Huntley: Arab rulers, led by Saudi king, send Obama stern message

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President Obama greets Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was noticeably absent. Photo by Jacquelyn Martin, AP.

What a mess.

Arab potentates led by the king of Saudi Arabia snub a summit called by President Barack Obama. A nuclear arms race in the combustible Middle East appears possible if not probable. Russia gobbles up bits of Ukraine and menaces Eastern Europe. China builds islands, military outposts really, in the South China Sea to flex its muscle in Asia. American leadership in international affairs seems in precipitous decline.

We’re a long way from the optimistic early days of the Obama administration with the outreach to the Muslim world, the “reset” with Russia and the pivot in U.S. foreign policy to Asia.

OPINION

Rather than gathering in the Islamic world in a new U.S. strategy, Obama has angered traditional allies by negotiating with Iran, the preeminent Shiite state in the Middle East, over its nuclear arms program. Sunni Arab nations see no good outcome: A deal will end sanctions, enriching Tehran to finance its imperialistic ambitions in the region, while opening the way for Iran eventually to develop atomic warheads.

To appease Arab anger, Obama scheduled a summit for Thursday at Camp David with leaders of the six Persian Gulf states. In a very public rebuff, four of the leaders won’t attend, sending lower-level officials instead. The biggest snub came from the new king of Saudi Arabia, who was also to be granted a private session with Obama, usually considered a prestigious photo opportunity to impress the population back home. One day King Salman was on the to-be-there list, the next not — and there was no way to put a good face on it.

The Gulf states may have wanted some guarantee that the U.S. security umbrella would be extended over them to counter Iran. But with U.S. defense resources stretched and committed to protecting NATO allies in Eastern Europe, like the Baltic states worried about Russian aggression, no chance exists the U.S. voters would go along with putting American lives at risk for places like Oman or the United Arab Emirates. Especially since some Gulf nations provide support for terrorist organizations like Hamas.

Obama has painted himself into a corner on Iran talks. He’s insisted the only alternative is war, so he must have a deal. Which explains why he has given generous concessions to Iran, such as no snap inspections, continued enrichment of uranium, and leaving in place an industrial nuclear infrastructure. A Saudi official already has said that Riyadh should have the same nuclear rights as Iran. Turkey, Egypt and others won’t want to be left behind if Tehran achieves its goals at the bargaining table.

Russian strongman Vladimir Putin raised the stakes by agreeing to sell an advanced air defense system to Iran — a shield both for its nuclear and traditional military resources. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow this week trying to coach Putin into cooperating on Ukraine and the civil war in Syria. All he got were some nice words. Putin will do what suits his interests. He knows Obama won’t provide needed arms to Ukraine to make Russia pay a bloody price for its aggression.

China has upped the ante in disputes with its neighbors over ownership of specks of islands in the South China Sea. Beijing has built artificial islands on reefs to project power and intimidate other nations, a k a American allies.

Obama is gambling he can reach a deal with the revolutionary fanatics in Tehran. Recently, he’s defined his objective down as Iran not getting a nuclear weapon “on my watch.” But history won’t let him off so easy if Iran ends up with the atomic bomb and the Middle East descends into a nuclear arms race.

And it’s hard to see how Hillary Clinton, the all but presumptive Democrat presidential nominee for 2016, can escape shouldering Obama’s foreign policy legacy. As secretary of state, she had a reputation for advocating tougher policies, but she’ll be stuck with the results.

Email: shuntley.cst@gmail.com

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