U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East

Slave to the Trumpian impulse

Beyond the latest crisis with Iran, current U.S. Middle East policy is nothing if not chaotic. Many fear that the Trumpian approach could irreparably damage future U.S. administrations and international order as a result. By Stasa Salacanin

Trump’s critics at home and abroad see no strategy in his actions and describe them as aimless, suggesting that the current administration has a problem "articulating its interests and goals in MENA, while its selective actions endanger the stability of the entire region."

Although the U.S. has adopted a passive approach in some instances (Syria), Trump’s impulsive and unpredictable policy towards Iran, as well as towards the Israel/Palestinian conflict, has simply added fuel to the regional fire, while significantly reducing U.S. credibility in the eyes of its MENA partners. Countries across the region, including long-standing U.S. allies, fear being caught in the crossfire of the U.S./Iran conflict and have begun to distance themselves from Washington's more "adventurous" initiatives, while pursuing their own autonomous policies.

Gabriel Glickman, Associate Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies points out that there is often a misconception that the United States is controlling events in the Middle East – either directly or as a result of its policies. But this perception "obscures the decisions made by Middle Eastern actors themselves."

It is no secret, that President Trump is eager to end the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Although this stance has earned him popularity at home, Washington's actions on the ground reflect the opposite, suggesting that the objective is scarcely achievable. All the current U.S. president has so far achieved it to further destabilise the region: his successors will have their work cut out to repair the damage he has caused.

Demonstrators in Iran protest against the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani (photo: Reuters/WANA/N. Tabatabaee)
Perpetuating the victim narrative: according to Gabriel Glickman, associate fellow at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, Iran’s move to roll back the JCPOA is strategic, intentionally presented as a reaction to some greater wrongdoing – most recently, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani

Glickman believes that Trump's objective has been to empower America's allies in the region, while undercutting their enemies – perhaps with a view to establishing a stable order in the Middle East. Since, given the rise of China, U.S. foreign policy focus as a whole has been steadily drifting towards Asia, Glickman regards its policy in the Middle East less as aimless and more conflicted between these two paradigms.

 Walking the tightrope with Iran

U.S. decisions have exacerbated seething tensions throughout the region, risking major escalation, such as in the case of Iran. The latest course of events, triggered by the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, may lead to a dangerous miscalculation on the side of Iran or the United States.

In a view of Dr. Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, former U.S. administrations decided that the risks associated with deadly strikes on senior Iranian officials outweighed the rewards. President Trump clearly did not arrive at the same conclusion. For Mogielnicki, the primary question now is: will tit-for-tat retaliatory attacks and antagonisation through proxies reflect the new normal, or are the two countries inevitably, if slowly, drifting towards war? The outbreak of war between the U.S. and Iran would have devastating results for Americans, Iranians, and neighbouring countries. There is a fear Iran could follow the example of North Korea and rush to develop its nuclear arsenal, hoping to garner more respect once it joins the nuclear club. But most analysts remain confused about what the U.S. was trying to achieve in its latest actions towards Iran, criticising the lack of a coherent and properly prepared strategy.

Mogielnicki explained that the threat of Iranian nuclear capabilities remains part of U.S. foreign policy considerations. However, the Iranian attack on Al Asad airbase in January 2020 suggests that the country’s missile arsenal remains a more immediate and genuine threat. As for Glickman, Iran’s move to roll back the JCPOA is strategic, intentionally presented as a reaction to some greater wrongdoing. "This perpetuates the victim narrative first created by former supreme leader, Khomeini," he added.

Peace process under attack

Trump has also caused great damage to the Palestinian/Israeli peace process. A large part of the international community agrees that by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cutting funding for the UN agency (UNRWA) responsible for Palestinian refugees, issuing statements that Israeli settlements are not illegal, while no longer regarding the West Bank as "occupied territory", the United States has dealt the faltering peace process several fatal blows.

According to Glickman, Pompeo’s announcements regarding the legality of settlements have restored the issue to its previous status as a political question, rather than a legal one. He recalls that it was Ronald Regan who reversed the U.S. legal position on settlements in place since 1978 and future presidents did not seek to return the issue to the legal realm. But this U.S. stance has been largely condemned by the UN and many European states, indicating the growing isolation of the United States on this issue, as Washington continues to ignore issues of human rights, accepted norms and rules of engagement. The European Court of Justice, for example, recently confirmed EU legislation that products made in Israeli settlements may not be sold in Europe if they are labelled "products of Israel".

Recent events, according to Glickman have certainly miffed U.S. allies across the pond – not least, the seeming absence of any warning about the Soleimani strike. Nevertheless, most European officials recognise that the U.S. remains a key global powerbroker and a necessary partner in regions like the Middle East.

The only way to restore America's position in global affairs post-Trump, suggests Glickman, will be to re-emphasise the centrality of liberal values in America's foreign policy. 

Stasa Salacanin

© Qantara.de 2020

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