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U.S. Imperial Delusion in the Middle East

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Sunday, May 21, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

America’s strategy in the Gulf region, where 40 percent of the world’s oil supplies transit, is in tatters. 

The Trump administration policy of  “maximum pressure” on Iran has ratcheted up tensions in the Gulf and convinced the Iranians that violating the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement was their only way ahead.

Trump’s policy to squeeze Iran is of a piece with other unfeasible administration efforts to work its will in the region. But instead of expanding American power in the region, these efforts have merely exposed Washington’s shortcomings in policy-making and execution and reduced its influence in the Gulf. Furthermore, they have offered a tailwind to the “resistance axis” as far afield as Yemen and Damascus.

Simply put, if you think our weaknesses were exposed in Northern Syria this week, wait for the second act in the Gulf.

As we have seen, Washington’s efforts to destabilize Iran and Trump’s mercantilist approach to foreign policy have pushed our adversaries—i.e, Iran, Russia, and China—to create new, multilateral mechanisms for Gulf security that strike directly at the Trump administration’s scattershot and contradictory efforts. 

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To counter Iran and to broaden the policy of maximum pressure, Washington proposed in 2017 to sponsor the deployment of a fighting Arab coalition, including Egyptian and Saudi troops, to areas of Syria occupied by Washington’s Kurdish allies in the north-east. America’s Arab allies nodded politely when Washington presented this idea of a hostile Arab occupation in Syria to shore up its losing bet on the opposition. But the idea was eventually dropped.

Meanwhile, the historic deployment of Russian troops on the Golan frontier, the Russian Air Force base in Syria (including an umbrella of top-of-the-line Russian air defense systems ), and growing military cooperation with NATO ally Turkey are the most notable examples of how Moscow has leveraged its decision to save the Ba’ath regime into a broad strategic advance. It other words, it made its partnerships work, and that is no more evident than in today’s headlines in northern Syria, where, in the wake of TRump’s decision to retreat, Moscow is leading the effort to reconcile Ankara and Damascus.

Willfully ignorant of its losses, Washington is still under the impression that it still commands sway over security issues in the Middle East, and the ill-considered notion of an Arab NATO continues to bounce around the Pentagon.

Just this monththe Pentagon’s chief civilian Middle East policy official, Mick Mulroy, briefed remaining potential members of this “Middle East Strategic Alliance” called “Operation Sentinel.” No longer aimed at curing Syria’s overwhelming ills, Mulroy invoked the September 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq to promote the idea of a “whole of government cooperation across economic, security, energy and political spheres.”

Last year Arab states were told that such an organization could be tailored to highlight the individual strengths of their state —Saudi and Emirati air power, Egyptian land forces to build a collective security framework strong enough to confront the “resistance axis”—a power bloc that includes Iran, and Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis in Yemen—and facilitate U.S. efforts to establish a new generation of missile defense networks throughout the area.

Egypt is the vital backbone of any American effort to establish collective Arab security institutions. But as much as it depends upon Washington’s good graces (Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is Trump’s “favorite dictator”) for military and political support, Cairo has found nothing compelling in the offer and has taken itself out of the Arab NATO toolbox. 

Beginning in the 1950s, similar efforts to establish a US-led front whose security needs would be filled by U.S. arms sales has been pursued under a series of names —from the Middle East Command to Middle East Defense Organization, the Baghdad Pact, and Central Treaty Organization—usually aimed at isolating Arab nationalists and Moscow.  

Like many bright ideas, a U.S.-engineered Arab commitment to mutual defense sounds attractive, but fails the reality test. Skeptics within the national security community even back then had assessed that such efforts were merely “formalizing the weakness” of tottering and unstable Arab regimes trying to win military aid from the West without antagonizing anti-imperialist public opinion.

In 1955, the Pentagon, in an analysis that would not be out of place today, warned: “The immediate effects of a loose regional defence grouping… backed by U.S. military aid programs would be primarily political and psychological rather than military. Such developments would not materially affect the internal weaknesses, that have thus far undermined Middle East strength and stability and would by no means eliminate the tensions and fears that have thus far alienated much of the area from the West. Such a loose grouping would not result in any significant reduction of the area’s military vulnerability.”

