Category Archives: Middle East

Will the US ever escape the Losing Gambler Syndrome in Afghanistan?

The Losing Gambler Syndrome is a fact of the human condition that casino magnates have come to well understand. When someone loses big at the tables, almost always they have an overwhelming urge to invest ever more resources to make good on their catastrophic losses, rarely bothering to think about the reasons for these losses in the first place. Dad cannot go back to Mom telling her he has lost the kids’ college fund at the roulette table, so he keeps playing . . . and keeps losing. The reason for his demise—the terrible odds—is never analytically addressed.

Policymakers are not immune to this folly, often doubling down on a bad assessment emotionally in order to wipe the slate clean of their intellectual mistakes. I saw this doleful analytical process up close and personal in Washington as the Iraq War slid toward the abyss; very often those policymakers urging ever-greater efforts in Iraq from the American people did so largely to make good on their already monumental strategic losses.

History’s graveyard is replete with losing gamblers

Anyone who has ever walked the mile and a half in that beautiful, tragic open field between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges at Gettysburg knows that the Confederate assault on the third day of the battle should never have been made. The simple reason for Pickett’s disastrous charge is that Robert E. Lee had emotionally invested too much at Gettysburg to easily turn back. The famed Confederate general was both desperate and overconfident, a fatal combination. Lee was held intellectual hostage by his tantalizing near success (and actual failure) on the second day of the battle, becoming an unwitting prisoner of the Losing Gambler Syndrome.

Likewise, as the years rolled by without the United States ever finding a political ally in South Vietnam with local political legitimacy, it never seems to have occurred to Lyndon Johnson that the lack of such a partner was a sure sign to get out, not to redouble his efforts.

When will they ever learn?

Tragically, the losing gambler’s curse continues today, with America’s seemingly endless war in Afghanistan being a textbook example. Within of few months of 9/11, American-led forces had routed the Taliban and dislodged al-Qaeda from its bases. However, then the war goals fatefully shifted. To prevent al-Qaeda’s resurgence, the US ended up endlessly propping up weak, corrupt, unrepresentative governments in Kabul.

As these governments did not have sufficient organic political legitimacy, the US found itself mired in an unwinnable situation, as without Taliban involvement in the central government (the Taliban represent almost exclusively the interests of the Pashtun, the largest single tribe in the country) any local rule was bound to be seen as inherently unrepresentative. This political reality is at the base of the 16-year unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

Doubling down yet again

Yet President Trump’s ‘new plan’ (there have been an endless number of these over the past decade and a half) does nothing do to deal with this central political conundrum. Despite in his campaign saying the war in Afghanistan had been ‘a total disaster,’ the President was persuaded by his respected Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, to increase American troop levels in-country to 16,000, ignoring the fact that during the Obama administration 100,000 American soldiers had been fighting there, all to no avail.

I suspect a key reason for this strange decision is that both Generals Mattis and McMaster served with distinction in Afghanistan. Like Lee, President Johnson, and the neo-conservatives huddled around George W. Bush, both have invested too much emotionally and practically to turn back, whatever the fearful odds.

So an unwinnable war is set to continue, as the unsolvable political reality at its base goes unremarked upon. The losing gambler’s syndrome tells us that once resources and intellectual credibility have been expended, it is all too tempting, whether met with crisis or entranced by near-success, to keep doing what has been failing up until that point. It is entirely understandable to do this, but as Gettysburg, Vietnam, and Iraq point out, practically disastrous. Policymakers must instead have the courage to look at failure straight in the eye and make adjustments to mitigate its effects, rather than doubling down and inviting more.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2018. It is available now for order on Amazon. 


The All-Too-Depressing Sameness of American Foreign Policy in the Middle East

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Empire Strikes Back: The Return of US-Saudi Relations

Introduction: Trump Changes Everything

What a difference an administration makes. In the last, dying days of the presidency of Barack Obama, US-Saudi ties—long a mainstay of American foreign policy—seemed to hit an all-time low. Whether the issue was Congress probing official Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attacks (wherein 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi), tensions over the fracking revolution and its threat to Riyadh’s dominance of the global energy market, or the White House bringing Iran in from the cold, the Saudi princes and the Obama administration seemed increasingly locked into diametrically opposed positions. The imminent demise of this central pillar of traditional US foreign policy seemed increasingly likely.  

