By Dr. John C. Hulsman
Despite their seeming deep, irreconcilable differences across the board, President Trump’s and President Obama’s strategic approaches to the Middle East are strikingly similar. Both recent administrations have sought to avoid pointless distractions in the Middle East, pursuing an offshore balancing strategy. Unfortunately, the current administration follows no coherent tactics to bolster this sensible strategy: these contradictions doom today’s efforts to do less in a region that has brought the United States nothing but grief for so long.
For all his knee-jerk aversion to his predecessor Barack Obama’s policies, Donald Trump came to the White House with arrestingly similar strategic thoughts about the Middle East. The current president’s Jacksonian ideology holds that the us military build-up in the Cold War was an exception that can now be rectified. As this existential threat to America has receded, the United States can and should retrench its global commitments to focus on “America first”.
Just as Obama’s elevation to the presidency was a direct result of the feckless overreach of George W. Bush’s neoconservative crusade in Iraq, so Trump echoes Obama in displaying a reticence for military intervention and a deep skepticism of nation building in the Middle East or anywhere else.
OFFSHORE BALANCING IN THE MIDDLE EAST.
Given his clear ideological leanings, pursuing an offshore balancing strategy, in line with Obama’s reformist goals in the region, makes sense for Trump. Taking a back seat and allowing for the five great regional powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Israel) to come to an organic balance of power over time is a foreign policy strategy designed to limit the chances of the us becoming yet again embroiled in a war in the snake pit of the Middle East. Pursuing an offshore balancing strategy means America would only militarily intervene if one of the great regional powers upset this balance, successfully achieving hegemony there.
Barring this, the United States could do less in the region (largely thanks to America’s own dramatic shale revolution which makes securing foreign oil supplies far less of a priority), instead concentrating on American renewal itself, and focusing on the overriding foreign policy challenge of this generation; far more important is Asia, where most of the future economic rewards and much of the present global risks in the world are to be found.
This general Trumpian view is not that far off the reformist strategy that the Obama administration attempted to pursue in the Middle East. It is true that the Obama White House was focused more on the rise of the multipolar world order (tacitly accepting America’s relative decline) and the need to avoid pointless distractions in the Middle East. Yet strikingly, the two very different administrations are in-sync with each other over this central point: The Middle East is an endless, enervating distraction from more important geopolitical priorities.
These priorities include national renewal and a refocusing of us foreign policy on more strategically important parts of the world. As opposed as the two men and their philosophies are over a laundry list of other issues, over the Middle East their strategic priorities have seemed eye-catchingly similar.
OBAMA’S REFORMIST STRATEGY.
In characteristic fashion, the Obama White House intellectually followed through to the tactical level on this offshore balancing goal, to a more hands-off American stance in the Middle East. First, Obama avoided significant military intervention in the charnel house of the Syrian civil war, rightly seeing that he had no ally in the ghastly fight between the bloodthirsty Assad regime, the diabolical al Qaeda, and the beyond-the-pale isis.
Second, Obama de-emphasized what has become the fool’s gold of American foreign policy: the endless, fruitless, time-wasting efforts to corral the mythical unicorn that is a definitive Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. Accepting that the rise of China as a great power and of other emerging market countries (such as India) is far more strategically important for America’s future, the Obama White House quietly tried to leave the Middle East to its own devices.
Third, Obama started to correct the traditional American preference in the region for tilting toward the Saudis and its Sunni allies, at the expense of Shia Iran. Seeing no great moral distinction between the two (it is worth remembering that 15 of the 19 al Qaeda suicide bombers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia, whose citizens remain a major sponsor of radical Islam around the world), and with strategic dependence on Saudi oil at an all-time low due to the shale revolution game changer in the energy markets, Obama felt comfortable in drifting away from America’s traditional pro-Saudi orientation. America’s pro-Saudi stance has driven US policy in the region since the fateful World War ii shipboard meeting between F.D.R. and Ibn Saud in February 1945.
A more even-handed regional policy suited the Obama White House in every respect. It allowed the us to move towards its less involved offshore balancing strategic goal: only by disdaining to take sides in the increasingly virulent Sunni-Shia schism in the region – personified by traditional Saudi-Iranian competition and enmity — could the United States hope to do less there.
Practically, this led to the fourth and most revolutionary aspect of Obama’s reformist Middle East policy, the Iranian nuclear deal. In practical terms, the deal is far from perfect from the American point of view; it delays, rather than puts to an end, Tehran’s quest to become a nuclear power. But the deal’s overwhelming upside for the Obama White House was that it brought Iran in from the cold. After all, a regional balance of power strategy without including all the regional powers (of which Iran is surely a significant member) would be doomed to failure at its inception.