Fast forward to 2019 and the confounding stream of mixed messages coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Last Spring, Washington responded to growing Iranian dangers to tanker traffic by sending 2500 additional troops to the region. Yet on June 24, only days after Iran shot down a U.S. intelligence drone, Trump announced a historic revision of  U.S. security policy in the Gulf, eschewing any American interest in leading at all.

Trump tweeted that “China gets 91% of its Oil from the Straight, Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey. We don’t even need to be there (author emphasis) in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!”

Nevertheless, with no apparent memory of the ongoing effort to cobble together an Arab NATO, the recent troop deployments, or a desire to shape a coherent policy that included it —Trump’s scolding of allies proceeded in tandem with July’s announcement of  the CENTCOM-led Operation Sentinel to safeguard oil and gas shipments from Iranian predations.

The Chinese Navy has not visited Hormuz since Cheng Ho’s Treasure Fleet set anchor there in the early 15th century. Xi Jinping no doubt welcomes Trump’s historic acknowledgement of Beijing’s interest in expanding China’s reach to the strategic waterway, but as in all things, prefers to do so according to its own calculations. Like Japan it will not take up Washington’s offer. Nor will the EU, which is interested in re-engaging Washington and Teheran in a diplomatic dialogue. 

“We are living in a crucial, delicate moment where the most relevant attitude to take — the most responsible attitude to take — should be that of maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on the military side,” cautions Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s diplomatic chief.

Many of Washington’s traditional allies have been spooked by Trump’s belligerence, and even before Trump’s withdrawal from Syria last week, have reduced their military footprint in the region. Paris, Berlin, The Hague and Tokyo prefer less confrontational means to assure the safe traffic in energy and each has an abiding interest in cooperating with rather than confronting Iran. So far only the UK, Australia, Bahrain and most recently Saudi Arabia—have signed on to the Pentagon plan.

Escalation of the kinetic sort however, by intent or miscalculation, is a growing prospect. A new normal, defined by the use of clashing military arsenals, whether to send a signal, as in the repeated shelling near Baghdad’s Green Zone, or to do real damage like the recent routing of Saudi troops along the Saudi-Yemeni border, has emerged along multiple arenas of confrontation. 

But instead of horsewhipping Iran and its Houthi allies, Washington and its Saudi ally have suffered a series of  ignominious blows that have advanced the impression that Trump, for all his bluster, is, in fact a paper tiger, hawking expensive weapons unsuited to the “war between war” expertise of the Iranians and their allies and no more willing than his predecessor to use force to protect Washington’s Arab allies.  

Washington pronounced itself “locked and loaded” after the downing of a U.S. drone by Iran in June. And it looked on in disbelief as a well-coordinated attack on Saudi oil facilities in September went undetected by U.S. intelligence and undefended by U.S. weapons supplied to Riyadh. In the former incident Washington eschewed a military response for more sanctions—a policy instrument that has become Washington’s default almost everywhere. In the latter, the Pentagon has decided to do more of the same, sending more Patriots and U.S. forces to operate them, the modern day version of shutting the barn door after the horses have escaped.. 

Both are merely stopgap measures that do nothing to address the hollowness of American security policies in the Gulf, promoted not because of their effectiveness, but rather because no one can think of anything better to do. 

Little wonder then that Vladimir Putin, together with the presidents of Turkey and Iran, had a nice laugh at Washington’s expense, in a public mocking of the failure of U.S. supplied weapons to prevent the attack on Saudi oil facilities.

“All the political leaders of Saudi Arabia have to do is take a wise decision, as Iran did by buying the S-300 missile system, and as President Erdogan did when he bought Russia’s latest S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft system,”  Putin remarked, prompting laughter from President Hassan Rouhani alongside him.

Like a modern day Gulliver, the Trump administration has been all but immobilized by the modulated, well-considered military challenges from Iran. Responding to these encounters in haphazard, ill-considered fashion only highlights the persistent failure of this administration to use the policymaking system to actually make policy, leaving the region not only a far more unstable and dangerous place than it need be, but also creating once-in-a-generation opportunities for those with an interest in profiting at Washington’s expense.

Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

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