Posted tagged ‘Obama’s weakness’

Why Trump and US intel clash over Russia

January 6, 2017

Why Trump and US intel clash over Russia, DEBKAfile, January 6, 2017

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The furious clamor keeping the alleged Russian hacking scandal on the boil is being orchestrated by the outgoing president and his intelligence chiefs to ramp up US-Russian friction to an eve-of-cold war pitch.

It is important to note that Trump and his advisers, including designated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, don’t propose rushing into détente with Moscow or any sort of honeymoon. They are acting to restore relations to an even keel and end the disequilibrium of the past eight years, during which Obama just talked and Putin did what he wanted, especially in East Europe and the Middle East.

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America’s intelligence chiefs may have been singing their swan’s song Thursday and Friday (Jan. 5-6) when they hurled allegations of election-meddling “ordered at the highest Kremlin level” against Russia at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington. The committee’s chair John McCain picked up the ball and declared that Russian hacking was “an act of war,” after hearing grim testimony from the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the National Security Agency head Adm. Michael Rogers.

They disclosed that they had compiled a confidential intelligence report that demonstrated how President Vladimir Putin interfered in the US election campaign in favor of the winner, Donald Trump. They declined to divulge its contents but promised to release a shorter, censored version to the public next Monday, Jan. 9.

CIA chief John Brennan and Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson then proceeded to the White House to present the confidential report to President Barack Obama.

It will be put before President-elect Trump Friday.

The furious clamor keeping the alleged Russian hacking scandal on the boil is being orchestrated by the outgoing president and his intelligence chiefs to ramp up US-Russian friction to an eve-of-cold war pitch.

DEBKAfile’s Washington and intelligence sources find that the campaign is prompted by five motives:

1. The president-elect not only proposes to put relations with Moscow on a new and different footing, his transition teams are already at work with Putin’s advisers to chart areas of cooperation between the two powers, ready for the Trump administration to go forward when he moves into the White House on Jan. 20.

The most prominent area is the war on the Islamic State; another – the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. They are also exploring a joint US-Russian effort to resolve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

2. Obama, who has decided to retain a team for monitoring Trump’s policies, has plunged into a dogged fight against his successor’s decision to reset US-Russian ties.

Battling to salvage a part of his “legacy” is, Obama, exceptionally for departing American presidents, is determined to cast a long shadow over his successors’ actions and policies.

In the next four years, Barack Obama will keep hammering at the Russian hacking affair in order to keep the flames high against Trump’s “Russian steps.”

3. It is important to note that Trump and his advisers, including designated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, don’t propose rushing into détente with Moscow or any sort of honeymoon. They are acting to restore relations to an even keel and end the disequilibrium of the past eight years, during which Obama just talked and Putin did what he wanted, especially in East Europe and the Middle East.

If the effort to restore balance to the relationship works, cooperation in common areas of concern might follow. But if not, the rivalry will continue, except that henceforth America will operate from a position of strength.

4. Working together in the war on Islamic terror will call for a large measure of cooperation between US intelligence agencies and the Russian secret services.

Sixteen years ago, after 9/11, Putin proposed this kind of cooperation to President George W. Bush in the fight against Al Qaeda.

In 2011, he stepped in again with an offer of assistance to Obama in the Libyan war.

Putin was rebuffed by both presidents rebuffed him. Donald Trump is the first US leader ready to seriously explore Putin’s intentions.

The US intelligence community is up on arms at this prospect, mainly because its clandestine branches were purpose-built to confront Russia, America’s historic Cold War enemy. It is hard for them to wrench the wheel round and head in the opposite direction at the bidding of the Trump administration.

5, Notwithstanding denials by administration officers, the president elect has every intention of overhauling the character and operational methods of America’s intelligence services. His overarching goal is to cut down the vast numbers off officers, analysts and computer operations, which turn out mountains of intelligence reports most of which he claims no one reads.

Trump plans to focus more on the product of secret agents in the field, and so save the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on desk staff and high-tech computer systems. His administration will prefer to rely more on human intelligence and less on technology-based input.

Trump encapsulated his approach to intelligence and computers in a remark to reporters on New Year’s day: “No computer is safe. You want something to really go without detection, write it out and have it sent by courier.”

