Will it be war? The Trump administration discovers the Middle East

Every four to eight years, the same perilous but necessary exercise comes round again: trying to establish a working idea of the incoming US administration’s foreign policy, and in particular of what it intends to do in the Middle East.

Past experience should teach us caution: things that may appear clear on day one can be turned inside out before the new President has completed a year in office. Who remembers Obama’s Russian “reset” of 2009? As for Obama’s predecessor, scarcely anyone seems to recall the balmy first months of 2001, when George W. Bush’s young administration was looking to “zero-base” its Mid-East policy and the recommendations of VP Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force seemed to augur a gradual shift towards normalisation, or at least de-escalation of sanctions, with both Iran and Iraq.

That idyll was brought to a brutal end by 9/11, which allowed the neo-conservative faction of the Bush administration around the Project for a New American Century to take the upper hand and unleash the invasion of Iraq. Cheney – who as CEO of Halliburton prior to taking office had campaigned for an end to sanctions on Iran even while flirting with PNAC – finally and decisively threw in his lot with the neo-conservatives, and by 2006 was aggressively advocating within the administration for war against Iran as well.

In a sense, the bruising experience of the Iraq war is partly responsible for the basic contradiction underlying the new administration’s foreign policy. Trump’s campaign and his first weeks in office have channelled two conflicting impulses. First, a form of neo-isolationism, which is in part an expression of widespread bitterness at the squandering of so much blood and treasure, apparently for nought. And second, a particularly virulent strain of American exceptionalism that contains the jingoistic conviction that the United States is capable of preventing “bad stuff” across the globe (ISIS, North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile capability, etc.) – if only America were to allow itself to punch at its full weight, as it allegedly failed to do in Iraq.

As with all incoming administrations, the Trump presidency’s regional policy will complicated by two things: facts, and factions. On the one hand, even the best crafted policies tend to be modified as they run up against the realities of the region (however temperamentally disinclined Trump himself may be to bend to, or even acknowledge, inconvenient truths). On the other hand, all US administrations are to one degree or another made up of heterogeneous and sometimes competing clans. The interplay between them may lead to this or that policy orientation displacing another, or this or that policy-maker being ejected altogether.

From the point of view of foreign policy, at least four factions seem to be taking shape in the incoming administration:
•   The military. Three of the Trump’s most senior appointees – Defence Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster – are former Army or Marine Corps generals. A reputation for belligerence appears to have played a part in Trump’s military picks (as the officer commanding the battle of Fallujah in 2004, where he earned himself the epithet “Mad Dog Mattis”, the new Secretary of Defence may arguably have been guilty of war crimes, according to research by Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting). But as seasoned officers they at least have an understanding of the real-world constraints on foreign policy, and are being looked to nervously by outsiders as the ‘adults in the room’ who may be capable of talking the impulsive Commander-in-Chief out of an ill-considered adventure (just as the Joint Chiefs of Staff persuaded Bush not to listen to Cheney and the neo-cons on Iran).
•    The oil industry, represented by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (latterly of ExxonMobil) and Energy Secretary and former Governor of Texas Rick Perry.
•   The radical nationalists: White House Chief Strategist and former head of Breitbart News Steve Bannon (whom Trump has appointed to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council) and Senior Advisor to the President Stephen Miller.
•   Finally, and arguably most importantly, the family: Trump’s influential daughter Ivanka (who has no official position) and her husband, Jared Kushner.

One thing that makes mapping the Trump administration’s foreign policy orientations especially hard is the lack of any track record in office, or even as public commentators, of many of the main players. This applies in particular to Kushner, Trump’s Senior Advisor on Middle East affairs, whose chief qualification for the job appears to have been his family’s long-standing friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over the past few months, it would appear, Kushner has been receiving coaching from the UAE’s ambassador to Washington Yousef Mana Al-Otaiba (who is particularly close to Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Sheikh Muhammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan) as well as, by some accounts, King Abdullah II of Jordan. Yaqut will therefore be looking to Abu Dhabi and Amman over the coming months for hints of the directions in which the Trump administration might be steered.

It may have been King Abdullah and Ambassador Al-Otaiba who helped steer Trump’s foreign policy team towards its reported strategy of trying to nurture an understanding between the Gulf Arab states and Israel on the basis of their common antipathy towards Iran (from which some as yet undefined “solution” to the Israel-Palestine question is supposed to emerge). Trump has accordingly struck a belligerent note with Iran almost from day one, and with a well-known Iran hawk as his Secretary of Defence there has been some speculation that the new Commander-in-Chief might be heading towards a military confrontation with Tehran.

This does not seem to us to be the most likely outcome, however. The Trump administration has every interest in ranking up tension with Iran, without necessarily going as far as war. Talking tough with Tehran clearly plays to the gallery in Israel and the Gulf; just as importantly for Trump, it is also one of the few things that unites the Republican Party behind him, the demonization of Iran having become an article of faith for Republicans since Cheney’s Pauline conversion. Incendiary Tweets from the White House about Tehran’s misdeeds have the added benefit of sending judders of alarm through the oil market, helping to support the price of crude. This works to the advantage of both the US shale oil industry (which is uncompetitive when prices sink too low) and the Gulf oil producers (desperate to keep prices at a level that enables them to at least balance their budgets).

