American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World — a place made famous by Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).
Welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism — Iran, Syria and Sudan — are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are sidelined.
Iran, a country that has sponsored nearly every terrorist group around and is now moving toward a nuclear weapon, is the biggest winner in the Elddim Tsae. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has Washington eating out of his hands after a charm offensive that promised moderation, even as his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keeps the centrifuges spinning. The Obama administration is now mulling a grand nuclear bargain, which will provide Iran sanctions relief in exchange for vague promises of change.
Syria is also benefiting from America’s Bizarro Doctrine. In the span of days, America went from threatening strikes against Bashar Assad’s regime for launching a chemical weapons attack on his own people to enlisting Assad as a partner in his own disarmament. Even if Assad does fully disarm, he will effectively have a green light to get back to the business of mowing down the Syrian opposition.
Then there is Sudan, where the leadership has been convicted of genocide and which provided a headquarters to Al Qaeda in the 1990s. Khartoum is now indicating that ties with Washington are warming. This comes after two cordial meetings between Sudan’s foreign minister and Secretary of State John Kerry, first in New York and then Washington.
On the flip side of our parallel universe is Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, Riyadh is more of a frenemy. But America’s Saudi policy, designed to maintain good ties to the ruling family and access to an affordable and steady supply of their oil, has never wavered — until now. Riyadh is outwardly displeased with America’s warming ties to its arch-foe Iran, with fears that an ascendant Iran could pose a direct threat to the kingdom’s stability. Washington’s recent lifeline to Syria, after months of calling for Assad’s removal, also has the Saudis seething.
Turkey and Qatar, it should be noted, are equally vexed by Washington’s Syria policy, prompting both countries to consider charting their own courses, which may involve the co-opting of jihadi groups to fight the Assad regime.
Egypt, another ally of the United States, has also recently fallen victim to the Bizarro Doctrine. To be sure, Egypt has brought many of its problems upon itself. The military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was not its finest moment. But Washington has now taken it upon itself to cut aid to Egypt, dismantling an alliance that could require years to properly rebuild.
Then there is Israel, which is reeling from America’s decision to cut aid to Egypt. That aid was a cornerstone of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement that has kept Israel’s southern flank quiet since the accords were inked. It now is entirely unclear whether Cairo will want to uphold that agreement. The Israelis are further unnerved by America’s backtracking on Syria, particularly after Washington enlisted its help in calling for military intervention. And finally, the rapprochement with Iran has the Israelis wondering whether America will have its back when Tehran invariably makes that final dash for the bomb.
Fittingly, Bizarro World was first depicted by DC Comics in 1960. Today, Washington, D.C., has become a parallel universe of a superpower’s foreign policies of the past.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington. This piece first appeared in Commentary.