The Resilience of Israel

December 29, 2016

The Resilience of Israel, Town HallVictor Davis Hanson, December 29, 2016

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The Obama administration’s estrangement from Israel has had the odd effect of empowering Israel.

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Israel would seem to be in a disastrous position, given the inevitable nuclear capabilities of Iran and the recent deterioration of its relationship with the United States, its former patron and continued financial benefactor.

Immediately upon entering office, President Obama hectored Israel on so-called settlements. Obama promised to put “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel — and delivered on that promise.

Last week, the U.S. declined to veto, and therefore allowed to pass, a United Nations resolution that, among other things, isolates Israel internationally and condemns the construction of housing in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Obama has long been at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over objections from the Obama administration, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress last year about the existential dangers of the Obama-brokered Iran deal and the likelihood of a new Middle East nuclear proliferation race.

Obama then doubled down on his irritation with Netanyahu through petty slights, such as making him wait during White House visits. In 2014, an official in the Obama administration anonymously said Netanyahu, a combat veteran, was a “coward” on Iran.

At a G-20 summit in Cannes, France, in 2011, Obama, in a hot-mic slip, trashed Netanyahu. He whined to French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “You’re tired of him? What about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

In contrast, Obama bragged about his “special” relationship with autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Never mind that Erdogan seems to want to reconstruct Turkey as a modern Islamist version of the Ottoman Empire, or that he is anti-democratic while Israel is a consensual society of laws.

The Middle East surrounding democratic Israel is a nightmare. Half a million have died amid the moonscape ruins of Syria. A once-stable Iraq was overrun by the Islamic State.

The Arab Spring, U.S. support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the coup of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to regain control of Egypt, and the bombing of Libya all have left North Africa in turmoil.

Iran has been empowered by the U.S.-brokered deal and will still become nuclear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bombers blast civilians not far from Israel’s borders.

Democrats are considering Rep. Keith Ellison as the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee despite his past ties to the Nation of Islam and his history of anti-Israel remarks.

Yet in all this mess, somehow Israel is in its best geostrategic position in decades. How?

The answer is a combination of unintended consequences, deft diplomacy, political upheavals in Europe and the United States, and Israel’s own democratic traditions.

Huge natural gas and oil finds off Israel’s Mediterranean coast and in the Golan Heights have radically changed Israel’s energy and financial positions. Israel no longer needs to import costly fossil fuels and may soon be an exporter of gas and oil to needy customers in Europe and the Middle East. (America recently became the world’s greatest producer of carbon energy and also no longer is dependent on Middle Eastern oil imports, resulting in less political influence by Arab nations.) Israel is creating its own version of Silicon Valley at Beersheba, which is now a global hub of cybersecurity research.

The Obama administration’s estrangement from Israel has had the odd effect of empowering Israel.

Rich Persian Gulf states see Obama as hostile both to Israel and to themselves, while he appeases the common enemy of majority-Shiite Iran.

After a “leading from behind” U.S withdrawal from the Middle East, many Arab nations now see Israel more as a powerful ally against Iran than as an old existential enemy. They also see Israel as a country that has likewise been snubbed by America.

The idea of an Arab-Israeli understanding is surreal, but it is developing from shared fears of being targets of Iranian bombing and American indifference.

Many of Israel’s neighbors are threatened by either ISIS or al-Qaida nihilists. Those deadly dangers remind the world that democratic, free-market Israel is the sole safe port amid a rising Middle East tsunami.

Changing Western politics are empowering Israel as well.

More than 2 million migrants — for the most part, young males from the war-torn Middle East — have terrified Europe, especially after a series of radical Islamic terrorist killings. Suddenly, Europe is far more worried about Israel’s neighbors than about lecturing Israel itself.

Pushback against the Obama administration extends to its foreign policy. President-elect Donald Trump may be more pro-Israel than any recent U.S. president. And he may be the first U.S. leader to move the American embassy to Israel’s capital in West Jerusalem.For all the chaos and dangers abroad, the map of global energy, Western politics and Middle Eastern alliances has been radically redrawn.At the center is a far stronger Israel that has more opportunities than at any other time in its history. It will have an even brighter future after Obama has left office.

