US faces risks as Trump misreads the Middle East

Francis Ghilès | (OpenDemocracy.net) | – –

Militarising the region further and taking sides in a recently concocted sectarian conflict will likely end in tears.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, Saudi King Salman Bin Abdelaziz Al Saud, US First Lady Melania Trump, and US president Donald Trump. Picture by Balkis Press/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The foreign policy milestones of the first months of the Trump administration are chalked up in the terms of successive reversals of positions taken by Donald Trump during his cam­paign. Trump used to say NATO was obsolete; now he does not. He was a cheerleader for Brexit; German Chancellor Angela Merkel persuaded him that the European Union was here to stay.

For a man who claimed on the campaign trail last year that “Islam hates us” and who twice attempt­ed to introduce a ban on certain Muslim visitors to the United States, having three Islamic sum­mits organised for him — with the Saudi royals, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the leaders of more than 40 Muslim-majority countries — was a triumph against the odds. In Riyadh, he stayed on script, sparing his hosts the daily flip-flops that have been his hallmark in foreign policy.

Urging those who listened to him to drive out the scourge of Islamic extremism is the easy part. Calling on a putative Sunni coalition to unite against Shia Iran is quite another matter. Choosing one side in a spiral of sectarian warfare is, of course, the exact op­posite of Barack Obama’s policy.

The 2015 nuclear accord the United States and five world pow­ers signed with Iran to restrain its nuclear programme was dismissed by candidate Trump as the “worst deal ever.” Yet, lacking any realistic alternative, as president, Trump is reluctant to tear it up.

Tehran has used Shia Arab proxies to build a power base in Iraq and Lebanon but Saudi Arabia spends billions every year exporting its brand of Wahhabi Islam and bigotry towards Shias and all other religious minorities. The kingdom has, for decades, done all in its power to destroy Sufi traditions. In Europe, it funds mosques in France, Belgium and the United Kingdom where bigotry is the daily fare of preachers. The terrorists who strike European cities regularly hail from a Sunni background. The hand of Iran is nowhere to be found.

This may explain why Germany and France are extremely reluctant to bring NATO into the Saudi-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) as Trump is urging them to. Europe bears the brunt of ter­rorism linked to Middle Eastern affairs.

Its leaders also sense that of­fering Iranian voters, who have just defied the theocratic estab­lishment by giving a big majority to Hassan Rohani, the centrist president behind the nuclear deal, a renewed pariahdom, may not be the wisest course to follow. Irani­ans want to engage with the world, which is what Obama gambled on two years ago. The Saudis are just buttressing their autocracy.

However much they applauded him in Riyadh, the Saudis and their Sunni allies, not all of which, such as Kuwait, share the king­dom’s hard-line stance on Iran, will probably be disappointed by how far Washington will go to push back Iran’s influence in the region. Deterring Iran is one thing; rolling back its positions in Syria and Iraq is a different matter.

As it is, the Iranians are support­ing the US-backed government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad while the United States is not considering any move to oust Iranian ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some Sunni coun­tries have been more forceful in in­tervening in Yemen but the result has been a political and a humani­tarian disaster. The 34-member Islamic Military Alliance Against Terrorism is full of fissures as its members just do not seem to be on the same page.

Trump put ISIS and Iran on the same footing, evils that must be eradicated. The contradiction that Iran is ISIS’s greatest enemy seemed lost on American lead­ers. The America First policy the president proclaims will have been comforted by the $380 billion worth of trade and investment deals, including $110 billion in US arms sales, signed during the visit.

Does any observer in the region believe that, by piling in even more sophisticated killing ma­chines, some of which Saudi na­tionals are not capable of manning themselves, peace can be brought to bloodied, often chaotic states?

Obama extended the drone war indefinitely, Trump is using ever more special forces, granting them a freedom of action that could one day cause a major upset, unfore­seen in Washington, to which every decision to move no longer has to be referred.

Militarising the region further and taking sides in a recently con­cocted sectarian conflict will likely end in tears.

America has adopted the Israeli and Saudi position — that Iran’s enmity to the United States is im­mutable but what benefit can the United States possibly derive from an unwinnable war in Yemen? Does it not understand that a uni­fied Sunni coalition of countries means nothing in North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, where there are no significant Shia popu­lations and Iran is of little concern?

In October 2013, the distin­guished British Conservative politician Michael Ancram deliv­ered a lecture at the Centre for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington. It was titled “How the West lost the Mid­dle East” over the past century. Trump’s visit will ensure the United States does not regain that region anytime soon.

