Commentary | 27 April 2019

Great disrupter’s Mid-East missteps

Originally published in The Australian.

Originally published in The Australian.

Donald Trump’s approach to Middle East policy continues to uphold his reputation as the great disrupter: someone who defies orthodoxy.

There is nothing inherently wrong in attempting something different to break historical impasses. But expectations need to be realistic, and policy changes need to be part of a coherent broader strategy.

Neither of these are characteristics that sit easily with the US President. Trump prefers bravado over process, remarking in 2017 that accomplishing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was “not as difficult as people have thought over the years”. And for an administration facing a raft of foreign-policy challenges, he has made a difficult job even more so with regular changes in the policy and national security team, and an unwillingness to pursue multilateral approaches.

The main problem, though, is the Trump administration’s inability to enunciate a broader strategy for the region or to project even a hint of a values-based foreign policy.

Relationships are transactional and policies are short-term and often punitive. The US seeks to push people to the bargaining table rather than draw them to it. But realists understand that the US is not as powerful or engaged as it used to be, so have become adept at bypassing or ignoring its diktats unless there is no alternative. And in the Middle East, there are nearly always alternatives.

Three examples of America’s regional policy highlight the weaknesses of the Trump approach. The first is what passes for the Middle East peace process. It was moribund at the start of 2017; Trump at least signalled an intent to engage with the issue afresh. And re-engage he did, by handing the file not to a seasoned diplomat but to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Two years later, there is still no sign of the US’s peace plan proposal.

What has been of concern is the raft of unilateral US policy decisions that have punished the Palestinians and rewarded the Israelis before any peace negotiations.

Cuts in aid funding, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights are not the actions of an honest broker.

In Syria, Trump’s willingness to accelerate the military campaign against Islamic State by devolving operational decision-making responsibility to a lower level had good results. But there is a big difference between being decisive and being reckless.

His desire to withdraw from Syria is essentially the correct one. But simply announcing the outcome without consultation with anyone not only destroyed any leverage the Kurds had in negotiating a post-US withdrawal with Damascus, it caused massive problems for close allies such as Britain and France, which had troops on the ground with the US, and forced Turkey to contemplate further military intervention in Syria on the pretext of stopping Kurdish threats to its southern border. The hasty decision also cost Trump his defence secretary Jim Mattis and his most experienced Islamic State hand, Brett McGurk, both of whom resigned.

The President eventually had to walk back the announcement. This was a classic example of Trump the businessman facing Middle Eastern reality.

Businessman Trump has also been on display in his approach to Iran. He always disliked the nuclear deal with Tehran, partly because some of his closest supporters were anti-Iran hawks and partly because it had been signed by Barack Obama. But it was also signed by a number of Washington’s closest European allies, and unilaterally opting out has led to these allies trying to create a financial mechanism with Iran that allows them to bypass US sanctions.

In countering Iran, the Trump administration has made the mistake of tying itself too closely to Riyadh. And while their transactional relationship has always been strong, the chasm between the values that underpin Saudi and US societies has often been the elephant in the room.

Saudi Arabia’s misadventure in Yemen has tied Washington to an increasingly pointless and internationally maligned war; it entailed the President vetoing a congressional resolution to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition. Ironically, the support was originally approved by Obama. But the ultra-close relationship between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal palace is also a product of the close ties between the architect of the Yemen war, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the White House through Kushner.

The prince, meanwhile, is largely persona non grata because of the alleged links between members of his inner circle and the execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. It’s hard for the US to build support for a coherent anti-Iran strategy when its closest Arab ally has embroiled it in an unpopular war in Yemen and stands accused of killing a high-profile proponent of free speech, one of the very concepts that the US holds so dear.

US policy in the Middle East matters to Australia, given we are known as a close ally of Washington, have diplomatic missions and trade relations throughout the region, maintain a military base in the UAE and continue to deploy hundreds of personnel in the region, from peacekeeping missions in the Sinai and the Golan Heights to assistance missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dozens of Australian citizens are held in detention camps in Syria.

Washington’s abandonment of a values-based policy approach, lack of balance and pursuit of tactical rather than strategic gains in the region should not only be a source of disappointment to Canberra but also cause for concern.