After a generation of ostracism, it was hoped that Iran could be treated as just another great power in the Middle East, rather than as a revolutionary power determined to upset the whole regional apple cart. This change in Iran’s position in the Middle East was the key building block that allowed America to dream of transitioning to an offshore balancing strategy.
TRUMP’S FOREIGN POLICY INCOHERENCE.
But if Trump’s Jacksonian ideology makes following in the footsteps of Obama’s offshore balancing goal seem logical, sadly, logic and coherence are not the primary attributes of the current White House’s governing record. Along with the strange congruity of Trump and Obama’s strategic thoughts about the Middle East comes one great divergence. As we have seen, Obama distilled his new Middle East strategy into a rational, operational, tactical set of policies. In contrast, Trump has pursued policies in the region that decisively make reaching the offshore balancing strategic goal in the Middle East an impossibility.
While he has largely managed to stay out of Syria (with the significant exception of successfully devastating ISIS there), and does not seem to be spending overmuch time on Arab-Israeli peace talks, over the tactical cornerstone of Obama’s new, reformist Middle East strategy — the even-handed adjustment of us views toward Riyadh and Tehran and the Iranian nuclear deal itself — Trump has also depressingly returned to America’s traditional pro-Saudi and pro-Sunni tilt. Such a tactical contradiction with his overall offshore balancing strategic goal dooms the administration’s efforts to do less in a region that has brought the United States nothing but tears over these past many decades.
Likewise, in decreeing that the US will move its embassy to Jerusalem, the Trump White House picked a needless, symbolic fight with the whole of the Arab world, dipping its toe back into the endless morass of the Arab-Israeli conflict, all the while making a lessening role in the region for the US far more unlikely.
This reversion to the sterile mean did not take the president long in other respects too. Trump chose Saudi Arabia for his first foreign visit, a clear sign of its renewed importance for the us. While practically meaningless, Trump’s announcement in Saudi Arabia of the creation of a 50-nation alliance of Islamic states determined to somehow fight al Qaeda and isis and contain Iranian subversion in the region, was nevertheless potent on a symbolic level.
In return for this clear American return to a pro-Saudi stance, Riyadh announced a deal potentially worth as much as $110 billion in arms sales over the course of Trump’s presidency. The old quid pro quo of the alliance — American support for Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Iran and general military protection for Riyadh in exchange for massive arms sales benefitting the us — is back.
Furthermore, it is also quite possible that the talks between President Trump and King Salman went far beyond the old quid pro quo. Just two weeks after the visit, a Saudi-led alliance — likely greenlighted by President Trump – decided to aggressively blockade and ostracize Qatar, long a thorn in Saudi flesh.
Qatar incurred the wrath of the House of Saud by funding the independent Al Jazeera news organization (often critical of the Saudi royal family), supporting the anti-monarchist Muslim Brotherhood, and by maintaining good ties with Iran (necessary for Qatar as it shares a huge offshore gas field with the Islamic Republic).
But if the Saudis thought they could score a cheap and painless victory over Qatar, cowing the wealthy Gulf State into submission, their plans have radically backfired. The diplomatic stand-off has instead seen a hard-pressed Qatar thrust into the arms of the Iranians and President Erdogan’s Turkey, who have delightedly supported the emirate during its hour of need in helping overcome the Saudi-led blockade, hardly the best of outcomes for Riyadh.
Likewise, the Pentagon under General James Mattis and the State Department under Rex Tillerson, painfully aware that the us has its largest military base in the Middle East in Qatar (Al Udeid), have tried to row back from the president’s intemperate pro-Saudi favoritism. Quite possibly egged on by President Trump, Riyadh’s efforts to throw its weight around have amounted to a self-inflicted wound, giving Iran an opportunity to meddle against its archenemy in the Arabian Peninsula itself.
MORE POOR POLICY.
The Saudi’s other feckless foray in their near abroad — the catastrophic war in Yemen — has also been obliviously supported by the Trump administration, ingloriously following in the footsteps of the Obama White House. Practically, the us has supported the Saudi-led coalition there by providing it with mid-air refueling for its planes and with intelligence support. Despite the aid, however, the Iranian-backed Houthis still control the capital Sanaa and nine of the twenty-one provincial capitals.