 But that was then, this is now. With the shocking advent of the Trump administration, while the rest of the world cowers in uncertainty, the regime of King Salman (and his favoured son Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) can barely contain its glee. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia has gone in a blink of an eye from pariah to partner. What explains this dramatic sea-change in US-Saudi relations and is it likely to last, strategically changing the new map the Obama White House laid down for America’s relations with the Middle East as a whole?

 Obama’s bold Middle East Strategy

Barack Obama’s Middle East strategy is emblematic of his presidency as a whole: it is rational, innovative, measured, and not fated to survive as the old White House was so ghastly at both domestic political and policy follow-through. While Obama did indeed advocate a creative, realist foreign policy for the region, he never groomed a political heir to follow in his footsteps.

 The result of this cardinal mistake left America at the last, dispiriting election choosing between a creaky Wilsonian in Hillary Clinton and a mad-as-hell Jacksonian nationalist in Donald Trump. The basic point is that neither candidate was likely to sustain Obama’s realist strategic shifts in foreign policy, rendering them an impermanent and ethereal blip on America’s overall foreign policy radar. This is a tragedy for both the US and the world as the former president analytically got a lot right about the new era we live in, even if he did almost nothing practical to sustain his new foreign policy vision.

 For Obama it is self-evident that the US now finds itself in a multipolar world, where the United States remains first amongst equals by a long way at the global power table, but where rising powers (from an admittedly low base) are relatively gaining on Washington, year on year.

 This cresting of American power showed itself most tragically and graphically in Washington fighting a catastrophic war of choice in Iraq, the end result of which was to hugely discredit American power across the globe, leave Iran the dominant power in the strategic Persian Gulf, and to (in the predictable vacuum that was created due to Sunni political disenfranchisement) lead indirectly to the rise of the diabolical ISIS. By doing as the president put it, ‘Stupid Stuff,’ Washington’s neoconservative hawks had unwittingly opened Pandora’s Box, exposing America’s limitations for all the world to see.

 This avoidable debacle–which sprung directly from neoconservatives on the right and Democratic hawks on the left jointly overrating America’s power in the world—now had to be corrected. Coupled with the Lehman global economic crisis of 2008, it was clear to Obama that the new era was now one of multipolarity. Overall American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, stood in desperate need of a course change more accurately reflecting these new global power realties.

 So Obama began the laborious process of trying to extricate America from its over-involvement in the Middle East, ideally moving it toward the role of off-shore balancer. This meant Iran–long the great enemy in the region of both Riyadh and Washington—had to be brought in from the cold. This was duly accomplished through Obama’s landmark nuclear deal with Tehran, which Saudi Arabia hated for both tactical as well as these more strategic reasons.

 For Obama desired a Middle East of five great regional powers–Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and Iran—which over time would form an organic balance of power. This meant America, rather than wasting ever-more blood and treasure in the sands of the region, could instead concentrate on East Asia where things were both strategically and economically rosier. America would only have to intervene in the Middle East if one of these five countries grew too powerful, upsetting the organic balance. Short of this, America would have extricated itself from the regional morass, even leaving some semblance of stability in its wake.

 Obviously, such an American regional strategy was anathema to Riyadh, as it diminished US ties to Saudi Arabia, built up Washington’s heretofore fraught links with the great enemy Iran, and lessened the sole superpower’s involvement in the Middle East as a whole. Looked at from this grand strategic level it is easy to see why King Salman found the administration of Barack Obama such a danger to Saudi Arabia’s long-term interests.

 Trump returns the old order

 But due to Obama’s inability (and even disinclination) to groom a realist foreign policy heir and the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, things are rapidly returning to normal in the Middle East. Gone is the talk of off-shore balancing and improving ties with Iran, and with it the downgrading in importance of formerly close US-Saudi relations. Instead, both (often warring) foreign policy camps in the Trump White House espouse strategies that unwittingly move Saudi-US links back to centre stage.

 The more ideological wing of the Trump White House—epitomised by Senior Counsellor and erstwhile National Security Council (NSC) member Steve Bannon and the new president himself—sees (utterly wrongly in my view) radical Islam as the number one global threat to America. Here, and despite the long-running 9/11 controversy, Saudi Arabia has form as a counter-terror partner.

 Indeed, Crown Prince (and also current Interior Minister) Mohammed bin Nayef made his name as the man who effectively eradicated al-Qaeda from his homeland. The new Trump administration has signalled its approval for bin Nayef by awarding him the CIA’s George Tenet medal for his work in counter-terrorism. With ISIS on the wane (though work still has to be done to dislodge them from their capital of Raqqa in Syria) and al-Qaeda regrouping, Bannon and his colleagues see Riyadh as a vital ally in the ongoing fight against (in their view) this primary American enemy.

