical to his defense policy as it lowers Britan’s military capability. Stark differences between both leaders give lessons that we must learn.
To begin with, let me talk about Benjamin Netanyahu. In this case, problems are perception gaps with the Obama administration on Iran’s nuclear threats and partisan split in the United States. The following points are key focuses. The first one is the effectiveness of the deal itself as it is temporary. Secondly, inherent nature of Iran’s threat beyond nuclear proliferation. Both issues are closely associated with perception gaps between the Obama administration and Middle Eastern allies that are directly menaced by Iran’s sponsorship for Shiite extremists, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Arabs. Republican and some Democrats share their worries as typically seen in Senator Tom Cotton’s open letter with 47 signatories to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to express their objection to the nuclear deal and its spill over effect on Middle East security. The final one makes things even more complicated as Russia and China are involved in Iran after the deal. For example, Russia sells S-300 anti-air missiles to Iran, which makes Israel, Arabs, and Capitol Hill raise eyebrows. Shortly after Netanyahu’s speech at the Congress, Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, commented that Netanyahu argued that Obama give more strategic priority to Iranian dominance in the Middle East than the battle against ISIS. As to the deal itself, he pointed out the intelligence gap between Israel and the West, and Satloff told that the United States must fill such a perception gap with Middle East allies including Israel to stop Iran from cheating. See the video below.
Netanyahu’s speech at the Congress on March 3, 2015

Robert Satloff intervied on March 4, 2015

Regarding the nuclear deal, opponents are concerned with loose restrictions on enriched uranium and centrifuges, and also its temporary nature. Though enriched uranium in Iran will be reduced, but not necessarily shipped abroad. None of Iran’s nuclear facilities will be closed. Also, centrifuges are not dismantled. This is a great retreat from his demand to Iran in 2012, and that makes Middle East allies critically concerned (“Obama’s Iran deal falls far short of his own goals”; Washington Post; April 2, 2015). Also, Michael Singh, Managing Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, comments that the deal is so unbinding as it is a temporary agreement without official documents. See the video below.

In view of criticism from opponents, Dennis Ross, Coucelor at the Washington Institute, argues that the Obama administration show how to deal with concerns with the nuclear deal, notably, breakout time, verification, and punishment for violation. As an advisor to Obama, Ross himself admits that the current deal moved back from Obama’s first term objective to incapacitate Iran’s nuclear development. However, he says that the deal can turn Iran’s intention peaceful (“Deal or No, Iran Will Remain a Nuclear Threat”; Politico; March 31, 2015). Proponents of the deal say that Iran has been suffering from the sanction hit economy, and willing to comply with international nonproliferation norm. Therefore, they argue that we must reach a realistic agreement to achieve our vital objective to stop a nuclear armed Iran. However, that is hardly persuasive for opponents, as Iran and the United States disagree on the meaning of the deal each other. Though the Lausanne agreement on April 2 states that Iran is allowed to enrich uranium within 3.67% for 15 years, Ali Akbar Salehi, Direcrctor of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that his country could enrich uranium to 20% any time in an interview with Iran’s state owned Press TV (“Iran Nuclear Chief Threatens New Uranium Enrichment”; Washington Examiner; April 10. 2015). Furthermore, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded that the United States remove the sanctions immediately to implement the deal. Some say that is due to language gaps between English and Farsi documents. According to Rob Litwak, Vice President of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the gap comes from domestic politics on both sides, as hardliners in Iran do not want the deal with the Great Satan while those in the United States see the agreement with a rogue state skeptically. US opponents and Israel see the nature of Iranian regime matters much more than the text of the deal, while proponents argue that we focus on the text technically. Despite that, it is policy emphasis that causes different interpretation. While the United States wants to limit Iran’s capability to make fissile materials, Iran wants to enrich uranium for energy purpose (“The Language of the Iran Deal”; WNYC Brian Lehrer Show; April 13, 2015). Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz points out that Iran can cheat international inspectors easily as numerous facilities and fissile fuels remain intact. American allies in the Middle East see that Obama reached a temporary and weak agreement as a recognition of Iran’s regional hegemony. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is exploring their own nuclear deterrence (“The Iran Deal and Its Consequences”; Wall Street Journal; April 7, 2015).
The perception gap between the Obama administration and Middle East allies is beyond technical interpretation of the deal. We must understand it from much more comprehensive security implication of the Middle East.