Dangerous Weakness in Iraq and Syria

September 23, 2016

Dangerous Weakness in Iraq and Syria, Counter Jihad, September 22, 2016

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US Secretary of State John F. Kerry “urges” Russia and Syria to ground their military aircraft after the destruction of a humanitarian aid convoy. Meanwhile, in the eastern part of that same theater, American and Iraq forces came under a sulfur mustard (commonly known as “mustard gas”) attack from the Islamic State (ISIS).

This is not the first use of sulfur mustard by ISIS and their predecessors.  They used them in IEDs against American forces during the Iraq War, and against Kurdish forces as late as last year.  Nevertheless, they clearly do not fear to use them against Americans at this time.  Whatever message we are conveying to ISIS, it does not include a proper respect for violating the laws of war when dealing with our soldiers.

Likewise, the Russians are not going to ground their aircraft just because we ask them to do.  In fact, the Russians are sending their only active aircraft carrier to join the war in Syria.  Defying an empty “urging” by our Secretary of State is just another way for Russia to show that they, and not we, are in control of the conflict.

Syrian jets, meanwhile, came close to bringing American forces under aerial attack for the first time since World War II.  Only good fortune kept American soldiers from being killed by Syrian bombs.  Fighters had to be scrambled to prevent additional sorties by the Syrian bombers.

In addition to Russia, Syria, and ISIS, Iran’s challenges against US Navy forces are up 50% from last year.  The Iranians are violating international law on a regular and consistent basis in challenging American fleet ships over access to international waters.

According to U.S. officials, the incidents all involved the IRGC, which operates a navy in parallel to Iran’s regular naval force, and whose leaders answer directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Defense News reported.

Ten American sailors and their two boats were seized by IRGC naval forces in January of this year in violation of international law.

Subsequent to the sailors’ release, Iran portrayed their capture as a victory against the U.S., releasing the sailors after claiming that Washington apologized for the incident. Khamenei proclaimed that the naval forces who captured the sailors did “God’s deed” and issued medals to the commanders involved, while the IRGC announced plans to build a statue to commemorate the seizure.

In May, the deputy commander of the IRGC threatened to close the strategic Straits of Hormuz to the U.S. and its allies if they “threaten us,” adding: “Americans cannot make safe any part of the world.”

The U.S. Navy reported last month that in 2015, there were close to 300 encounters or “interactions” between American and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. While most of the encounters were not considered to be harassment, the behavior of the Iranian navy was found to be less disciplined than that of other navies.

Weakness is provocative in a military conflict.  Refusing to embrace strong measures that would control these aggressive moves is exactly how American servicemen get killed.  Across the Middle East, our President’s predilection for weakness is putting American lives in grave [danger.]

Krauthammer’s Take: Putin Ready to Move, “Sees Weakness in the White House”

August 13, 2016

Krauthammer’s Take: Putin Ready to Move, “Sees Weakness in the White House”, Fox News via YouTube, August 13, 2016

(Please see also, Europe’s armies are dysfunctional. –DM)

Is Obama’s Iran Deal a ‘Dhimmi’ Contract?

June 1, 2016

Is Obama’s Iran Deal a ‘Dhimmi’ Contract?, PJ Media, A.J. Caschetta, May 31, 2016

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IRGC Commander Ali Fadavi’s recent threat to “drown American vessels” in the Persian Gulf is only the latest indication that America’s relationship with Iran resembles a dhimma contract more than a traditional foreign policy.

Since the seventh century, anyone defeated by Islamic conquest was given three choices: conversion, death, or a dhimma contract, which Bat Ye’or calls the “treaty of submission for people conquered by jihad.” By accepting the third choice, they became dhimmis: members of a “protected” class whose failure to submit to Allah was replaced by a compulsory submission to Muslims.

Isolated, disarmed, insulted at every turn, and coerced into acknowledging their inferiority with regular self-abasement, dhimmis are expected to show humility and gratitude to their conquerors.

President Obama’s approach to the Muslim world in general has been replete with gratitude, flattery, and apologies – even, and especially, for violence perpetrated by Christians one thousand years ago. Obama refuses to utter the words “Islamist terrorism.” He wildly exaggerates Islam’s role in “saving” Western culture. At the United Nations, Obama demanded that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” He even put one filmmaker in jail for doing so.