 Likewise, the other more traditionally realist faction in the Trump White House’s foreign policy team—signified by General James Mattis at the Pentagon, Mike Pompeo at the CIA and General H.R. McMaster at the NSC—sees old enemy Iran as still the primary American nemesis in the region as a whole.

 During their initial January 29, 2017 phone call, President Trump told King Salman that he agreed with the Saudis that Tehran is the greatest threat to regional stability, and that the hated Iran nuclear deal must be vigorously enforced. This is obviously music to Riyadh’s ears, particularly after its concerns over Iran were met by a very different mixture of neglect and derision by the old Obama White House.

 Since the start of his insurgent campaign, Trump has belittled the Iranian nuclear deal—the centrepiece of Obama’s efforts in the region—disdaining it as a terrible pact. While he has grudgingly agreed to support the agreement for now, the new administration has also made it very clear they will aggressively enforce its provisions for oversight of the Iranian nuclear programme, being ever-vigilant for any signs of Iranian cheating.

 General Mattis, the former commander of US forces in the region, well remembers that Iraqi Shia militia, allied with Iran, killed many of his men. He has unequivocally gone on the record saying Iran is the world’s ‘biggest sponsor of terrorism.’   

 Strikingly, then, over the Middle East these two warring foreign policy factions—for the very different priorities of radical Islam and Iran—have bureaucratically found common cause over a return to what amounts to the old, traditional American regional policy of support for a Sunni axis in the region (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt) plus Israel, against both Iran and radical Sunni jihadism.

 The Trump White House’s downgrading of the importance of human rights in crafting overall American foreign policy is also pleasing to the repressive (or increasingly repressive in the case of Turkey) regimes in Riyadh, Cairo, and Ankara. Due to this American foreign policy bureaucratic compromise, things on the surface have quickly and startlingly returned to normal in terms of America’s Middle East policy, with Saudi Arabia resuming its central role in US strategic thinking.

 Irritants Plaguing US-Saudi ties

 But as the American novelist Thomas Wolfe makes clear with his book title, You Can’t Go Home Again. The Trump White House’s Middle East policy is bound to founder, both due to its ongoing frictions, myriad contradictions, and the simple geostrategic fact that the world has definitively changed, much as Barack Obama sensed that it had.

 For all their broader strategic alignment, over many important issues Saudi Arabia and the US remain far apart. The cavalier (in this case utterly historically merited) disregard the Trump team places over negotiating a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement rankles the Saudis, who have paid much traditional lip service to the importance of such a deal.

 Likewise, while Washington under Obama vacillated but limited its exposure to the hell that is Syria, Riyadh has been more closely identified with supporting the anti-Assad rebels, even as the US has concentrated on ridding the world of ISIS. While King Salman made it clear to the president during their January 2107 conversation that he supports Trump’s call for humanitarian safe havens in the country, even if these can be managed (a highly dubious proposition) the two countries have widely differing primary goals in that war-ravaged country.

 The final irritant is that the fracking revolution has caught everyone unawares, lessening America’s direct dependence on Saudi oil and thus on the centrality of the relationship itself. In 2003, the US imported 648 million barrels of oil from Riyadh. This has dramatically shrunk to just 387 million barrels in 2015.

 Worse geo-economically for the Saudis, with the emergence of America as the third energy superpower (along with Saudi Arabia and Russia), fracking has put a permanent ceiling on global prices. As they rise, fracking comes back online quickly, as costs for fracking are far lower to bring rigs on and off line than they are for the fixed oil platforms which dominate both Saudi and Russian production.

 In essence, this permanent ceiling means the Saudis (through their proxy, OPEC) have lost control over calling the tune for global energy prices permanently. This huge geo-economic shift will have obvious and lasting effects on US-Saudi ties, serving to diminish them as the new energy reality becomes clearer.

 The Practical Contradictions Threatening Trump’s Middle East Policy

 Additionally, both wings of Trump’s foreign policy team are going to have to deal with the obvious contradictions that spring from their bureaucratic political agreement to return America to a Sunni-driven (plus Israel) regional policy. A most obvious geostrategic contradiction stems from the Trump team’s notorious desire to do more with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even as it ostracizes the Kremlin’s longstanding ally, Iran.

