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Trump's Best New Policy in the Middle East Would be No New Policy
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President Trump’s stance on conflict in the Middle East is a mixture of bellicose threats and demonisation of opponents combined with rather more cautious and carefully calculated action or inaction on the ground. Leaders in Baghdad, Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran face the same problem as those in Tokyo and London, uncertain where the rhetoric ends and the reality begins and unsure if Trump himself distinguishes much between the two.

The debate about Trump in the Middle East does differ from that in the rest of the world in one important respect: the need for an answer here is more urgent because of the greater likelihood of a crisis, which Trump might provoke or exacerbate.

When he was first elected, the urgency seemed very great but there has been no major new crisis that put him to the test. For all his denunciations of President Obama for his supposedly feeble defence of American interests, US strategy in Iraq and Syria has remained very much the same. The priority has continued to be the destruction of the caliphate and the elimination of Isis.

The continuity is because the strategy has been successful and surviving Isis fighters are being hunted down or are taking refuge in hideouts in the deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria. But victory over Isis brings with it the prospect of a new US set of priorities in the Middle East with a more confrontational approach to Iran topping the list.

In his jeremiad against Iran on 13 October, Trump justified his refusal to certify the Iran nuclear deal with gobbets of propaganda, one-sided history and straight lies. He proposed a new US policy towards Iran based “on a clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world”. The speech sounded like the opening volley in a new campaign against Iran, to be fought out on multiple fronts.

Some sort of collision between the US and Iran looks possible or even likely, a battle which will probably be carried out by proxies and will not be fought to a finish. This is because Trump’s approach to the outside world is a blend of American nationalism and isolationism. The former produces belligerent threats and the latter a wish to avoid getting entangled in any new Middle East war.

This could be bad news for the US because, if it cannot use its massive military superiority, it will become bogged down in the sort of part military, part political struggle in which the Iranians are past masters. “They have a PhD in this sort of warfare,” said an Iraqi friend with long experience of dealing with them.

It may not come to that: such is the intensity of political strife in the US that new foreign policy ventures do not look very feasible. But any sensible leader in the Middle East always looks at the worst case scenario first. The wars in Syria and Iraq are either coming to an end or their present phase is ending, but in both cases the situation is fragile. People in Baghdad are wary of good news after forty years of wars and emergencies and would not be too surprised if things turned sour again.

It would be a pity if this happened, because just for once the professional pessimists in Iraq are not having it all their own way. The central government is far stronger than it was three years ago when Isis was rampaging across the country. Its army, with great help from American airpower, defeated Isis in the nine-month siege of Mosul. The Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faced down the Kurdish leadership and won an almost bloodless success regaining Kirkuk.

It is doubtful if either the US or Iran would come out the winner in any new confrontation, but Iraqis would certainly come out the losers.

The best policy for the US in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere is to do nothing very new. But this may be difficult for Trump. It is not just him who has wrong-headed ideas about the Middle East. There has recently been a stronger than usual surge of apocalyptic commentary about how Iran is winning victory after victory over the US in the region.

Washington think-tankers, retired generals and journalists warn of Iran opening up “a land corridor” to the Mediterranean, as if the Iranians travel only by chariot and could spread their influence by no other means.

It could be that Trump’s menaces really are serious, in which case the Iranians are understandably going to react. But even if they are largely rhetorical, they might trigger an Iranian over-reaction.

“The Iranians are under the impression that others want to topple their regime,” an Iraqi politician told me. “The Iranians are very smart. They do not send their armies abroad. Once you do that you are lost. They fight by proxy on many fronts outside their borders, but this destabilises everybody else.” Once again Iraq would find itself in the front line.

Curiously, Iran owes much of its expanded influence not to its own machinations but to the US itself. It has been the collateral beneficiary of US-led regime change in two of its neighbours, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, both which had been viscerally anti-Iranian.

The sheer ignorance of Trump and his administration about the Middle East is dangerous. It is usual, particularly in liberal circles, to see people in the Middle East as passive victims of foreign intervention. This is largely true, but it masks the fact that at any one time there are several governments and opposition movements trying to lure the US into a war with its enemies by demonising them as a threat to the world.


The Iraqi opposition spent a long time in the 1990s trying to manipulate the US into going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and, thanks to 9/11, got its wish in 2003. The Syrian opposition backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey were hoping to do the same thing in Syria in 2011-13 and were much frustrated that Obama did not play along.

Trump may speak of confronting Iran, but there is no sign that he has a coherent plan to do so. Much of what is happening in the region is beyond his control and US influence is going down, but for reasons that have nothing to do with him. The US has never quite recovered from its failure to achieve its ends in Iraq after the invasion. The return of Russia to the region as a great power has also limited US influence. The US public does not want another war in the Middle East.

Obama accepted these limitations and Trump will probably have to do the same. But his sheer unpredictability already makes the region feel a more dangerous place, even when he is doing nothing.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Iran, Middle East 
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  1. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The essay says:

    [The continuity is because the strategy has been successful and surviving Isis fighters are being hunted down or are taking refuge in hideouts in the deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria.]

    Read the following article. You may learn something about the nature of ISIS and other terrorist organization.

    ISIS is CIA/MI6 trained terrorists, how US can fight against its own terrorists? Only embedded ‘journalists’ repeat these garbage.