While the Obama administration regards Iran as a some sort of partner to defeat ISIS, the opponents see Iran’s ambition for regional dominance and sponsorship to Shiite extremists the most critical threat in the region. Saudi Arabian former Director of General Intelligence Prince Turki bin Faisal presented an overview of the implication of this nuclear deal to Middle East security, at Chatham House on March 19. He said that the nuclear deal would provoke a nuclear arms race as regional stakeholders were concerned with the US-Iranian collusion to allow more Tehran’s influence in the Gulf area. Regarding Obama’s engagement in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia wants action, not rhetoric, for regional security, and they regard US help to the Free Syrian Army as the vital test. On the other hand, Prince Turki said that the Iraqi government worried too much about offending Iran, and therefore, Saudi Arabia can hardly exert influence there. See the video below.

As Prince Turki talked at Chatham House, Saudi Arabia now regards Obama so unreliable that the Sultan did not attend the Camp David meeting this May, and this country was even considering buying nuclear weapons from Pakistan (“Saudi Arabia vs. Iran”; Value Walk; May 21, 2015). Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is similarly concerned with the loopholes of the deal, as Iran can obstruct inspectors, and acquire nuclear bomb in the end as North Korea did (“Current Iran framework will make war more likely”; Washington Post; April 8, 2015). Actually Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected international inspector accesses to their military facilities and interviews with Iranian scientists, as Saddam Hussein did (“Iran’s Supreme Leader Rules Out Broad Nuclear Inspections”; New York Times; May 20, 2015).
Obama wants a nuclear compromise with Iran just in order to defeat ISIS, and even helps their Shiite proxies (“Complex US-Iran ties at heart of complicated Mideast policy”; Rudaw; 27 March, 2015). Max Boot, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations says furthermore, that the US Air Force has become the Iranian Air Force (“America’s New Role: As Iran’s Air Force”; Commentary; March 25, 2015). However, Michael Ledeen, Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the United States and Iran cannot work together simply because they have a common enemy in Iraq. Iran curses America every occasion since the Islamic Revolution. Moreover, Iranian terrorists killed Americans and even plotted to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. In view of such long and harsh hostility to America and its staunch ally Israel, it is unlikely that Iran quits their expansionist ambition (“The Iran Deal: Forget About Stability, Our Strategy Should Be Survival”; Forbes; April 15, 2015).

Iran sponsors terrorists like Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Also, Iran recruits combatants in Afghanistan to support the Assad administration in Syria. In addition to these regional manipulation, Iran launches massive cyber attacks globally. It is geopolitics and international isolation that drives Iran to act so provocatively. Though Iran is located at the junction of Western Asia and Central Asia, it has no natural defensive borders. Historically, the Turkic invaded from the north, and Mesopotamia had been the disputed are against the Semitic nations, Rome, Araba, and the Ottoman Empire. Also, Iran found itself completely isolated from both the West and Middle East neighbors during the Iran-Iraq War. Therefore, the Shiite regime in Tehran helps their proxies in the Middle East to overcome historical insecurity (“Why Iran Needs to Dominate the Middle East”; National Interest; April 10. 2015). In view of the above mentioned problems, Retired General David Petraeus supports Israel’s concern that Shiite militia could prevail throughout the Middle East, which would make the whole of this area vulnerable to Iranian influence. In addition, as the Obama administration withdrew troops from Iraq too soon, he said that Iran understood it as weakness of American power in the Middle East. The problem is, Iran wants to dominate the Middle East, annihilate Israel, and continue to develop nuclear bomb (“Former general splits with Obama; says Iran, not ISIS, is the real enemy.”; National Review; March 20, 2015). Furthermore, Iran still continues cooperation in nuclear project with North Korea (“State: We can't deny Iran nuclear cooperation with North Korea; it won't stop nuke deal”; Washington Examiner; May 28, 2015). Netanyahu fears that the nuclear talks proceed at an unfavorable time when Iran is sponsoring their proxies in Yemen. A weak agreement can embolden their expansionism furthermore, and Israel sees that the nuclear deal gives reward to Iran without pushing them (“Netanyahu accuses Iran of trying to 'conquer the entire Middle East' amid looming nuclear deal”; FOX News; March 29, 2015).
The perception gap between the Obama administration and Middle East allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia is so huge. In addition, Russia and China are exploring to deepen relations with Iran after the nuclear deal, including the defense area.

