Saturday, April 29, 2017

Donald Trump and the Middle East: the First 100 Days

As Donald Trump reaches his first 100 days in office, the verdict on his domestic accomplishments is in.  Aside from a dramatic rise in the value of equity markets, a development last seen in the 1980s, his accomplishments are largely limited to a set of Executive Decrees.  Two of the most important, his attempt to bar immigration by Muslims to the US, and his effort to punish sanctuary cities by depriving them of federal funds, have been halted by federal judges.

Trump has caused a furor with his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), severely curtail environmental regulations, end federal funding for Planned Parenthood and women’s health services, eliminate funding for a wide variety of critical services for small communities, transfer huge amounts of wealth to the rich and avoid complying with federal ethics laws.

Much less attention has been directed at the first 100 days of Trump’s foreign policy.  Has he been more successful here or does he fall short along with his domestic policy?  What has he accomplished in the Middle East, the most unstable and volatile area of the world?

There are 3 categories which can be used to measure what Trump has accomplished in the Middle East.  First, what appointments has he made and what are the quality of those appointments?
Second, what actions has he taken regarding the major problems facing the region, such as terrorism, the Syrian civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Turkey’s move towards authoritarian rule, and the Saudi-Houthi war in Yemen, just to name some of the most prominent issues?

Third, has Trump formulated the beginnings of a coherent policy towards the MENA region?  Has he largely pursuing the foreign policy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, or has he struck out in new directions?  Or is Trump’s policy unclear?

The record on appointments indicates mixed results on the Middle East.  There is no question that replacing former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, currently under criminal investigation for not reporting fees he received from the Russian government, was a positive step.  Flynn, who is known for his caustic rhetoric and “shoot from the hip” policy style, was a poor choice for NSA, especially regarding a complex region such as the Middle East.

Lt. General H.R. McMaster appointment as Flynn’s replacement was an excellent choice.  Many of us remember Lt. Colonel McMaster’s brilliant strategy during the Iraq insurgency following the US invasion of 2003.  He was one of the few American military officers in senior positions who listened to Iraqi officers and local officials and formulated his military strategy building on their advice.  (Compare him, for example, to commander of US forces in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez).

The results McMaster achieved stood out as did those of General David Petraeus who likewise learned that Iraqis knew their interests and understood the military situation much better than Americans who had only recently arrived in Iraq. 

General James Mattis may not have evoked a lot of confidence among civilians when he was first appointed Secretary of Defense given his nickname “Mad Dog.” However, he has proved to be a competent military and policy strategist.   A veteran of the Afghan and Iraq wars, he forced troops under his command to treat civilians with respect, saying that, “Whenever you show anger or disgust toward civilians, it's a victory for al-Qacida and other insurgents.”

Unfortunately, the list of top foreign policymakers, with regard to competence in the Middle East and elsewhere, ends here.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be a quick learned but has relatively no experience in the Middle East, except for the interests of his former company, Exxon Mobil, of which he was CEO.  Many analysts have questioned the ex to which he actually has any significance influence in foreign policy making in the Trump administration.

Perhaps the most troubling appointment is Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been assigned a considerable number of foreign policy portfolios, including the highly sensitive Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  At 36, Kushner has no experience in domestic or foreign policy making but has been given a wide range of portfolios, any one of which would challenge a seasoned policy-maker.  

Kushner’s main claim to fame is that he is the wife of Ivanka Trump.  The important point here is that Trump feels more comfortable surrounding himself with relatives, close friends or former business associates, rather than with tried and true experts, whether in domestic or foreign policy.  This inclination is not only a problem regarding his policy-maker choices, but the large number of policy-making and ambassadorial posts which still haven’t been filled.  Trump was quick to fire all ambassadors immediately after taking office but has only had a handful confirmed to date.

Trump’s foreign policy decision-making can be divided into 2 categories - military and non-military. His decisions in both areas leave much to be desired.  Most prominent in the mind of mass publics, whether domestic or foreign, was his decisions to bomb Syria and Afghanistan.

The attack on the Shayrat Syrian air force base on April 7, 2017, was in retaliation for Bashar al-Asad’s use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikun in the northwestern province of Idlib which is largely controlled by anti-government Islamist forces.  The US attack on the airbase, from which the jets took off to drop the chemical armed ordinance, was widely praised, both in the US and abroad.

The other bombing was the use for the first time of the  largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal, the 21,000lb GBU-43/B Massive Airblast Ordinance Bomb – the so-called “mother of all bombs” – to purportedly destroy a warren of caves and tunnels in the Nangahar mountains of Afghanistan.  The bomb, which shook houses miles away from the site and killed 92 Da  ish fighters, is clearly a powerful and awe-inspiring weapon.

Despite the messages sent by these 2 attacks, the bombing of a Syrian airbase and an underground base of fighters loyal to the so-called Islamic State (Dacish) did little to change the political dynamics in either country.  Syrian warplanes were using the airbase the day after the US bombed it, because the Tomahawk missiles do not have the capacity to crater a runway.  In fact, photographs of the airbase indicated that only some old concrete hangers had been destroyed.  At $600,000 per Tomahawk missile, one has to ask whether the cost was worth or whether another site more damaging to the al-Asad regime should have been chosen.