    [Curiously, Iran owes much of its expanded influence not to its own machinations but to the US itself. It has been the collateral beneficiary of US-led regime change in two of its neighbours, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, both which had been viscerally anti-Iranian.]

    Only embedded ‘journalists’ in the service of the western intelligence services make such a RACIST remarks. The success of Iranian policy against the axis of evil US-Israel – Britain is their own thinking where requires patience and sacrifices. Why are the enemies of Iran so desperate starting with Israel, Saudis and US? They have done anything imaginable to destroy Iran, yet Iran is standing. Although they have destroyed six countries of seven countries that General Clark mentioned in 2003, such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia for the ‘greater Israel’ but it have failed. Greater Israel IS DEAD. Oded Yinon is dead so its supporters. Get out of the region now.

    William Engdahl in “Moscow Outmaneuvers Washington’s Kurdistan Project” make fun of Iran enemies starting with US:

    [The report that the Kurdish SDF agreed to turn over Al-Tabiya gas field it had just taken from ISIS control on September 23 suggests more than a minor role of Russia in both Syrian and in Iraqi oil and gas developments as well, of course, in Kurdish developments. The Al-Tabiya gas field, formerly operated by Conoco of the US had the largest capacity of any field in Syria, capable of producing 13 million cubic meters of natural gas per day.

    On October 25 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, a significant thaw in their relations. The US-Israeli-backed Kurdistan independence ploy of Barzani has completely backfired. Again, Washington geopolitical stupidity and neoconservative war mania has driven hitherto geopolitical foes to cooperate in ways unimaginable just three years ago.]

    He tells the world that “Greater Israel” where goes through “Kurdistan Project”, an Israel/US/Britain project – The CONTINUATION OF BALFOUR CRIMINAL PROJECT, is DEAD.

    [Barzani, with open backing of Israel’s Netanyahu, despite major opposition from most of the world, went ahead with a referendum for an independent Kurdish state. It was to have been the beginning of a domino-style reshaping of the geopolitical map of the entire Middle East along the lines of US Army Col. Ralph Peters’ 2006 Armed Forces Journal, “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look.”]

    The better Middle East, says the Editor of Kayhan, is a New Middle East WITHOUT the UNITED STATES. Apparently, the events goes towards this ending

  2. Sample says:

    The only US policy that could be reasonably implemented is making the Palestinian Jews to behave as reasonable human beings…..

    Protecting the Jews has cost millions of lives over thlast 3 decades……

  3. What a load of garbage – ISIS is not the “begin-all or the end-all” of Muslim resistance to the Anglo-Zionist mistreatment of the native Palestinians. Defeat ISIS and another resistance will arise.
    The Washington Establishment (including probably this article’s author ) believe that the neighboring Arabs don’t give a fig for The Palestinians or their mistreatment, but anybody who has ever traveled to the Mid East, has observed that this is not true. I remember reading an English newspaper in Bahrain, years ago in which an article described how a local businesswomen’s organization in Bahrain was scheduling charity events to “aid the suffering Palestinians”. Osama Bin Laden cited our support for Israel’s genocidal treatment of the Palestinians as the chief reason for 9-11. Of course, AIPAC and the Israeli Lobby do not want this sentiment known because when America figures out that the main cause of Mid East strife is Israel; intelligent Americans will demand an end to the aid, land-theft and the Apartheid policies. Forget Iran/Consider Israel.

  4. eg says:

    Israel does not steal land Jews purchase land from willing sellers . Which is against Islamic law for any land once occupied by Muslims to ever be sold to non Muslims . Can’t expect Jews to obey Islamic law .

  5. eg says:

    Most of the Israeli Arabs are reasonable people and they have a very high reguards for the Jewish justice system . Very few of them would willingly move to a new Islamic run country

    • Replies: @Disordered
  6. Do you really think Obama did not play along? LOL.

    As for Trump, what he will probably do is help the Israeli hostile takeover of Palestine (it will happen, that is what his son-in-law is there for), and try to broker a status-quo-armistice with everyone after that, specially before Iran becomes nuclear. The anti-Iran rhetoric will probably lead to US occupation forces perennially in Iraq after IS is gone, but hopefully nothing past that aside from scaring them; the Iraqis taking over Kirkuk solved the Kurdish question that remained, which helps. Yes, Trump is probably not gonna deliver on the full isolationism some dream of – but, he does talk of “peace thru strength”, meaning that TR’s Big Stick is back in business but for mostly (?) self-defense purposes. OR so we are told… then again, and to be honest, as long as he stays out of the Wilsonian school and neocon nation-building Dubya ideas, it would be enough of an upgrade in foreign policy.

  7. @eg

    That is something I’d seriously like to hear from the Palestinians. How many of them would seriously not want to live in an Islamic state? Would a hypothetical Anschluss (lol) be as popular as the original was in Austria?
    Furthermore, I also wonder if, after the takeover happens, Israel instantly becomes less Zionist in character, due to demographic advantage of Arabs vs Jews. I still think a bi- or tri-confessional one-state solution like Lebanon’s, or simply a secularized state, is what eventually will happen.

  8. Don Bacon says:

    Obama never had a policy of “the destruction of the caliphate and the elimination of Isis.” That’s why Russia enetered the fray, to bomb the oil convoys, to reverse the situation. And Russia did reverse the Obama-caused situation, and defeated the US/Israel strategy.
    Jeez, Patrick Cockburn, I thought you knew that.

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