Above all, throughout his presidency Obama has reached out to Iran both publicly and via private letters.

Obama’s overtures may not be consciously designed to follow a dhimmi’s accommodation of his master. However, Ali Khamenei certainly treats Obama as if a dhimmi contract is in effect, offering only contempt in return for the president’s obsequious deference.

Khamenei leads cheers of “Death to America”? Obama makes excuses for it.

Obama insists that Iran’s path forward lies at the UN with the P5+1 partners. Khamenei answers:

[T]hose who say the future is in negotiations, not in missiles, are … ignorant.

Within Iran and elsewhere, each Iranian provocation that goes unanswered by Obama reinforces the appearance of his dhimmi status: Obama pays his tribute and endures his proscribed submission with gestures of obeisance.

Under Obama’s administration, Iran has attempted an assassination in Washington, D.C., shipped arms to Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and Houthi rebels in Yemen, and attempted to hack a dam in New York and the electrical grid in California.

Obama’s administration has responded with self-effacing conciliation.

Even video of captured American sailors being humiliated by the IRGC didn’t rouse the president from his supine repose. John Kerry actually thanked “the Iranian authorities for their cooperation.”

Iran’s violations of sanction have grown more flagrant with each passing year — with zero consequences. As the supposed weaker side, Iran should be expected to deny it had conducted missile tests, or to claim its ICBM program is just a space program. Instead, Iran has boasted of the tests. An emboldened, confident Iran has acted as though it possesses the upper hand.

Among the humiliations dhimmis are forced to endure at the hands of Muslims is a tax called the jizya. This originates in the Koran:

Fight those who believe not in Allah … until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued (9:29).

As they present their payment, dhimmis are often required to prostrate themselves and accept slaps to the head and neck, symbolic of the fate they avoided with the treaty. In 1799, British historian William Eton referred to the jizya as a “capitation tax” — permitting dhimmis to “wear their heads” for another year.

The $100 to $150 billion Iran receives under the U.S.-brokered Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is, surely, the largest jizya payment in history.

Last July as the White House celebrated the JCPOA, Khamenei tweeted an image of Obama holding a gun to his own head.

Six months later, the IRGC fired missiles dangerously close to the USS Harry S. Truman.

Despite Iran’s defiant and aggressive behavior, the president continues to grant concessions. Obama has pushed for Iran to gain access to the U.S. monetary system. Obama has even purchased Iranian nuclear waste.

Meanwhile, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and to kill Americans found there.

Shortly after the American Revolution, the Barbary Pirates of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli began seizing U.S. merchant vessels and demanding ransom. These Islamic pirates — from whence the English term “barbarians” arose — explained that the Koran simply gave them the “right and duty to make war” on non-Muslims.

George Washington did not pay tribute to the sheikhs. Instead, George Washington ordered the creation of the U.S. Navy.

They were send to fight what Washington termed the “nests of banditti.” In 1815, James Madison used that Navy to defeat the Barbary sheikhs at sea, and on “the shores of Tripoli.”

Two hundred years later, the Obama administration is accommodating the “banditti” in Tehran — and lying to the American people about it.

President Obama has assumed the role of a meek and humbled dhimmi paying tribute to his Muslim protector while enduring his insults. Washington and Madison would be disgusted.

Syrian Opposition Official: West Responsible For Assad Remaining In Power; U.S. Enabled Russia To Become Main Player In Syria Crisis

May 19, 2016

Syrian Opposition Official: West Responsible For Assad Remaining In Power; U.S. Enabled Russia To Become Main Player In Syria Crisis, MEMRI, May 18, 2016

Khaled Khoja, who served as president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces until March 2016, gave an interview to the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on April 17, 2016, in which he harshly attacked the international community and particularly the U.S. Khoja argued that the U.S. never desired regime change in Syria and therefore did not take a decisive stand against Bashar Al-Assad despite his many crimes, and did not significantly support the Syrian opposition. According to him, the Americans showed apathy regarding the crisis, enabling Russia to fill the vacuum that they had created in a way that suited Russian interests. He added that the purpose of American military aid to the Kurds was to create a Kurdish canton, which would effectively lead to the splintering of Syria. Khoja stressed that the Syrian High Negotiations Committee remains insistent that the first step is to establish a transitional governing body, and only then can a new constitution, elections, and other topics be addressed.