When there are perception gaps between both governments, should allies make use of domestic political rivalry to enhance their influence in US foreign policy? Despite the above mentioned defects of the nuclear deal and dangers of Obama’s Middle East strategy, Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, comments critically to Netanyahu’s deep involvement in Washington politics. Remember that Kagan is no proponent of Obama’s foreign policy. Then, why does is he so critical of it?
He says that Netanyahu’s involvement in Washington politics is a foreign intrusion, regardless of the strategic importance of Israel and his tense relations with Obama. Also, that would preclude America from shaping a national consensus on Iran policy. As Kagan mentions, partisan split is a serious problem for American foreign policymakers. Furthermore, Winston Churchill gave the Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri without presidential invitation because he already stepped down from public job (“Five reasons Netanyahu should not address Congress”; Washington Post; January 29, 2015). Kagan still continues that if House Speaker John Boehner can invite Netanyahu to the Congress, that will allow Democrats to do the same against the Republican administration (“At what price Netanyahu?”; Washington Post; February 27, 2015). The case of Netanyahu gives critical lessons to be learned when America does not act as expected. Asian nations are so pleased to hear of Obama’s strategic rebalance, but that is no guarantee for his security commitment to them. What happens if he appeases to China as he does to Iran now?
On the other hand, in the case of David Cameron, the problem is the capability. Cameron enjoys good personal relationship with Obama. At Nelson Madela’s funeral in December 2013 in Pretoria, Cameron took selfies with Obama and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt so cheerfully (“David Cameron defends 'selfie' at Nelson Mandela memorial”; Daily Telegraph; 11 December 2013). However, that does not necessarily give him credit from American policymakers. Since the 2010 SDSR, Britain’s defense capability has been curtailed, which makes many Americans critically concerned. General Raymond Odierno, Chief of the Staff of the US army, commented that Britain’s defense cut might jeopardize the Anglo-American alliance as Britain has been the most reliable partner in US military operations across the globe in the postwar period. Particularly, the rise of Russian threat after the Ukraine crisis and the emergence of a self-called caliphate by ISIS necessitate NATO member states to re-strengthen their defense, and Britain leads this effort. But its army, navy, and air force were cut so drastically that the military capability barely meets the requirement for global actions. The manpower and the number of flight squadrons are too small to operate Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (“US fears that Britain's defense cuts will diminish Army on the world stage”; Daily Telegraph; 1 March 2015). Despite that, British voters are too happy to see its defense spending plunge below its overseas development aid (“EXCLUSIVE: UK set to spend MORE on foreign aid than on Armed Forces”; Daily Express; March 1, 2015).

The problem with UK defense is excessive focus on NATO requirement of the GDP 2% line, but the real capability is not the budget. Alexander Clarke, a naval historian, argues that Britain make it clear their defense needs and what they want for those objectives (“The Defence Debate – why the UK needs to change the subject”; USNI Blog; February 20, 2015). Actually, Britain faces challenges to defend even its own sovereign territory. In Scotland, Russian submarines navigate close to the UK Trident submarine base at Faslane. Britain needs help from its allies, including the United States, Canada, France, and so forth to counter Russian undersea fleet. In other words, Britain cannot protect its own independent nuclear by itself, because Cameron cut anti-submarine capability (“A Suspected Russian Submarine Is Lurking Off Of The Scottish Coast”; Business Insider; January 9, 2015). This is appalling, considering Britain’s leading contribution to NATO to counter Soviet submarine force during the Cold War with its rich experience to fight against German U-boats. The rise of nationalism in Argentina poses another threat. While the Royal Navy decommissioned the Invincible class aircraft carriers before the Queen Elizebeth class are deployed, Argentina leases Su-24 bombers from Russia that are capable of attacking Falkland Islands (“Britain's military defences in the Falkland Islands”; Daily Telegraph; 24 March 2015).
It is quite unbelievable that a global naval power like Britain have a blank period in capital ships. The decline of Britain’s military capability is closely associated with lack of foreign policy visions. Maxine David, Lecturer at the University of Sussex, analyzes such a trend as the following. Prior to the forthcoming general election, party leaders hardly talked about foreign policy in the debate on April 2. Antipathy to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rise of local nationalism has made Britain more isolationist. Furthermore, the decline of public attention to global security turn UK foreign policy more trade oriented (“State of the Nation: Britain’s Role in the World Just Keeps Shrinking” The Conversation; 29 April 2015). This is typically seen in Britain’s bid for AIIB membership, which was the first among European nations. The problem is, Britain is not likely to assume global role when the world faces increasingly multiplied threats (“World crises may be multiplying, but campaign turns Britain further inward”; Washington Post; April 25, 2015). Britain’s engagement is declining from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, to Asia. The Cameron administration even did not protest strongly against China’s repression to student rallies in Hong Kong. France also worries a more isolationist Britain as military role is sensitive for Germany (“Britain’s Drift From the Global Stage Becomes an Election Issue”; New York Times; April 27, 2015).

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