Trump’s Middle East Policy
President Donald Trump has managed in his first six weeks to appoint key foreign policy advisors and executives, but he still has to appoint hundreds more who may have an influence on the direction of policy in the Middle East, although the influence of key personnel is likely to continue to be pivotal. Like previous White Houses, its foreign policy staff is not of one mind; they also reflect some key constituents that helped elect the president, most likely those who have foreign policy axes to grind. At the risk of over simplification, the president’s team is composed of several factions including two main groups:
The Movement: These are some dedicated political supporters who believe that “Trumpism” is more than a party, more than an effort to win one or two national elections. Trumpism is a political movement that is changing the United States into a populist system that defends the average citizen against the conceited political and cultural elite, which has dominated the U.S. since the Reagan Administration. This “Movement” believes in reducing the powers and capabilities of the Federal Government even going so far as “destructing” the Federal establishment. The Movement believes in unlimited and unrestrained capitalism. It is a nationalist movement that thinks “America first”; it does not support globalization unless the U.S. dominates.
The Movement Guardians are staunchly anti-Muslim, and to a lesser extent, other religious and/or cultural minorities. Some believe in the inevitability of a major war between the U.S. as the leading “Christian” country and the infidels with whom the U.S. is engaged in a clash of civilizations. Only total defeat of Muslims or at least their religious/political ideology would ensure U.S. security. The other war that the Movement would support is a war with China, which is considered a threat to U.S. primacy and which unfairly dominates the U.S. economy by creating a Chinese monopoly over production of consumer goods, and currency manipulation.
The Movement guardians include Stephen Bannon senior counselor to the president; Michael Flynn the first National Security Advisor; Jarred Kuchner the president’s son-in-law; David Friedman, proposed Ambassador to Israel, and Sebstian Gorka, self-proclaimed expert on political Islam and former Breitbart’s national security editor who will be the resident brain on terrorism. The alt-right is clearly anti-Muslim; its anti-Israel and anti-Semitic original positions have now been largely reconciled.
The Pragmatists: The U.S. Federal Government is a huge enterprise; many are attracted to serve in positions of authority under nearly any president; almost any American would find it difficult to say “no” if offered a job by the president. The Pragmatists include General Mattis, Secretary of Defense; General John Kelley, Secretary of Homeland Security; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; and Robert Pompeo, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
After six weeks, both camps have scored successes. The Movement Guardians wrote the travel Ban on Muslims arriving from 6-7 countries; managed to appoint an Israeli/American extremist as U.S. ambassador to Israel; vetoed the appointment of a Palestinian/American as an official of the United Nation; and hosted Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House. The Pragmatists re-wrote the Muslim travel ban Executive Orders. The edge as of now favors the Movement Guardians. Coming conflicts between the two camps will make this Administration’s future worth watching.
It may be easier to start with what policies initiated by previous administrations will the Trump Brain Trust reverse or abolish.
Discontinue support for Syrian insurgents. After giving large amounts of financial and technical support (about $500 million annually) for the last six years, the United States has not succeeded in the formation of a pro-US military force that is capable of replacing the Syrian regime. Part of the Trump Pragmatic Approach is accepting the military changes on the grounds that see Russian air and ground forces as crucial to any political settlement in Syria.
The age of the Neo-Cons is ending. President Trump has carefully side stepped those American “pundits” who advised the Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama administrations, and who created a messier situation not only for the native inhabitants of the Middle East, but for the U.S. as well. The president has clearly rejected Neo-Con nominees for major foreign policy positions in his Administration: Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and Ambassador to the United Nations.
The Policy of divide and ruin may now end. The Neo-Con-originated policy of attacking, ruining, and then leaving one country in the region after another, meanwhile encouraging future division of the targeted country into smaller political units may now be ended. Dividing and ruining Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, to be followed by Iran and perhaps others, will not make the U.S. more secure, will not lessen formation of forces that oppose the U.S., and would certainly demand expenditure of more scarce resources. The president has repeatedly decried the foolish expending of trillions of dollars in wars of choice that have minimal returns.
No more nation-building. The president does not subscribe to the fiction perpetrated by the last five administrations that the U.S. was concerned about turning dictatorships in the Middle East into liberal democratic societies; the U.S. has not fostered one single democracy. The previous practices of regime change will end. Admiration for “strong man rule,” in Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be the norm.
