The U.S. retreat from Iraq and its handoff policy on Syria and Iran are creating a security vacuum that regional powers are already filling. Last month IHS Jane's, Britain's famed defense and intelligence firm, announced that it had spotted a missile base in the heart of Saudi Arabia. Designed to launch Chinese-made DF-3 missiles, the base targets both Iran and Israel.
The Saudi installation poses no direct threat to the United States, as unmodified DF-3 missiles have a range of no more than 2,500 miles. Israel, though, is within range, and the fact that one of the launch facilities is orientated toward Tel Aviv is disconcerting. Still, Israel and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to wage overt war. Behind the scenes, they often cooperate amicably. And both are concerned about the same enemy: Iran.
The United States has long provided security to our friends in the Middle East. Before 1979, the enemy was Soviet Russia and its allies. Since then, it's usually been Iran. This isn't a task we've taken on out of the goodness of our hearts. We have an understandable affinity for Israel, a decent democracy with neighbors that range from barely functional to terrible.
But our fundamental interest is in a Middle East stable enough to trade with and through, and well-governed enough to keep its problems to itself. Around the world, rotten regimes tend to export their problems, and as the ebbs and flows of the Arab Spring show, that tendency is especially pronounced in the Middle East.
When times were easier, we provided security by bribing the Egyptians to keep the peace with Israel; by swatting regional troublemakers, as we did to Libya in the 1980s; and by allowing Israel to swat on its own, as it did when it bombed a stockpile of Russian-made anti-ship missiles in Syria last month.
Providing security hasn't always been so pleasant. It took us into Lebanon in 1983, for example. But focusing on the interventions distracts from the larger truth: The U.S. role in the region has been to exercise deterrent power and stop big things from going wrong. Being involved doesn't mean going to war; it usually means preventing war.
And deterrent power is what we are losing today. So others, like the Saudis, are picking up the slack by building missile bases. But while they may be our allies, the spread of long-range missiles in the Middle East is still bad news. Even the Saudi regime may not be stable forever, and if it decides to go to war, it will be for reasons that may not suit us.
Instead of focusing on reassuring our friends and frightening our enemies, we're exiting. In Syria, the administration has spent two years trying to find a policy that looks like involvement without requiring any. In Iraq, it wanted nothing more than to get out as fast as it could. Involvement was the last thing it wanted.
And in Iran, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a classic gaffe -- i.e., he told the truth -- when he said that the administration's policy was containment of the theocratic regime. That's not what Saudis want to hear. For them, containment is a code word for doing nothing.
The only part of the region the Obama administration is focusing on is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is akin to pouring water on the one house in the neighborhood that isn't on fire.
In 2008, according to WikiLeaks, the Saudis urged the United States to launch military strikes on Iran and "cut off the head of the snake." As they have concluded that we aren't committed to an enduring role in the region, they've apparently decided they need to reinsure. So they've built the ability to reach out and touch the Iranians on their own.
It's another sign of our retreat in the region. In the past, we protected our allies to keep the peace. We're now relying on our allies both to deter wars and defend our interests. It's a major shift in the U.S. strategy in the Middle East, and the security vacuum it creates will be filled in ways that make everyone less safe.
- Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.
First appeared in Newsday