It should be mentioned that the interview was given prior to the April 19 announcement by the head of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, Riyad Hijab, that its delegation was suspending its participation in the Geneva talks.

Following are excerpts from the interview:[1]

28054Khaled Khoja (image: Zamanalwsl.net)

We Insist On A Serious Transition Of Power And All Authority

Khoja started by mentioning the Syrian High Negotiations Committee’s expectations from the current round of the Geneva talks: “We are here to focus on forming the governing body for the transitional phase. U.S. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is continuing his relentless efforts to begin discussing the political transitional phase, which will be based on establishing the ‘governing body,’ as stated in the Geneva announcement, UN Security Council Resolution 2218, and other resolutions. We have been empowered by opposition forces to discuss realizing these goals and we cannot deviate from them. Negotiations today should pick up where Geneva II left off [in February 2014] under the supervision of [former UN Special Envoy to Syria] Lakhdar Brahimi. We must start by forming this [governing] body and then proceeding to discuss the issues of the constitution, the elections, and other matters that fall under the governing body’s authority. Naturally, we have clear views on all these issues, which we will reveal at the appropriate time. I wish to say that we reject the verbal slips replacing the phrase ‘transitional governing body’ with ‘transitional regime’ or ‘transitional government’ and adhere to ‘transitional phase governing body’ and all it implies – meaning a serious transition of power and all authority.”

International And American Support For The Opposition Is Feeble

According to Khoja, “the position of international, and especially American, support for the Syrian opposition is feeble. The sad thing is that the true positions [of the U.S. and international community] regarding Assad is still feeble and vague despite all the evidence marking Bashar Al-Assad as a ‘war criminal,’ and despite the many official American statements that hold him responsible for ongoing killing and acts of slaughter. The lack of international political desire to push for the start of the transitional political phase in Syria has provided Assad and the parties supporting him, whether Iranians or Russians, with room to maneuver, enabling him [Assad] to continue heading the regime and to remain a chaos-creating factor in the region, [a factor] which exacerbates the refugee crisis and uses it as a card for pressuring neighboring countries and Europe, and which exports ISIS and terrorism…”

U.S. Apathy Is A Main Factor In Russia Becoming The Main Player In The Crisis

Khoja said further: “There is clearly American apathy regarding the Middle East, which opens the door for Russia to fill the vacuum left by the Americans… When we speak of the mass extermination of the Syrian people, their expulsion, the use of chemical weapons against them, the documentation of regime crimes in detention centers, forced disappearances, preplanned acts of murder, and red lines that have become green lights – all this causes observers to lose faith in the American position… Had the Americans not created this vacuum, we would not have been in the state we are in today, and Russia would not have become the main player in the crisis, holding the reins of initiative… Politically speaking, I believe the American position has not changed much since the onset of the Syrian revolution… [From the start] there was no real American support for change… The military aid we received [from the U.S.] is no match for the [American] military aid received by the Kurdish [Democratic] Union Party and the Kurdish People’s Defense Unit militias [YPG]. We believe that this aid for the Kurds was meant to create a new Kurdish ‘canton’ and to enforce a new reality as a foregone conclusion. American apathy has turned Syria into a series of ‘cantons’. The ‘Southern Canton,’ which is apart from the ‘Northern Canton,’ the ‘Kurdish Canton,’ and the ‘Alawi Canton.’ We cannot discount the possibility that as part of the political process, we will see a strengthening of [the phenomenon] of these cantons, but we will absolutely not agree to this…”

Syria Cannot Remain A Group Of Cantons In The Medium And Long Term

Khoja said that during the second round of negotiations there was talk of a federal solution that was “marketed by the Americans, the Russians, and UN Special Envoy de Mistura, who spoke openly and explicitly in one press conference on the topic of federation. Except that he did not discuss this issue with us, but rather only with other parties. The Russians did not hide their support for the federal solution and in my opinion, there is a serious attempt to create facts on the ground in Syria in order to strengthen the ‘canton’ situation.

