Category Archives: Middle East

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.












Trump’s foreign policy twists are not as odd as they seem

“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”

 –Andrew Jackson, Seventh President of the United States

 Like all bad analysts, most of the world’s foreign policy commentariat have been in a state of perpetual surprise this past stormy year. They were surprised by the Columbian referendum on ending the war there, by Brexit, by the Italian referendum and above all else by the ascent to power of Donald Trump in the US.

 Over this past year, to read most of the papers in this country is to dwell in a parallel universe, with all right-thinking people needing smelling salts to be revived, as the word, over and over again, did not behave as it ought to. Of course what was really happening was that an elite world view was dying, one that simply did nothing to explain the facts of political life as they were being lived.

 Nowhere was this shock more evident than over the election of Trump, the first truly populist President to run the United States since his hero Andrew Jackson, back in 1829-1837. But this past ten days, a further ‘shock’ has been in store for our befuddled commentariat, one of an altogether more pleasant kind for them.

 For reasons that still pass their (limited) understanding, the new regime has acted more like the well-regarded establishment Republicans of the past (Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush) and less like the fire-breathing Voldemort of opinion page nightmares. Uneasily, the raft of stories on this sea change make it clear that the vast majority of the writers have no idea why this happened, or for how long this pleasant shock can be maintained.

 But the primary answer to the riddle is there, in plain sight, but it requires a real study and understanding of American history, something I have always found surprisingly lacking in the foreign policy elites across the Atlantic. All that Trump has done can easily be put down to his heartfelt Jacksonianism, an American foreign policy school of thought that has been around now for almost 190 years. But again, knowing this would require some analytical knowledge of America and its history.

 While many of the rest of us like Johnny Cash, Jacksonians are Johnny Cash. Jacksonians—a minority view in first the Democratic and now Republican parties—finds its most vociferous adherents traditionally clustered in the lower-middle class in the south and the industrial Midwest. I have often called them Springsteen Democrats; think of one of the Boss’s songs about the mill closing somewhere and the damage that has done and in your mind’s eye you will know who I am talking about.

 Because so few Jacksonians are running around in elite policy circles—in my decade in Washington I never met one—they have been conveniently forgotten by American foreign policy thinkers, let alone foreign commentators. But in Trump, Jacksonians have at last found their champion. However he imbibed this world view (my guess is it came from working on building sites for his father’s company when he was impressionable) Trump is a true Jacksonian believer.

 Jacksonians care deeply about the United States and its welfare and only about the rest of the world insofar as it has a direct impact on the country. As such, their view of the American national interest is far narrower than almost every other US foreign policy school of thought.

 A Jacksonians view of global warming is instructive. Jacksonians care less about whether the science underlying global warming is real, and wonder more why we are talking about islands in the Pacific sinking into the sea—only to be stopped by America spending billions on foreigners—when the local mill has closed in Pennsylvania. It is the elites’ misplaced sense of priorities—whether the issue is transgender bathrooms or icebergs melting, rather than focusing on the massive dislocation of the American lower middle class—that angers Jacksonians, as for them the American elite has done worse than fail them; it has utterly ignored them while worrying about peripheral issues.

 Given this tight focus on an America-First view, Jacksonians have a transactional view of alliances in general, not valuing them for their own sake but readily accepting them if they obviously and directly promote these sacred American interests. As such, as candidate Trump said, NATO–despite being the most successful military alliance in the history of the world—was past its sell-by date, as the allies shamefully free-ride off American and British defence spending.

 On the other hand, after the US missile strike on Syria two weeks ago NATO has value if it serves as a clubhouse to round up allied support for Washington’s actions. Likewise, the Chinese are the enemy if they militarise the South China Sea but can be an ally if they apply pressure to the North Koreans, as only they can. Yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed America’s commitment to Japan and South Korea—to the wailing and gnashing of teeth in North Korea—allies who during the campaign Trump had suggested need to take care of their own defence. Likewise, the White House congratulated President Erdogan of Turkey for his tainted referendum victory giving him monarchical powers, as he is needed if Syria is ever to be stabilised. These are not contradictions but display the fixed Jacksonian ideology’s penchant for being utterly relaxed about tactical shifts as long as core and specific American interests are served.

 The last major plank of Jacksonianism revolves around the use of force. With the end of the era of the draft, the children of Jacksonians do the actual fighting and dying in most modern American wars.