In Afghanistan, US and Afghan troops were forbidden to approach the bombed site to gather forensic evidence until 2 days after it occurred.  The reason seems clear – not all of the Dacish fighters had not been killed and cleared from the area.  Indeed, fighting between Afghan and Dacish fighters continued for days after the attack.

On April 21, a small group of Taliban fighters entered an Afghan military base for new recruits, many of whom had never handled a rifle, and killed and wounded 140 soldiers after Friday prayers.  The worst attack on the Afghan military in 16 years led to the resignation of the Defense Minister and the  Army Chief-of-Staff.  Despite the use of the MOAB, Afghanistan seems nowhere near being secure.

In a third area of military policy, Trump has followed the Obama administration’s lead and continued to support Saudi Arabia in its destructive war in Yemen.  Its struggle against Houthi rebels, who are only loosely tied to Iran, is seen as a proxy war for control of the Arabian Peninsula and the Arab/Persian Gulf.

However, the Trump administration has intensified US support for the Saudi monarchy, in effect given it carte blanche to engage in whatever military behavior it sees fit.  The outcome has only been to bring Yemen to the verge of a failed state which will play in to the hands of terrorist groups, especially al-Qacida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Aside from military strikes, Trump has signaled his support for authoritarianism in the MENA region.  Unlike Pope Francis who criticized Egyptian president cAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi for his authoritarian rule during an April 28th meeting during his visit to Egypt, Trump’s meeting with al-Sisi earlier in the month included only parasite for the Egyptian leader.

More recently, Trump was one of the few  world leaders to praise President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for passing a referendum which would greatly augment the president’s power, eliminate the position of prime minister, give the Turkish president much greater control over the Turkish parliament and judiciary and allow him to remain in office until 2029.  That the referendum was characterized by irregularities and only passed by a small percentage of eligible voters seem also to have been unimportant to Trump.
Trump calls Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to congratulate him on the Referendum victory
While many leaders criticized the referendum process, which included approving without review at least 165,000 votes which had not been certified, the US supported Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian political system.  That many intellectuals, journalists, judges, school teachers, and professionals are in prison on unspecified charges also seemed not to bother President Trump.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Trump has demonstrated the same incoherent policy which has characterized much of his domestic policy.  On the one hand, he promised during the 2016 presidential campaign to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  However, there has been no talk of implementing that change since he took office.

In one of the most bizarre appointments, Trump nominated his former bankruptcy attorney, David Friedman, to become ambassador to Israel, which will likely occur this June.  Friedman was influential in having Republican Party support for a two-state solution – Israel and Palestine – removed from the party platform.  He supports settlements on the West Bank and, in effect, the seizure of Palestinian land.

At the same time, Trump has made noises that increased Israeli settlement on the West Bank is “not helpful,” and will soon meet with Palestine National Authority (PNA) President Mahmud Abbas.  During the presidential campaign, Trump boasted that he would bring the Israelis and Palestinians together and bring about a solution to a problem which, to date, has been intractable.  His designated envoy to seeking a settlement between the 2 parties, Jared Kushner, does not seem to hold any fixed positions on the dispute.

In Iraq, the Trump administration created a bitter taste by including Iraq – supposedly one of our closest allies in the Middle East – among the countries to which the Muslim ban would apply.  It was only after more sane heads prevailed, certainly including NSA H.R. McMaster, that Iraq was removed from the list. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which has engaged in the export of its virulent and violent Wahhabi ideology, which is hostile to Shica, Christians and Jews, and Sunni Muslims who don’t follow its creed, and contributed to terrorist activity in myriad countries was left off the list.  Undoubtedly, this omission had something to do with it status as a major oil producer, purchaser of US arms, and perhaps even based on Trump family business interests.


Despite considerable rhetoric and bluster, the Trump administration  has not developed any new policy towards the Middle East.  Much of what Trunmp and his advisers are poursuying constitutes a continuation of Obama policy.  No oen would expoect, in any event, a new policy to emnerge within the frist 100 days of any American president's term.

However, the erratic nature of Trump's behavior in foreign policy, not just in the MENA region but elsewhere (think about the aircraft carrier fiasco in Korea, his reversal of China as a "currency manipulation," and NATO now becoming "relevant"), has undermined US credibility globally.

As "shock and awe" demonstration in Iraq, the use of overwhelming firepower will not take the US very far in the Middle East.  Afghanistan is not closer to stability today than it was before the the dropping of the "mother of all bombs."

The key problem is that the Trumnp administration lacks the temperament to engage in the long-term, nuanced and detailed policy analysis which is required to bring about meaningful change in the Middle East.  H.R. McMaster notwithstanding, the personnel surrounding Trump view the world through a binary lens - pro-US/anti-US.  This form of thinking will only lead to greater, not less, instability in the region.

If Trump thinks that by supporting dictators, such as Erdoğan and al-Sisi, and supporting wars that lead to failed states, such as Saudi Arabia';s relentless bombing is causing in Yemen, he is in for a rude awakening.  The Middle East is a highly complex region.  Unless and until Trump recognizes that there are no simplistic solutions to the region's problems, he will find himself facing yet another disastrous policy failure to add to his domestic policy travails.