The Seven Pillars of Trump Policy
1. Primacy of Israel: Statements by presidential candidate Donald Trump and later as president leave no doubt that he is fully committed to not only Israel’s survival but to its dominant position in the Middle East; the president is intent up on supporting any and all actions and policies supported by the current Israeli elite. Future policies toward Israel and its neighbors will be in line with this undoubted support. The U.S. is not interested in appearing “neutral” between Israel and its neighbors. This is a stand fully in agreement with another Trump-stated foreign policy objective: the U.S. stands fully with its “true” friends, the foremost among them being Israel. The U.S. will assist Israel militarily, economically and diplomatically. Non-vetoing a U.N. resolution critical of Israel will not be repeated.
Settling the Israel-Palestine conflict may not be critical to a comprehensive policy in the region, but its “management” will be important to other U.S. objectives. In the long run it matters not whether the two parties opt for a one-state solution, a two-state solution, any other solution, or no solution at all. Such a determination does not limit the U.S. options of occasionally making friendly suggestions. Thus far, the U.S. has hinted at one solution, but has not submitted any. The president announced publicly that he has a really far-reaching proposal that will be submitted on a regional basis. Has he really developed one? The president most likely was briefed on a regional plan that was being discussed by the Obama Administration in 2016. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, in consultation with President Sissi of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, reached an agreement with Prime Minister Netanyahu that included the following points:
A. Settlement of the Israeli-Palestine dispute can best be achieved at the regional level.
B. Settlement will be announced at a summit conference, perhaps in Cairo.
C. The settlement will be based on the two-state solution, with some modifications.
D. Normalization of conditions with other Arab states will follow.
E. The Palestinians will be given greater local authority, but remain within Israel security zone.
F. Palestinian economic development will be encouraged.
G. Further expansion of settlements will be halted.
Kerry received a copy at a private dinner with Netanyahu in a restaurant in Rome on June 26, 2016. Secretary Kerry promised to bring in Saudi Arabia and other “Sunni” states. To obtain greater support within Israel, Netanyahu proposed a national unity government that would include leaders of the Zionist Camp party, specifically Isaac Hertzog and Tsipi Livni. The latter two wanted a copy and a letter affirming Netanyahu’s commitment, for both doubted his intentions; a final draft of the document was given to Hertzog on September 13, 2016, he then proceeded to discuss its contents with Arab diplomats. It did not take long before Netanyahu began to prove Hertzog and Livni right. He began to play for time, as Secretary Kerry told him bluntly, once he realized that Candidate Trump had a chance of winning. By January 2017 he had fully taken back his support for the two-state solution.
The president may keep some of the components of the Netanyahu-Kerry plan, and incorporate them in his vision for a new Middle East. The president has already asked for and obtained temporary suspension of new settlements.
2. Defeating ISIL: Since Donald Trump entered the presidential race he vowed to obliterate ISIL, and heaped much criticism on President Obama for allegedly not taking the war to ISIL, even accusing Obama of being the father of or creator of ISIL. Once elected, Trump directed the Secretary of Defense to submit a plan within thirty days that would lead to ISIL’s defeat. The Pentagon’s plan is now proceeding. ISIL has been losing power and has been degraded for the past year or so; its main external supporters (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel and Turkey) were losing influence on the Syrian battlefield, as well as in Iraq. Casualties among its ranks were not being replaced once these and European powers decided to withhold replenishing their ranks. ISIL’s revenues from oil and other sources were nearly cut in half. The land under its control has been gradually reduced in size. Iraqi and Syrian forces were doing much better in combating ISIL’s forces.