“Any international solution, regardless of which parties promote it, cannot impose a situation that the Syrian people do not agree to. It is possible that the current situation will continue in the near future, but not in the medium and long term. The proof of this is that in the 1920s, the French tried to establish four statelets in Syria, but they only lasted a few years.”

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 17, 2016.

Why Middle Eastern Leaders Are Talking to Putin, Not Obama

May 9, 2016

Why Middle Eastern Leaders Are Talking to Putin, Not Obama, Politico, Dennis Ross, May 8, 2016

John Hinderaker at Power Line writes,

Dennis Ross is a respected, if thoroughly conventional, expert on the Middle East. A Democrat, he has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations as an adviser and envoy. Ross served in the State Department as Hillary Clinton’s Special Advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia. Subsequently, he joined President Obama’s National Security Council staff as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, which includes the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. So when Ross writes, in Politico, that Obama’s foreign policy weakness is hurting American interests, we should take notice.

— DM)

Putin and Middle Eastern leaders understand the logic of coercion. It is time for us to reapply it.

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The United States has significantly more military capability in the Middle East today than Russia—America has 35,000 troops and hundreds of aircraft; the Russians roughly 2,000 troops and, perhaps, 50 aircraft—and yet Middle Eastern leaders are 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.

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.

Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria has secured President Bashar Assad’s position and dramatically reduced the isolation imposed on Russia after the seizure of Crimea and its continuing manipulation of the fighting in Ukraine. And Putin’s worldview is completely at odds with Obama’s. Obama 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. It reflects the president’s reading of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and helps to explain why he has been so reluctant to do more in Syria at a time when the war has produced a humanitarian catastrophe, a refugee crisis that threatens the underpinnings of the European Union, and helped to give rise to Islamic State. And, it also explains why he thinks that Putin cannot gain—and is losing—as a result of his military intervention in Syria.

But 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. 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.

Russia’s presence has not helped. The Russian military intervention turned the tide in Syria and, contrary to Obama’s view, has put the Russians in a stronger position without imposing any meaningful costs on them. Not only are they not being penalized for their Syrian intervention, but the president himself is now calling Vladimir Putin and seeking his help to pressure Assad—effectively recognizing who has leverage. 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.

This does not mean that we are weak and Russia is strong. Objectively, Russia is declining economically and low oil prices spell increasing financial troubles—a fact that may explain, at least in part, Putin’s desire to play up Russia’s role on the world stage and his exercise of power in the Middle East. But 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. Immediately after the president’s meeting at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a journalist very well connected to Saudi leaders, wrote: “Washington cannot open up doors to Iran allowing it to threaten regional countries … while asking the afflicted countries to settle silently.”

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. For example, had the Saudis been more confident about our readiness to counter the Iranian-backed threats in the region, would they have chosen to go to war in Yemen—a costly war that not surprisingly is very difficult to win and that has imposed a terrible price? Obama has been right to believe that the regional parties must play a larger role in fighting the Islamic State. He has, unfortunately, been wrong to believe they would do so if they thought we failed to see the bigger threat they saw and they doubted our credibility.

Indeed, so long as they question American reliability, there will be limits to how much they will expose themselves—whether in fighting the Islamic State, not responding to Russian entreaties, or even thinking about assuming a role of greater responsibility for Palestinian compromises on making peace with Israel. To take advantage of their recognition that they may need to run more risks and assume more responsibility in the region, they will want 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.

Several steps would help convey such an impression:

⧫ Toughen our declaratory policy toward Iran about the consequences of cheating on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to include blunt, explicit language on employing force, not sanctions, should the Iranians violate their commitment not to pursue or acquire a nuclear weapon;

⧫ 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. (A readiness to host quiet three-way discussions with Arab and Israeli military planners would signal we recognize the shared threat perceptions, the new strategic realities, and the potentially new means to counter both radical Shiite and Sunni threats.)

⧫ Be prepared to arm the Sunni tribes in Iraq if Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi continues to be blocked from doing so by the Iranians and the leading militias;

⧫ In Syria, make clear that if the Russians continue to back Assad and do not force him to accept the Vienna principles (a cease-fire, opening humanitarian corridors, negotiations and a political transition), they will leave us no choice but to work with our partners to develop safe havens with no-fly zones.

Putin and Middle Eastern leaders understand the logic of coercion. It is time for us to reapply it.