Francis Ghilès is senior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (Cidob). He was the Financial Times’s north Africa correspondent from 1981-95, and now contributes to newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais and La Vanguardia. He is a specialist in emerging energy markets and their relationship to political trends, and has advised western governments and corporations working in north Africa.

This article was originally published on The Arab Weekly on 28th of May 2017

Via OpenDemocracy.net

——

Related video added by Juan Cole:

AP Archive: “People in Tehran react to Trump’s MidEast speech”

7 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    No sooner said than done.

    Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of destabilising the region.
    The countries say Qatar is supporting terrorist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood.
    The Saudi state news agency SPA said Riyadh had closed its borders, severing land, sea and air contact.
    It cited officials as saying it was to “protect its national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism”. link to bbc.co.uk

    Max Kaiser reports on US meddling

    And did the Trump administration okay this?

    It would seem so. And, if so, does this mean the Syria conflict (which was really a Qatari project) now de-escalated? While Yemen gets go ahead to escalate in Yemen?

    Read more at link to maxkeiser.com

    Michael Ancram (Lord Lothian ‘s lecture is here link to globalstrategyforum.org

    “The reasons we blew it are simple; contemptuous arrogance, unforgiveable ignorance,
    betrayal, greed, prejudice, misjudgement and a failure to learn from our mistakes.”

  2. I suspect that an actual war between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be rather one sided!

    Saudi Arabia has the finest weapons money can buy. However, that won’t matter much. They also have an officer corps of rich playboy princes. Do you think that all those fancy fighter jets are piloted by the best airman or by entitled princes that want a thrill greater than what their Ferrari can provide? Should blood actually get spilled these princes are likely to consider retiring to their estates on the Riviera.

    Iran has fought a large and exceptionally brutal war with Iraq within living memory. They are continually testing their soldiers in Iraq now. Iran’s military is battle hardened and loyal. Their weaponry is impressive if not quite the same quality as US weaponry. It is good enough to give both the US and Israel second thoughts about attacking Iran.

    Should the Saudi Arabia collapse will the US step in to prop them up? Would the Saudi population cheer us on? Would there be flowers in the streets to welcome us?

    • Iran’s weapons systems are actually extremely impressive. Many are engineered in Iran to be extremely accurate and effective while having low cost. Essentially Iran gets far more “bang for their buck” than the USA, Israel or Saudi Arabia.

      If the Saudis attack Iran, several things will probably happen . . .

      – Most of the Saudi jets will fall from the sky because of Iran’s massive S-400 and BUK anti-aircraft network (the S-400 are actually Iranian clones of the Russian system but with massive improvements and the BUKs are similar clones).

      – Iran will destroy most of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. Note that all oil infrastructure is “hand-built” so once it is destroyed it can take as much as three plus years to rebuild.

      – Then things will go down-hill for KSA from there.

      – At that point, the USA will probably try to help KSA, but will suffer massive damages. Note that Iran is rumored to have at least one Chinese DF-21D “carrier killer” so the USA carrier will have to stay at least 1000 miles for Iran to ensure they stay afloat.

      Iran’s weapons and troop strengths are impressive to those that are not blinded by the USA “bright shiny object” school of military.

  3. “Tehran has used Shia Arab proxies to build a power base in Iraq and Lebanon but Saudi Arabia spends billions every year exporting its brand of Wahhabi Islam and bigotry towards Shias and all other religious minorities. The kingdom has, for decades, done all in its power to destroy Sufi traditions. In Europe, it funds mosques in France, Belgium and the United Kingdom where bigotry is the daily fare of preachers. The terrorists who strike European cities regularly hail from a Sunni background. The hand of Iran is nowhere to be found.”

    Unfortunately, that’s why I expect Sunni Islamist extremism to continue to grow globally, like in places like in Pakistan. No one is stopping it.

    • I wonder how long this “deal” between the puritanical Wahhabists and the rich corrupt ruling class in Saudi Arabia will hold. It is truly a deal with the devil for both sides. One “breaker of all things” is war.

      Will the average Saudi soldier, perhaps influenced by Wahhabism, fight and die under orders of his rich playboy officer? Will the Wahhabi movement see a war as the time to revolt against their corrupt system?

      It seems that the Saudi royal family is playing with fire with these unnecessary wars.

  4. For the average American, the Middle East is a complete puzzle. What are our interests and aims there? If we are an oil exporter, why would we be dependent on ME oil? Why do we spend so much time and treasure supporting Muslim theocracies that suppress all the rights that we value? I wonder if members of congress, or even our military leaders, have any better grasp of the answers to these questions. There is only one thing we know for sure – our president is, without a doubt, completely clueless.

Comments are closed.