Ross: Mideast turning to Russia because we're weak

Obama's former Middle East adviser says Israel and Arab countries are turning to Russia because of America's weakness.

Ben Ariel ,

Dennis Ross
Dennis Ross
Uri Lenz/Flash 90

Dennis Ross, who served as President Barack Obama's Middle East adviser from 2009 to 2011, published an op-ed on the Politico website on Sunday, in which he said that Israel and Arab countries are turning to Russia because of the United States’ weakness.

Noting that the United States has significantly more military capability in the Middle East today than Russia, Ross pointed out that Middle Eastern leaders are nevertheless “making pilgrimages to Moscow to see Vladimir Putin these days, not rushing to Washington.”

“Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to see the Russian president, his second trip to Russia since last fall, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia is planning a trip soon. Egypt’s president and other Middle Eastern leaders have also made the trek to see Putin,” wrote Ross.

“Why is this happening, and why on my trips to the region am I hearing that Arabs and Israelis have pretty much given up on President Barack Obama? Because perceptions matter more than mere power: The Russians are seen as willing to use power to affect the balance of power in the region, and we are not,” he wrote.

Obama, continued Ross, “believes in the use of force only in circumstances where our security and homeland might be directly threatened. His mindset justifies pre-emptive action against terrorists and doing more to fight the Islamic State. But it frames U.S. interests and the use of force to support them in very narrow terms.”

In the Middle East it is Putin’s views on the uses of coercion, including force to achieve political objectives, that appears to be the norm, not the exception—and that is true for our friends as well as adversaries,” he wrote.

“The Saudis acted in Yemen in no small part because they feared the United States would impose no limits on Iranian expansion in the area, and they felt the need to draw their own lines. In the aftermath of the nuclear deal, Iran’s behavior in the region has been more aggressive, not less so, with regular Iranian forces joining the Revolutionary Guard now deployed to Syria, wider use of Shiite militias, arms smuggling into Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and ballistic missile tests,” continued Ross.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria has “put the Russians in a stronger position without imposing any meaningful costs on them,” he added.

“Middle Eastern leaders recognize it as well and realize they need to be talking to the Russians if they are to safeguard their interests. No doubt, it would be better if the rest of the world defined the nature of power the way Obama does. It would be better if, internationally, Putin were seen to be losing. But he is not,” wrote Ross, who also pointed out that “Obama’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia did not alter the perception of American weakness and our reluctance to affect the balance of power in the region. The Arab Gulf states fear growing Iranian strength more than they fear the Islamic State—and they are convinced that the administration is ready to acquiesce in Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony.”

He also wrote that, “As I hear on my visits to the region, Arabs and Israelis alike are looking to the next administration. They know the Russians are not a force for stability; they count on the United States to play that role. Ironically, because Obama has conveyed a reluctance to exercise American power in the region, many of our traditional partners in the area realize they may have to do more themselves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing unless it drives them to act in ways that might be counterproductive.”

Ross called for the United States to convince Middle East countries “to know that America’s word is good and there will be no more ‘red lines’ declared but unfulfilled; that we see the same threats they do; and that U.S. leaders understand that power affects the landscape in the region and will not hesitate to reassert it.”

Among the steps that would help convey such an impression, he wrote, would be the toughening of American declaratory policy toward Iran about the consequences of cheating on the nuclear deal. This should “include blunt, explicit language on employing force, not sanctions, should the Iranians violate their commitment not to pursue or acquire a nuclear weapon”.

As well, he wrote, the U.S. should “launch contingency planning with GCC states and Israel—who themselves are now talking—to generate specific options for countering Iran’s growing use of Shiite militias to undermine regimes in the region.”

Obama’s foreign policy has repeatedly come under fire. House Speaker Paul Ryan recently said that, during a trip to the Middle East, he heard many complaints about Obama’s leadership.

"I felt like our allies needed reassurance that we... value these friendships and partnerships,” he said.