The U.S. military wanted to carry out an air and ground operation on territory marked by two cities: Raqqa, a Syrian city in the west, and Al-Mosul, an Iraqi city in the east. In the west, the U.S. finds possible allied forces already on the ground; they include Turks, Syrian Kurds, Russians, and Syrian regime forces, all fighting ISIL and some fighting each other. In Mosul, there are Iraqi Kurds, Turks, Shi’a militias, and forces of the Iraqi Government. Deciding the future of the land now occupied by ISIL can prove to be more difficult than dislodging ISIL. For now, the U. S. does not want armed conflict among its allies, and definitely wants to see a U.S.-Russian alliance against ISIL TheTrump Administration must deal first with promises made by the Obama Administration, and they were many and contradictory. The Turks have been assured that Kurdish expansion in Syria will be very limited; the Kurds in Syria believe that territory liberated with their help will be annexed to Iraqi Kurdish areas; the Syrians and Russians are convinced that the U.S. supports the unity and sovereignty of Syria. The Iraq side is equally messy with Kurds wanting to expand their borders, the Shi’a militias wanting a liberated Mosul without Kurds or Sunnis, and Sunni Arabs wanting a home preferably in Mosul. While worried about Turkish troop concentration around the town of Manbij, some eighty-five miles north of Raqqa, the U. S. will rely on about 50,000 Syrian regime and Syrian Kurdish forces in attacking Raqqa. The U.S. has a freer hand in Mosul; it has air and artillery superiority and has a supportive Iraqi government.
It is only a matter of time before the fall of ISIL. Will the Trump administration win the peace to follow?
3. Russia is not our enemy: The president has been consistent during his campaign in treating Vladimir Putin cordially, refraining from calling Russia names, and stating on more than one occasion that he wished to maintain friendly relations with Russia. He welcomed joint U.S.-Russian action against ISIL and other Islamist terror groups. He called for reconsideration of the objectives and tactics of NATO, the most adamant anti-Russian alliance. The European Community, a long-term target of Russian resentment, is made a target for his criticism. Post-election furor over Russia’s influence on the presidential election and the latent anti- Russian Washington suspicions of Russia may force the president to modify his plans for Russia. One signal of this trend may be his nomination of Ambassador Jon Huntsman rather than former Republican Representative Dana Rohrbacher, the first candidate and outspoken critic of NATO.
Shift to China: The Obama decision to shift U.S. attention to the Far East and South Asia, and away from the Middle East, fits in easily with Trump’s world outlook, his attitude towards globalization, rebuilding America’s prestige, and his populist nationalism. The Trump Administration will continue the shift. We can look to East Asia for more U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic actions in the next four years.
4. No war with Iran: Holding the view that Israel must be the uncontested regional power, and listening to Israeli pleadings that the future of the Jewish people in Israel and the world is jeopardized by the oft repeated claims that Iran has every intention of killing off all Israelis, once Iranians acquire the required killing weapons, Trump was long viewed as one who would find a reason to decimate Iran. Everyone knows of his Jewish daughter, and Jewish grandchildren. Benjamin Netanyahu has warned for the last twenty years that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons next year or the year after. The same Netanyahu assembled some of the wealthiest Israeli supporters to back Candidate Trump if he would only attack Iran.
But again, expected and unforeseen factors (The Black Swan effect so familiar to the president’s inner circle) argue against war with Iran, or indeed any major military opponent. First, the American people or a substantial portion of them including the president’s own supporters are not itching for another war in the Middle East (undoubtedly the president can change many minds should he opt to). Second, the American military does not cherish a major extended and bloody war in the Middle East that may perhaps sacrifice a significant percentage of U.S. troops (ten percent or more of the country’s fighting force) when the U.S. cannot afford that loss since it has to plan for possible war with China. War with Iran would bring within range of Iranian missiles large concentrations of U.S. troops in Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar and the UAE. Third, the Obama Administration has shown the advantages of “normalizing” relations with Iran through diplomatic engagement. Fourth, the multi-party agreement on Iran’s nuclear arms effectively took the air out of Israeli drumming for war sails. Finally, there are no longer forces in Washington or London that are calling for occupation of Iranian oil fields as was the case in the early years of Bush 43.
A war with Iran will surely expand to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and perhaps Palestine and Saudi Arabia. It may also risk war with Russia. A war on Islam is not what the U.S. needs especially when Russia is now an important regional power. Stephen Bannon’s prediction of one major Trump war in the region may be avoided. The same may not apply to smaller wars, where U.S. casualties can be held to a few thousand. U.S. over-emphasis and reliance on the military to counteract terrorism is bound to engage U.S. forces in Yemen, Somalia, Mauritania or elsewhere. The resignation of General Flynn, another Islam-phobe and war hawk and a paid lobbyist for a Muslim country, reduces the likelihood of war against Islam. Despite earlier rhetoric and ongoing calls for war, the Trump Administration is not likely to wage war against Islam.