 As such, Jacksonians, despite their hearts-on-sleeve patriotism, are very cautious about the use of force. For them force should only be used when it will lead to clear-cut victories. But when the decision has been made to go to war, Jacksonians are loathe to abandon a conflict short of total victory. They are the last ones in, the last ones out, as was shown in wars from Vietnam on.

 Looked at through the Jacksonian prism, all that Trump has done with Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, China and NATO suddenly makes sense. That is what an understanding of American history will do for you.

 –Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of political risk consultancy John C. Hulsman Enterprises, and a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Drake’s Prayer: A History of Political Risk, is due to be published by Princeton University Press at the end of the year.

Published in the London Evening Standard, April 18, 2017.




Donald Trump’s Syria strike killed America First and a Putin rapprochement

“Events are in the saddle and they ride mankind.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I would love to have never been in the Middle East.” –Donald Trump

Foreign policy is rarely what it seems to be. It is the rare leader (a Nixon or a Putin) who comes to office as a chess player, with a fully formulated foreign policy strategy, allowing the tactical details of life to be filled in as they go, all the while never deviating from their overall plan.

Far more common is for a foreign policy to evolve from the bottom up, as the accumulation of responses to a series of unplanned crises that must be dealt with. While in hindsight patterns and themes emerge, they mostly do so after the fact, with the crises themselves leading to grand theory and not the other way around.

What we saw this past week confirms that Donald Trump’s foreign policy is evolving in this garden variety manner. Enraged that the blood-soaked Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people in Idlib, killing 83 including women and children, Trump responded by unleashing Tomahawk missiles on the Shayrat air base near Homs where the hideous chemical attack was launched. Suddenly, American foreign policy didn’t seem so isolationist after all.

Ironically, the consequences of the shocking air strike—entirely out of character with Trump’s America First vow to avoid the cesspool of the Middle East—will be very limited regarding what is actually going on in Syria. The Pentagon confirmed the strike was a one off, meaning that it does nothing to actually alter the strategic reality on the ground in Syria. Assad, Russia and Iran will continue to win the war in a limited sense, even as the wretched country itself dissolves into a series of feuding fiefdoms.

But the airstrike does have huge strategic ramifications for Trump’s ever-more forlorn pivot to Russia. By directly striking Russia’s client Assad for the first time, the Trump White House has driven a stake through the heart of any chance at a real rapprochement with the Kremlin. With military activism back on the agenda as a foreign policy option, and with the proposed pivot to Russia stillborn after the Trump airstrikes, it is not too much to say that the first iteration of Trump’s America First foreign policy has ceased to exist. Real world events in Syria killed it.

So what is likely to take its place? Earlier in the week, a much less reported on event took place in Washington that in the long run will have an even greater impact on the overall direction of the Trump foreign policy than the dramatic Syrian missile strikes. Steve Bannon, the ideological guru behind Trump’s America First foreign policy, was ousted from the US National Security Council at the behest of the increasingly powerful NSC Adviser General H.R. McMaster.

Not only was Bannon shown the door, but McMaster and Defence Secretary James Mattis’s allies—Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats–were added to the Council, in what amounts to the victory of the grown-ups.

This is hugely important for two reasons. With so few foreign policy appointees making it through the confirmation ordeal on Capitol Hill, the National Security Council is presently the only foreign policy game in town, being fully staffed, as confirmation is not necessary for its senior members. And in McMaster it has a forceful and able head.

If the NSC is dominant bureaucratically, with Bannon being ousted the thrust of Trump’s foreign policy is strikingly establishment and realist. Mattis, McMaster and even weak Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could have fitted comfortably in the administration of the first George Bush, or even that of Ronald Reagan.

They are realist, internationalist, national interest-driven establishment Republicans, and for at least the moment they are in the ascendancy in crafting the new administration’s foreign policy. This is shockingly good news for those of us who have for a while now woken up in a cold sweat, worrying Bannon might have a say in global matters of war and peace.

Of course, the problem with Donald Trump not being a chess player in foreign policy is that, as welcome as this shift is, he may prove to be a human weather vane, and dramatically alter course once again as the wind of events shifts. But for now amid the all the turmoil in the world, the thought of Republican realists actually running the most powerful country in the world is the best news we have had in quite a while.

Published in City AM London, April 10, 2017