The Iranians, meanwhile, appear surprisingly sanguine about the whole affair. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei implicitly acknowledged that Trump is in reality more jaw-jaw than war-war, tweeting on Feb. 15:
“One of enemy’s tricks – in both current & previous US administrations – has been constant threat of war & that military option is on table.”
In private, meanwhile, some Iranian financiers suggest that there is even a sense of expectation in Tehran. Their hope appears to be that a disruptive element such as Trump, perhaps inadvertently, might shake things up in such a way as to end the frustrating limbo in which Iranian business has found itself since the nuclear deal, with international sanctions coming down but Western firms mostly hesitating to follow through on their initial contacts.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, for his part, played the Iran angle for all it was worth in a speech to the Munich Security Conference stressing the common ground between Trump and Riyadh. Indeed, in his speech as in his comments to journalists on the sidelines of the conference, Al-Jubeir was fulsome in his praise for Trump, whom he suggested had the capacity to become a second Ronald Reagan in terms of his place in history.

Al-Jubeir’s oily obsequiousness belies, however, a sense of unease in Riyadh. Blindsided by the election of Trump, with whom they had little or no direct contact during the campaign or even the transition, the senior Al Sauds clearly do not know what to make of him. A telephone conversation between the incoming President and King Salman at the end of January seems to have done little to allay the very cautious attitude of the King in particular. While the King’s influential son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, strives to establish a personal relationship with Jared Kushner, Crown Prince (and Interior Minister) Muhammad Bin Nayef maintains his long-standing and close relationship with the other side of the Washington equation – the securocrats of the ‘deep state’, and in particular the CIA.

At the top of the Al Sauds’ list of concerns is the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, passed with bi-partisan support in the final months of the Obama administration, which potentially opens the door to legal action against members of the Saudi government and ruling family in connection with the 9/11 attacks. The Al Sauds are understandably keen to have this piece of legislation quashed, but it will be politically extremely difficult for Trump to do so, and there have been no signs that he has been prepared to address the issue in his contacts with Riyadh so far. Riyadh will also be wary of the Trump administration’s protectionist tendencies, especially with regard to oil, while the new President’s obsession with “reshoring” globalised American industries sits uneasily with Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s equally obsessive commitment to convincing major Western corporations to establish operations in Saudi Arabia in support of his quest to diversify away from oil.

Such misgivings notwithstanding, the Trump administration seems keen to placate the Al Sauds, at least for now. Mattis and Tillerson have taken the lead in re-launching US arms sales to Riyadh – including precision-guided munitions that were suspended under Obama due to concerns about their use against civilians in Yemen. Indeed, the new administration appears to have given the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebellion in Yemen virtual carte blanche, seemingly in the name of combatting the Houthists’ putative sponsor, Iran.

But the incoming administration’s most intensive contacts in the Middle East so far have been not with Riyadh nor even with Tel Aviv, but with Ankara. Trump spoke on the phone with President Erdogan on Feb. 8, and on the following day Trump’s new CIA Director Mike Pompeo arrived in Turkey for his first overseas visit after taking office. A string of other civilian and (especially) military contacts followed, culminating in another round of talks between Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and his Turkish opposite number Gen. Hulusi Akar in Antalya on March 8.

The reasons for the Trump administration’s special interest in relations with Turkey are clear enough. Having committed himself to finding a new military strategy to “eliminate ISIS” in Syria, Trump instructed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to come up with a plan by the end of February. Any such intervention will require Turkey’s cooperation. The Turkish press is now working itself up into a fever of speculation about what role the Turkish military might play in an upcoming “Raqqa operation”. Furthermore, Trump’s determination to ban Syrian refugees from entering the United States seems to have led him to embrace the idea of ‘safe zones’ within Syria itself – ostensibly a point of convergence with Erdogan. In reality, however, the Turkish President seems to have less and less leverage over the course of events. The Trump administration, having peremptorily brushed off Erdogan’s demand that the US stop dealing with the Syrian Kurdish forces of the YPG, appears to be poised to steal his new best friend in regional affairs, Russia – making it difficult for the Turkish President to play Washington off against Moscow and vice versa. In fact, arguably the most important meeting of the past week was not the Dunford-Akar tête-à-tête on March 8 but the three-way summit they had held the previous day with Russia’s Chief of General Staff Gen. Valery Gersimov.

If the Trump administration is tempted by war in the Middle East, all the signs point to Syria rather than Iran. While the scale any such US military intervention in Syria remains to be seen, it is looking increasingly likely that American boots will be on the ground again in the Middle East – and sooner rather than later. Trump after all has solid reasons for wanting a war – reasons that go beyond honouring a campaign pledge, beyond even protecting the American “homeland”. As we argued in an earlier Yaqut Op-Ed post, domestically Trump is on a collision course with the US constitution and (notwithstanding certain individual gestures of support) with the essential interests of corporate America as a whole. As such, he is probably more exposed to the threat of impeachment than any previous American president. But nothing makes Americans more forgiving, at least temporarily, of the domestic failings of their Commander-in-Chief than a foreign war. For Trump – and perhaps even more so for his strategists Bannon and Milller – renewing the United States’ military involvement in the Middle East may be a case of double or quits.