5. Pragmatism: Trump is not the Terminator. He is a negotiator.
The billionaire has never been known as an ideologue but as a businessman who always wanted to succeed. He is also a television producer to whom public performance and drama are important. Such a man is likely to be careful as he deals with an unstable region of the world. He is likely to choose friends and foes very carefully. President Trump is a realist not a religious or political ideologue.
The Middle East as viewed by the president is not a crucial region for survival of the U.S. or its economy, as it was viewed a few short years ago. The Middle East is not an important source of energy resources; in terms of oil and gas it no longer amounts to much since the U.S. is now self-sufficient or nearly so. President Trump is the first American president since FDR who does not have to worry about Arab sheiks or emirs posing a threat to cheap energy; he is the first president who does not need to repeat President Carter’s worries over waiting lines at gas stations. This reality will force him and his team in directions of which no one can be sure. He may not “grab” Iraqi oil as he stated on his visit to the CIA on January 21 of this year, but he may succeed in taking half of Kurdish oil to defray the cost of defending Kurdish independence. His Secretary of State certainly demonstrated similar Pragmatism when he, as CEO of Exxon, made his oil deal with Iraqi Kurds, ignoring the Obama Administration.
It would be a miracle if President Trump learned the other lessons from the Iraq experience, such as the wisdom of such attacks, or the dos and don’ts of occupation of other lands, or how to deal with conquered people, or with a counter insurgency. For the lessons of Iraq to be analyzed and absorbed takes decades if the Vietnam experience is a guide.
Pragmatism may not give the president many clear-cut options, for example when he realizes that a region he inherited is now and continues to be fragmented along sectarian lines, thanks to actions by recent U.S. administrations and close U.S. allies. The president would take advantage of the Sunni-Shi’a divide, which he did not create but is likely to use.
The president will be very selective in identifying regional “friends.” His economic nationalism and business background will steer him towards countries that could enhance America’s wealth or could be targets for, or sources of investments. The U.S. would have only two friends: Israel and Saudi Arabia, with Israel remaining the number one partner. Secretary of Defense James Mattis may have his way and manage to add the United Arab Emirates; it has been reported that the Secretary looks kindly at the UAE and Jordan.
6. Access to post-oil wealth: The president knows that oil and gas resources have not disappeared from the Middle East although they are dwindling; they are still important for the producing countries, and for many other countries around the world that import oil and gas.
The president will continue to exercise great care in approaching them. But the president is a canny international businessman who greatly understands that several Arab countries are leaders in world finances. He knows that a significant percentage of the U.S. foreign debt, about six trillion dollars, is held by foreign nations led by Japan and China. Saudi Arabia alone holds over one hundred billion dollars of U.S. debt and The Gulf States are a source of investments in the growing U.S. economy.
The Gulf States are making plans to replace their fossil fuels with another lucrative resource: cash.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia aims to become a financial powerhouse; its oil reserves are dwindling, so they better make a decent return.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has been making a pitch to U.S. firms: help us build our investment prestige, and you can run money for us. The PIF is looking for investment opportunities at a large scale. PIF has committed $45 billion to a new technology fund. With the addition of ARAMCO, the Saudi Fund will have more than $160 billion in assets; another $27 billion have been added from official reserves. By 2020 the PIF plans to use half of its assets (not tied up in ARAMCO) making investment abroad. Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) manages $792B in sovereign wealth. Kuwait Investment Authority is the fifth largest sovereign fund with assets of over 550 billion dollars.
The Pragmatist President will not ignore these possible investors for long.
7. A Trump Grand Design: President Trump and his foreign policy team have already told us much about their vision for the Middle East, although they are still working to make a comprehensive and consistent approach. U.S. foreign policy generally remains pretty constant even when new parties take over. Important changes may take place; it remains to be seen how much will actually change in U.S. policy towards the Middle East due to Trump’s assumption of power.
Plans by the Bush 43 Administration to recreate the Middle East in a new image (their grand design for a new Middle East) has not succeeded. The Trump Administration will try its hand, and come up with a catchy title for a reshuffled Middle East. America’s greatness will appear in yet another scheme for the region. The president will not be able to resist the power to draw new maps of the region, as several European and some Americans have tried.