 For if the US wants to do less in the Middle East—as ironically both Trump and Obama agree on—working with Iran becomes practically essential. In Iraq, Washington needs Tehran’s help to stabilise the country following ISIS’s (inevitable) defeat in Mosul, as the dominant Shia political parties in Baghdad are under Iran’s sway. Also, in desperate Syria, the increasingly ascendant Assad, Russian, and Iranian forces must be accommodated if ISIS is to be eradicated in the east of the country.

 In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam-like foray into what amounts to a civil war with the Iranian-backed Houthis has led to a debilitating stalemate which has allowed the local branch of al-Qaeda to prosper. Again, help from Iran is necessary to disentangle Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent, the US) from the morass and to take the fight to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

 In each of these practical policy cases, Iran simply cannot be wished away. Its relative ascendancy over the past few years vis a vis Saudi Arabia means that it must either be engaged, and these devilish problems addressed, or it can be shunned and the region as a whole will continue to burn.

 The geopolitical contradictions threatening Trump’s Middle East policy

 Things are even worse for the ideologues clustered around Bannon in the Trump White House, those who believe that radical Islam is the greatest foreign policy challenge confronting the United States. They are surely, obviously, wrong about this.

 Instead, the tragedy of American foreign policy analysis is that following on from 9/11, radical Islam went from being an understudied second-order problem to an over-studied second order problem. But compared with the ascendance of China as a long-term American competitor, the rise of other Emerging Markets and powers and the dawn of the new multipolar era, radical Islam lacks the capacity to change the very nature of the world in the way these other challenges do. As such, this basic geopolitical misreading of the world will inevitably skew American foreign policy away from focusing on the things that really strategically matter.

 Even assuming somehow that Bannon’s view of the world is correct and radical Islam is the primary long-term threat to the United States, the Janus-faced nature of the Saudi regime over the radical Islam issue provides little room for comfort. For if the Saudi government did not officially support the 9/11 hijackers, as the 9/11 commission report makes clear elements of the far-flung royal family surely did.

 Riyadh’s bankrolling of radical Wahabist preachers around the world has not helped America’s war against radical Islam, to put it mildly. For every Prince Mohammed bin Nayef—a Saudi leader rightly concerned about what the spread of radical Islam could mean for the survival of the House of Saud itself—there is a murkier, more ambiguous tale to tell about Saudi Arabia and radical Islam.

 But the limits to Riyadh’s help in combatting radical Islam is not the only geostrategic problem for Bannon’s allies. Donald Trump came to power espousing an overall ‘America First’ view of the world. Put simply, the US should focus intensely on its interests to the exclusion of all else, and primarily should transactionally work with those countries who help it achieve its immediate goals.

 The problem with translating this set of America-First impulses to the Middle East is that the Saudis just don’t allow the US to do this. It is ties with hated Iran—far more than Saudi Arabia—which hold the key to ‘solving’ the Iraq, Iran, and Yemeni crises. Iran, as the champion of Shia Islam, likewise has no real links to the Sunni radicalism at the base of the ISIS and al-Qaeda movements (compared to Riyadh’s ambiguous ties). Even Saudi Arabia’s energy pre-eminence is no more, due to America’s shale revolution. So using President Trump’s own America-First terms, Saudi Arabia will not be very helpful in stabilising the Middle East.

 Conclusion: The peril is you become everything you despise

 So if closer US-Saudi ties—and the doing away with the Obama administration’s more even-handed dealings with Iran in the region—lead to nothing much being accomplished in the region, what will the Trump White House then do? The traditional American temptation, to ‘do more’ in the Middle East has led to countless tragedies, and is in direct contradiction to the president’s own ‘America First’ proclivities, that the US should steer clear of foreign entanglements that do not directly and obviously benefit the United States.

 But just because the history is clear and Trump’s own proclivities are known does not mean that America will resist the siren song of further involvement in the Middle East, when it becomes clear to all that a return to intimate US-Saudi ties no longer yields very much in terms of the White House’s hoped-for transactional foreign policy.

 Returning to the comforts of close US-Saudi ties may presently make bureaucratic sense in Donald Trump’s Washington. But these old ties were the product of a very different geopolitical world. In the new multipolar era, American links with Saudi Arabia will yield less and less. It will be at this crucial point, a few years hence, that America must forgo its interventionist reflexes, and remember that it is Barack Obama’s off-shore balancing position which actually furthers American interests in this very new world we find ourselves in.

 Published in Limes Italy, April 2017.