Category Archives: Middle East

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

Shale’s victory could spell the end of the US-Saudi alliance

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

–Victor Hugo

Amidst the endless sturm und drang of the present unholy political risk trinity of Trump, Brexit, and Europe, perhaps an even more important systemic change has gone largely unnoticed. The victory of America’s shale revolution—and the failure of Saudi Arabia to strangle it at its birth—means that the global price of oil will never be the same, with a permanent ceiling being placed over energy prices. This has almost incalculable geopolitical and macroeconomic consequences for a world that has largely missed its monumental significance.

The Permian Basin in west Texas, accessed through the fracking engineering revolution, is estimated to have as much oil beneath it as Ghawar, the largest field in Saudi Arabia. Further, the oil is cheaper to extract than are the riches in most countries within OPEC. It is estimated the bounty could last for 100 years. Almost overnight, the United States has risen phoenix-like from energy mendicant to one of the global big three–along with Russia and Riyadh, a setter of the global price of energy.

Coupled with the tar sands of Canada and the liberalisation of Pemex, Mexico’s heretofore state-controlled oil company, North America now stands as close to energy self-sufficiency as it is possible to be in the modern, interdependent world. This US does not have to worry overmuch—and with such tragic results—about the Middle East for the first time in modern history. At last, a policy of off-shore balancing vis-a-vis the snake pit of the region is possible.

If fracking is unambiguously good news for the US, it is a long-term threat to Saudi Arabia, America’s ultimate frenemy. Since World War II, the US-Saudi alliance has been based on a simple trade: America provides Riyadh with strategic stability while Saudi Arabia manages the steady and reliable flow of energy across the globe. With the advent of the shale revolution, and the relative diminution in Saudi power it underlines, however, the basic contours of this deal are being called into question as they never have been before in modern times.

While the Trump administration seems to have gormlessly fixed on a return to the pre-Obama stasis in the region—supporting repressive Sunni states such as Egypt and Riyadh instead of Shia-champion Iran—over time it is highly doubtful as to whether this old wine will retain its potency.

First, it was the Saudis themselves who have mightily tried to destroy America’s shale bounty, by pumping oil in ever higher volumes to drive the global price downwards, effectively negating the incipient shale revolution. This unfriendly economic act has failed. Shale rigs can be turned on and off like a tap, coming back online far more easily and at negligible cost compared with the fixed rigs of the Saudi desert. Thus, all the gormless Saudis have managed to do is make shale the ceiling of the overall global energy price, with shale coming back online whenever the price rises.

Second, while the Saudi’s John D. Rockefeller strategy (as we have coined it) did drive some US shale firms out of business, Riyadh—with its state-controlled oil company—knows precious little about how private American energy companies work. Throughout all of modern Texas commercial history, small-time Texas wildcatters with vision have been driven out of business, only to be replaced by East Coast money. The ownership of the energy may change but the drilling goes on. While the Saudi Rockefeller strategy has made life miserable for some wildcatters, it has not managed to destroy the thrust of the shale revolution at all.

Of course, unfriendly Saudi economic acts have been matched for years by murky political practices, from the country’s internal medieval repression, to funding radical madrassas throughout the world, to 15 of the 19 perpetrators of 9/11 being Saudi. Given the country’s litany of hostile acts, the shale revolution finally allows America to cut the doleful ties that bind it to such a treacherous ‘friend.’ Such a break would be world altering, indeed.

Published in City AM Money, March 24, 2017

Why Trump presidency is radically different for the Middle East

Introduction: The world has actually changed

Far too often, modern political risk analysts cleave to the intellectual shore in a desperate search for analytical safety, when events have already shaken up the comfortable world they have grown used to describing. Knowing when a game-changing event has occurred (for instance the recent, decades-long economic rise of China), and how it changes the old rules, is invaluable for any world-class political risk analyst.

With the election of Donald Trump now is such a time. For rather than playing the old strategic game of favouring either Iran or Saudi Arabia, a Trump administration will clearly favour neither, either in terms of Congress’s adoption of the JASTA law or the Iran nuclear deal. The world has truly turned upside down.

But hold on a minute, will bleat every self-satisfied, mediocre risk analyst, surely Trump’s rhetoric is just hot air. In the end, the realities of American interests and longstanding commitments will make a Trump foreign policy in the Middle East much like that of any other US President. But such nonsense is lazy, wrongheaded analytical whistling by the graveyard.

