Commentary | 27 May 2017

Trump's hollow strategy in the Middle East

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review (Photo: Flickr/The White House) 

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review (Photo: Flickr/The White House) 

President Donald Trump's recent foray into the murky world of Middle Eastern politics left us in little doubt as to the new administration's position on the region.

Gone are the days of the second Bush administration's quixotic policy of trying to export democracy to the Middle East. And the 2009 speech in Cairo in which Barack Obama pressed the need for freedom of speech, freedom of religion and advancement of women's rights in the region is also a thing of the past. Espousing the universality of human rights when Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a point of friction easily avoided, and so it was.

Instead, two things seem clear. Firstly, Washington is interested in a purely transactional relationship with national governments. Secondly, it views the security environment as largely a binary construct – those actors supportive of Iran who need to be contained, and those actors opposed to Iran who must be supported.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave voice to the first pillar of keeping American values and American policy separate when he told State Department employees that "if we condition too heavily that others just adopt this value we have come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance on our national security interests our economic interests". The Texas oilman was really espousing what has been traditional US policy in the region, but it must still have been music to the ears of autocrats throughout the Middle East.

And the policy regarding Iran has been a staple from the earliest days of the administration. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis has called Iran "the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world", while naming Iran as a regional and global security threat has been stressed by President Trump, Nikki Haley the US ambassador to the UN, national security adviser H R McMaster, and Tillerson. If Tehran hasn't worked out by now that the regional security environment has changed, then it hasn't been listening.

Adopting a transactional foreign policy with the Arab world unburdened by the need to put national values into the equation may appear attractive. But it does little to acknowledge the structural faults in Washington's chosen economic and security partners. And the focus on Iran as the source of regional insecurity and state-supported terrorism is too simplistic an approach and again ignores many of the root causes of terrorism.

The reality is that the real threat to stability in the Middle East is not terrorism, nor is it state on state conflict. It is an inability to undertake any meaningful political or societal reforms, as well as an unwillingness to tolerate diversity – of opinion, of belief, in many cases of ethnicity.

Education systems that promote rote learning over critical thinking are the norm and there is little attempt to link the education sector to labour markets. Without reforms the pressures for change will continue to build. And absent a peaceful way to release pressure by instituting this change, sooner or later populations will seek change by force.

Already this dissatisfaction with the political system and the societal intolerance for difference has manifest itself in the so-called "Arab Spring" and by the willingness of Arab nationals to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State or al-Qaeda-aligned groups.

By hitching their wagon to the Saudi-led camp the Trump administration has sent several messages. First, that it has acquiesced to the political and societal status quo and is happy to allow these domestic pressures to grow as long as those countries' regional security interests align with Washington's.

It is no coincidence that two days after President Trump told Bahrain's King Hamad that there wouldn't be strains with his administration, Bahraini security forces moved into the Shiite village of Diraz and allegedly killed five and arrested more than 280 Shiite protesters.

Another outcome of the Trump approach to the region is that Washington is now firmly aligned with the Saudi-led Sunni Arab camp. Presumably, Riyadh will have a freer hand to fund the type of proselytising activities that it accuses Tehran of undertaking.

Finally, the Obama policy of attempting to employ a carrot and stick approach to ameliorating Iranian behaviour through sanctions and engagement no longer has currency. Now it appears there will be all stick with no carrot.

A return to a strategy of containment and pushing back of Iranian influence in the Middle East may appear a focused and achievable regional security policy. It may also reap economic benefits for the administration in the short term. But invoking a simple transactional approach to relations with states in the region without any recourse to a sense of national values, is hollow.

By focusing on Iran, Washington risks ignoring the security threats thrown up by the policies of its very own transactional allies. And they are the real longer-term threat to Middle East security.