Forget Iran. Here's the real US foreign policy 'catastrophe' in the Middle East

Sean McFate, senior fellow, Atlantic Council
The U.S. is losing it's leading role as a Middle East power broker, and that's a foreign policy disaster we must push back on, says Sean McFate.

President Trump 's plan to abandon the Iran nuclear deal is like the BREXIT: It caused a continental earthquake. Iran and Israel are inching towards an all-out war that could redefine the Middle East.

Meanwhile, experts in Washington are debating what to do like it's 2012, when the U.S. was the powerbroker. But it's 2018 and Moscow has supplanted Washington in the region, a key fact missing in the debate.

By focusing too much on the dead nuclear deal, we miss the bigger picture: Our contest is not with Iran or even the Middle East — it's with Russia . Until the U.S. gets serious about the Russian threat, we will cede much of the Middle East to Moscow in a self-inflicted catastrophe of American foreign policy.

I just spent three months in Israel, and many Israelis believe war with Iran is inevitable. Israel's redlines are simple: No Iranian troops or advanced weapons in Syria. Iran's are equally simple: Become the Middle East's dominant state. This dynamic assures conflict, and the past months have seen unprecedented escalation.

The U.S. is no longer the indispensable nation in the Middle East — it's Russia. Putin has more control in this powder keg than American experts like to admit.

Who told Israel to "cool it" after their F-16 jet was shot down by Syrian forces? Russia. Who told Iran to knock off its toxic anti-Israel rhetoric? Russia. Who told Israel to stop airstrikes in Syria? Russia. Who told Iran to "calm down" after they lost seven soldiers in the attack? Russia. Who did Netanyahu meet last week to get Iran in line? Russia. Russia has even vowed to protect Israel from an Iranian attack.

Why would Israel turn to Russia, a country that backs its mortal enemy Iran? Because Israel is a savvy realpolitik actor, and becomes Machiavellian when facing existential threats like Iran. Jerusalem knows Moscow can influence Tehran and Washington cannot.

More importantly — and this is what most Americans miss —Israel has deep roots in Russia. The U.S. is not the only country with a "special relationship" with the Jewish state. Back in the early 1990s, Israel absorbed a million Russian Jews — a 20 percent expansion of its population — in just a few years.

Now Russian is a second language in Israel, and El Al airlines flies non-stop to Moscow twice a day. Many Israelis hold Russian passports, and Netanyahu spends as much time courting Putin as he does Trump.

This embrace is fueled by the growing rift between American and Israeli Jews, embodied by Natalie Portman's recent boycotting of the 2018 Genesis Prize, also known as the "Jewish Nobel Prize." Portman, born in Jerusalem, opposes the government's treatment of Palestinians. She's not alone.

Russia is increasingly emerging as an enemy of the U.S., not just a rival. The Iranian nuclear deal is secondary — what matters is Russia. Moscow is not going away and has relegated Washington to the sidelines. This is not a partisan issue — it's an American one. So, what's to be done?

First, the U.S. must push back on Russian influence in the region. This does not suggest the zero-sum logic of the Cold War, but something more nuanced. Start by stripping Russian transactional partners like Turkey, which has centuries of friction with Russia.

Then move onto Egypt, always pivotal but not (yet) in Moscow's camp. Get ahead of Putin in places like Lebanon that just elected new leadership. Not everyone there is pleased about Iran's encroaching dominance, or Russia's. Broaden the American agenda beyond counterterrorism because this alone does not inspire followership.

Second, we must reduce openings for Russia to exploit. The U.S. has been a polarizing and destabilizing force since the Iraq invasion. We have teed-up Putin as a hyper-empowered mediator, which is why Netanyahu went to Moscow instead of Washington.

This means working with partners in the region rather than egging them on when they clash, as the Trump administration has done by moving the U.S. embassy in Israel. Instead, the U.S. should lead efforts to prevent problems from becoming crises and crises from becoming conflicts. Denying Putin's role as peace broker in the region will undercut his power.

Third, do what Russia does so well: apply pressure elsewhere. Russia can focus on the Middle East because it is undistracted by pushy satellite states. It's time the U.S. and allies started supporting those satellite states again, as we did in the Cold War.

This doesn't infer proxy wars. Instead, it means upholding human rights and anti-corruption initiatives in Russian puppet states. Get Moscow worried about its home front, so it has less time to focus on the Middle East.

Commentary by Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Changing Character of War Centre, Oxford University. He is author of the forthcoming book, 'The 10 New Rules of War' (January 2019). Follow him on twitter @seanmcfate

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