For Trump’s ideology is not an act. Better than pretending the world has not changed, it would be far more useful to analyse the new president’s worldview, particularly over the Middle East, rather than pretending his election did not matter.

Trump’s Jacksonian Nationalism

Donald Trump’s overall foreign policy views are not the mystery the highly-discredited commentariat presently make them out to be. He largely hews to what Walter Russell Mead calls the Jacksonian nationalist strain of American foreign policy, long a minority (if important) view in both American political parties.

Espousing a form of realism, the Jacksonians believe that the US should pursue a very limited but overriding view of the American national interest, seeing that every US foreign policy initiative furthers American interests to the exclusion of all other competing imperatives.

The idea that America is somehow impelled to ‘lead’ over any specific issue such as the Middle East as the global ordering power strikes Jacksonians as dangerous claptrap of the highest order, just another example of global elites caring about esoteric issues (global warming, pandemics, nuclear proliferation), all the while ignoring the concrete economic plight of their own workers, the Springsteen Democratic base which actually elected Trump president.

As such, Jacksonians are deeply distrustful of alliances, fearing the US too often allows itself to be shackled to the wishes of others, who may have quite different interests from those of America. While Jacksonians are not against NATO or any other bi-lateral alliances in the Middle East per se, they are only for such commitments in transactional terms, if America ‘gets a good deal’ out of them.

Jacksonians are not isolationists; they will do things in the world that they believe suit them and their interests. To ask them to do anything beyond that—as America regularly has as the global ordering power for the past 70 years—is not going to happen anymore. At its essence this is what Trump means when he talks about ‘America First’, a laser-like focus on American national interests to the exclusion of all else.

Jacksonians favour using force, but only when it is clear that a winning strategy is at hand, and never in the interests of esoteric goals, such as ‘upholding the international community’, ‘humanitarian intervention’, or to ‘nation-build’ others. Any nation building that occurs ought to be for the Springsteen Democrats, rather than (rightly in my view) wasting literally trillions of desperately-needed dollars in swamps like Iraq around the world. Again, with his focus entirely on American nationalism, Trump—weirdly echoing the very different Barack Obama—wants nation-building to begin at home

However, should America decide that the use of force is in its interests, Jacksonians are for prosecuting war, regardless of what others—including international institutions like the irrelevant UN or the smug and hopeless EU—might say. As Jacksonians believe so fervently in American nationalism, they readily accept that other countries might also wish to use force, and are not over-worried by that reality, as long as American interests are not threatened.

Hence, Trump’s blithe unconcern for whatever President Putin gets up to in either eastern Ukraine or Syria. America has no primary interests in either place so Jacksonians like Trump—to the horror of the international rules-loving Wilsonian elite—simply don’t care.

To put it mildly, this Jacksonian tilt will force the rest of the world to think about America again, in a way few have bothered to do over the past several generations, as Jacksonian precepts, world view and policy prescriptions are so entirely novel to foreign eyes.

Jacksonianism in the Middle East

What this means is that after seventy years, American foreign policy will decisively shift, as we have never had a Jacksonian-inspired presidency in the modern era. Not seeing primary American interests at play in Syria—and more determined than even President Obama to stamp out ISIS—Trump will find tacit common cause with Russia, Iran and the puppet Assad regime it supports, tilting the conflict strongly in their favour. In turn, he will work with Moscow to decimate what is left of the dwindling would-be caliphate.

But this is not a tilt towards Iran, either. The Trump White House is determined to hold Tehran’s feet to the fire over the nuclear deal, either rescinding it outright (which would cause a firestorm of controversy with America’s European allies) or just as likely harrying the Iranians endlessly over the legal details of the accord, hoping hard-liners in Tehran convince Grand Ayatollah Khamenei to walk away in disgust.

In turn, The Trump administration is bad news for Saudi Arabia as well. Trump strongly supported the JASTA legislation while running for president, and is unlikely to back-track on that populist pledge. Likewise, in the pursuit of energy independence, Trump means what he says in cutting back on Saudi energy imports to America.

Instead, look for a Jacksonian America to position itself in the Middle East as the off-shore balancer of last resort, not nearly as concerned with the day-to-day goings-on in the region as American presidents have been in the past and only roused to action when primary American interests—such as the destruction of ISIS—are in play.

Like it or not, Trump’s Jacksonianism means the Middle East will be increasingly left to its own devices in a way it has not been for several generations.

Printed in Al Arabiya online, November 21, 2016