November 6, 2014 | Business Insider
‘Chickens—gate’ Is All About Obama Trying To Silence Israel
In remarks to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg last week, anonymous senior Obama administration officials called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickens—.” These officials also gloated that the White House had prevented Israel from striking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Many pundits are interpreting the attack on Netanyahu within the narrow context of bilateral US-Israeli relations, or, narrower still, the toxic personal relations between the Israeli premier and President Barack Obama.
The insults, however, are actually part of a much wider story: namely, the deteriorating relations between Washington and all of its traditional Middle Eastern allies. America’s friends, almost without exception, have recoiled in horror as the president has pursued a rapprochement with Iran.
Before “chickens—” there was “horses—,” which was the word that Obama used to describe criticism of his Syria policy.
For the last three years, Sunni regional allies of the United States have been clamoring for a robust American effort to help the Syrian rebels militarily defeat the Assad regime. The notion, Obama retorted, that American aid could have changed the balance of power in Syria and simultaneously prevented the creation of a vacuum was “horses—.”
From the outset, Obama rejected rolling Iran back in Syria. Instead, he sent every signal to the Iranians that he recognized Syria as their sphere of influence. In order to deflect the Sunni allies’ pressure for action against Iran’s Syrian holdings, Obama moved to put the Sunnis on the defensive.
One method that the White House used to beat back the allies was a sly but aggressive messaging campaign that cast Turkey and the Gulf Arab states as sponsors of terrorism.
Through leaks to the press, it accused them of being enablers of Al-Qaeda-style jihadists in Syria. Breaking with diplomatic protocol, the administration went after the Turkish and Saudi heads of intelligence — explicitly leaking that it saw Prince Bandar bin Sultan as “the problem.”
The administration also knocked the Gulf states back on their heels by turning the spotlight on private charities in those states that were supporting groups in Syria — ignoring the fact that the Islamic State group (ISIS) funded itself primarily from oil sales and other criminal activities. This quiet messaging campaign created the public impression that the Sunni states, not Iran, were the real problem in Syria.
The strategy worked.
Obama imposed new priorities other than Iran on the international community. Little by little, Tehran became a partner in the war against Sunni jihadists.
The Saudis and the Gulf states had little choice but to fall in line, even as they continued to voice their view of the need to move against Assad. But Obama’s campaign had effectively neutralized them.
The Turks proved more resistant. But ultimately, Obama ignored them just the same. Besides, going after Turkey was like pushing against an open door, because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an unpopular figure in Washington.
Few recognized that the assault on the reputation of the Sunni allies was the first step in a two-step strategy aimed, ultimately, at handcuffing Israel. When all is said and done, silencing Israel was the top priority for Obama — far more so than silencing the Sunnis, who have neither the military capabilities of Israel nor its strong support on Capitol Hill.
Obama has spoken in terms of seeking equilibrium between the Sunni Gulf states and Iran. But his vision, in truth, entailed something entirely different. As Lee Smith clarified, “Obama really meant to say that he was balancing Iran and Israel — the one country that had the means and a possible motive to disrupt his grand regional project.”
By definition, creating such a balance meant he would come down on the side of Tehran.
If extremism was the tool with which to throw the Sunnis off balance, Israel was kept on its heels through the peace process and the issue of settlements, as Michael Doran explained. The White House supplemented this with leaks about Israeli strikes against Iranian assets in Syria in 2013 — namely weapons systems meant for Hezbollah.
This quite possibly was a signal to the Israelis to deter them from striking Iran. At the same time, it told the Iranians that Obama was committed to them and also capable of putting a leash on the Israelis.
Indeed, this is how some understood the purpose of the senior officials’ comments to Goldberg this time around. Not that it was hard to decipher. After all, the White House was openly bragging that it had pressured Israel and that its pressure paid off in preventing a strike on Iran.
Now, one of the officials said gleefully, “it’s too late” for an Israeli attack. “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing,” another official added. The Iranians are in the clear. The White House had Tehran’s back.
The irony is enormous. Here was the White House telegraphing to the Iranians the exact same reassurances that Obama gave the Israelis in 2012: that he didn’t bluff, and that he had their back. But in 2012, he was telling the Israelis that he would stop Iran.
Now, by contrast, he was telling the Iranians that he had stopped Israel. More ironic still, the messenger for both of these reassurances was none other than Jeffrey Goldberg.
First it was “horses–” and now it’s “chickens—.” But to America’s allies it all smells the same.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.