The New Trump Middle East will be a three-tiered panorama.
The U.S. Orbit
Israel has advocated a new alignment to be headed by itself and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Alliance, or the pro-West, pro-American block. Its membership will be limited to states that wish to “normalize” relations with Israel despite the formal state of war that exists with that country, and who consider Iran to be a greater threat. If one adds ample financial resources that is a requirement for friendship future membership will be easily limited to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, and Qatar. Ultimately Israel would like to see these Arab countries as a market for Israeli goods, and a source of investment in Israeli firms, all connected with a network of railways.
Two other Sunni countries would be included if security conditions with Israel allow: Jordan and Egypt. Both are in serious financial conditions and will need to be assured of Saudi sponsorship. The block needs Jordan for geographic connection with the Gulf; it needs Egypt for numbers of consumers and fighting capacity. Oman is to be excluded since its practices in foreign policy fall closer to the U.K. and would better be a part of the European orbit.
Sunni/Shi’a division, the Syria experience, and Russia’s changing role in the region have created a block of nations led by Russia that includes: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Thousands of Iranians have fought and died in Syria; thousands more will continue to cooperate with Iraqi government forces, and with Shi’a militias. If the U.S. and Saudi Arabia control eastern Syria after defeat of ISIL the region will see substantial bloodshed. U.S. and Saudi effort to disrupt Iran-Iraq-Syria movement of goods and personnel will require placement of troops in eastern Syria for many years. Chances of violent confrontation will be daily events.
Russia will continue to be the sole arms supplier to its partners. Iran, much like Syria, will offer Russia harbors and air bases. Iraq’s control by Iraqi Shi’a will assure its membership in the group, regardless of agreements between Iraq and the U.S. the rate at which Iraq joins will depend on how U.S. relations proceed with Iraqi Kurds and naturally with Turkey.
The president has often spoken of the need to give NATO some meaningful role if it is to no longer be the main anti-Russian alliance. Given the president’s demonstrated preference for white Europeans, his loud support for European efforts to stem North African migration, and his calls for Europeans to share the cost of their defense, it is likely that he will ask European powers to “police” North Africa. He and his team are likely to see the colonial experience of European powers as added qualifications for new control of the region, perhaps under the excuse of fighting “terrorism.” The future of Libya can be left to the French or Italians; France had decades of experience in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania. The French Government will welcome a resurrected French dominion; it may even do more should Marie Le Pen become the next president. None would remember that France, Italy and the U.K. were failures at controlling the native folks.
To be determined
Nothing in this presentation should imply that the Trump Team has a detailed plan for the Middle East because they do not. Once they begin to address the region’s problems they will find out just how complex they are.
One of the most complex will be relations with Turkey, a country with regional interests, membership in NATO, and a neighbor of Russia. High on Turkey’s interests is the future of the Kurdish separatist movement within Turkey, and in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. has since at least 1991 supported Kurdish separatism and independence. If the U.S. continues to support Kurdish independence, urged by its friends Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Turkish Government will look kindly at steps to improve relations with Russia.
The second country where policy decisions are needed will be Yemen. The Trump Administration can continue the unrealistic assumption that this land is dangerous because of the presence of a handful of al-Qaeda supporters, and come to a realistic decision about a country with ineffective leadership threatened by attack from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and a significant minority and uprising from its Shi’a population. Supporting Saudi Arabia/UAE will continue to bring charges of supporting aggression; reaching an accommodation internally may strengthen Iranian hand. Question: can the Trump Administration live with another aggression by one of its best friends?
Somalia has had no working government for over twenty years despite various U.S. experiments; a U.S. citizen leads the last government as its president. Mass killings have dominated the scene. The U.S. has not allowed any group that has support of Somalis to control the government. It is not likely that this policy will change.
Finally, the Trump policymakers are being told that he need not pay attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since there are more important issues: ISIL, Sunni-Shi’a conflict; Syria’s reconciliation; the future of the Kurds, or any of other current issues. The president will lose control of the Middle East if he buys into such diversions. President Trump cannot and should not stop considering this conflict as the prime issue in the region.