In the chaos, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has made a comeback, hardly an optimal outcome. The war is fast becoming Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam: it is bogged down in a quagmire it cannot win yet nor can it exit, due to reasons of prestige. Again, American support for this doleful outcome has proven to be a very poor policy, keeping the US overly engaged in the region, even as the Trump White House backs the losing horse of the Saudi government, headed by the reckless, untried heir apparent, Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But it is in changing course from Obama’s reformist Middle East policy over Iran that the Trump White House has done the most strategic damage to American interests. By making it clear that the Iranian nuclear deal — the signature diplomatic achievement of the Obama administration — would not be judged on its merits, the Trump White House unequivocally sided with the Saudi-led Sunni bloc in the region, at the expense of the Iranian-dominated Shia movement. Such a befuddled outcome dooms the us to over-involvement in the Middle East, which was the last thing the new Trump administration initially wanted.
THE NUCLEAR DISASTER.
In the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal, Congress compelled the White House to certify, every 90 days, that Tehran is in compliance with the agreement. Despite the fact that the vast majority of experts around the world believe Iran has so far lived up to the terms of the deal, President Trump has been reluctant to let reality get in the way of his anti-Iran (and, let’s face it, anti-Obama) feelings.
In January 2018, he was personally set on ending the Iran deal until Mattis, Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster (all of them hawks on Iran) prevailed on him to change course, if only for the moment.
Indeed, earlier in October 2017, Trump confusingly de-certified the Iranian nuclear deal, without withdrawing from it. Instead he turned to Congress to come up with new conditions that Iran must accept if it wants to keep American sanctions from being re-imposed. If Congress fails to do so, the Trump White House made it clear it will then terminate the accord by executive order.
In January, the President went further, saying if the European allies and the Congress didn’t jointly put forward significant changes to the accord—including crucially doing away with the sunset clauses in the deal, meaning Iran would be not deferring but ending its pursuit of a nuclear program—in May President Trump would abrogate the deal, re-imposing sanctions on Tehran. The odds of Iran (or the European allies, for that matter) accepting these terms are about the same as assuming Elvis is still alive. In other words, the Trump White House has started the clock ticking on the end of the nuclear accord.
Trump’s petulant wrongheadedness will eventually amount to a full-blown diplomatic crisis for the United States, which could well morph into a nuclear crisis, the last thing the world needs at the present time, given the slow moving Cuban Missile crisis over North Korea. By so obviously ignoring reality to suit the virulent anti-Iran bias of its Saudi allies and the American conservative base, the Trump administration has forgotten one key fact: the world is increasingly multipolar. The other great power signatories to the nuclear deal — namely, China, Russia, Germany, the uk, and France — are not going to re-impose sanctions on Iran just because the Trump White House wants to take a holiday from reality.
Instead, American weakness will be there for all to see as American-only sanctions will do some harm to Iran, but a great deal of damage to America. European allies will be horrified at America’s wanton disregard of facts, and great power rivals will be delighted that America has forced a diplomatic crisis it is bound to lose. America’s Middle East strategic disaster will soon be complete.
FORGETTING THE PURPOSE OF STRATEGY.
While it can be hoped that cooler heads will prevail, in the end, the us Constitution vests the lion’s share of power over foreign policy-making in the White House – far more than over domestic affairs. And that is precisely the problem; for it is the president’s head that is not cool.
Donald Trump originally called for a more limited, offshore balancing role in the Middle East – a strategy in line with the regional conclusions of his predecessor and with his own Jacksonian ideology. However, in his strategic confusion, tactically and practically Trump soon reverted to the sterile American mean, abandoning a more even-handed stance between the Saudis and the Iranians, and opting instead for the traditional American tilt toward Riyadh. The consequences of such an ill-conceived policy are already clear: throwing Qatar into the arms of the Iranians, and furthering the Saudi’s brutal and fumbling attempts to win the war in Yemen.
Worst of all, by placing the Iranian nuclear deal in peril, the Trump White House is opening itself up to a world of hurt, as none of the other great powers that signed the deal with Tehran – be they friend or foe – will go along with such self-serving nonsense. And in resuming America’s traditional pro-Saudi tilt in the region, the us will necessarily remain over-involved in the cesspool of the Middle East, for no appreciable strategic gain.
I say this with great sorrow, but I am an analyst first and last. The Trump White House is an unmitigated disaster for foreign policy in the Middle East.
Published in Aspenia (English Language Version update) February 2018
John C. Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consulting firm, and author, most recently, of To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, to published by Princeton University Press in April 2018, and now available on Amazon.