There are two reasons why US President Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East matters to Australia.
First, the President’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he also held a summit with Arab leaders, and Israel are a signal of where the administration’s foreign policy priority lies, and this does not appear to be in Asia. Second, the administration’s focus on rolling back Iranian advances in the Middle East means there is a risk that Australian troops currently in the region could get caught in the crossfire.
Some observers will scoff at the first suggestion. They will point to the administration’s early heavy emphasis on North Korea and Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month. They will say that even if the administration accords higher priority to the Middle East for the moment, the US can walk and chew gum at the same time. They may even suggest that it is foolish to assume a coherent foreign policy from an administration that has been anything but.
I would argue, however, that the Middle East is one part of the world where the Trump administration has been reasonably coherent – although time will tell whether it's being wise.
I am not the first person to suggest this. In an article for Foreign Policy back in March, Kori Schake argued the administration was prioritising the rapid defeat of Islamic State and the re-building of relations with Middle East allies with the ultimate aim of building an anti-Iran coalition. Everything else – human rights, democracy etc – was being set aside.
I think Schake is right. I think the Trump visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel is just the latest in series of steps focused ultimately on re-setting US-Middle East policy. In particular, where the Obama Administration placed a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue with Iran at the heart of its policy, the Trump administration is making the rolling back of Iranian influence its centrepiece – although I don’t think it will abandon the nuclear deal.
Other steps that the administration has taken recently fit with such a policy. These include the lifting of arms embargoes imposed by the Obama administration on Bahrain, as a result of its human rights record, and on Saudi Arabia, as a result of its conduct of the war in Yemen, which has become a humanitarian disaster. This is significant because Iran meddles in both Bahrain and Yemen, although probably not to the degree claimed by the Saudis.
I think US missile strikes against the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons, and maybe even the recent strike on pro-Assad forces in Syria, are also part of its signalling to Iran and to allies in the region that the US is now less timid about using military force than the Obama administration was perceived to be.
I would even put the administration’s reputed interest in renewing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in this category. Let’s leave aside for a moment the president’s belief in his abilities as a deal maker. (While there is a tendency to dismiss this as another example of Trump’s inflated self-regard, on this issue he is no different from every US president since Carter, each of whom gave Israeli-Palestinian peace at least one shot). Reviving the process serves an important strategic purpose.
As Kristian Coates Ulrichsen observed yesterday, having a peace process – even if it doesn't actually lead to peace – provides public cover for nascent strategic cooperation between Israel and key Arab countries in the region - including Saudi Arabia - against Iran.
Some might argue I am stitching together disparate things a little too neatly. Maybe. It is true that even well-run administrations are not always capable of this kind of policy coherence and the Trump administration is mostly not well-run. But the moves described are familiar from the US Middle East policy playbook of old. They are also moves that parts of the US military probably wished the Obama administration had made, especially as they watched Iranian influence in the region expand, and as they listened to the voluble complaints of US allies.
Here I suspect US Defence Secretary James Mattis and the President’s National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster have been critical in giving the Trump administration its coherence on the Middle East. Both have deep experience in the region, including in US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They may even have old scores to settle with Iran whose actions in those wars, both directly and indirectly, cost the lives of US soldiers.
This matters to Australia because a focus on the Middle East does deflect the administration’s focus from Asia where the strategic landscape is shifting in ways that require close attention by the United States. There is always a limit to the attention that a president and principals can give to any one issue, especially one that has many moving parts and involves American blood and treasure. But attention is going to be even more limited in an administration where the president seems easily diverted, especially toward domestic issues, and where much of the administration’s Asia team is not yet even nominated.
Moreover, the Saudis and other in the region seem to have done a good job at convincing the president to pivot America back to the Middle East. It undoubtedly helps that there is probably no other region in the world where leaders have welcomed the election of Trump so warmly (anti-Islam comments and Muslim travel bans notwithstanding). It also helps that Saudi Arabia has made a commitment to buy $US110 billion dollars of weapons, cementing its position as America’s biggest arms importer. The president’s reaction to that announcement certainly contrasts with his snarky remarks about having to pay for the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea.
And if, as I suspect, the administration and US allies are lining up to give Iran a proper kick somewhere in the region, this will also absorb more of the President and his principals’ time. Even the North Koreans may end up feeling neglected.
A lot depends on where the US decides to pick its fight with Iran: it could target Iranian-aligned militias in Syria or Iraq; it could provide more support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi militias; it might support an Israeli military move against Hezbollah in Lebanon or Syria; or perhaps be more aggressive in responding to Iranian naval provocations in the Gulf. I am not saying that the US intention is to go to war with Iran – although this could end up being the result. But I suspect that the formation of an anti-Iran coalition of Sunni Arab states and Israel, which the Trump visit to the region consummated, is just the first in a series of both subtle and unsubtle steps to push back on Iran.
In terms of the threat posed to Australian troops, a lot will depend on how Iran chooses to respond. It is possible Tehran will take note of these signals and become more cautious. Certainly, if the result of Iran’s presidential election is any guide, in which the incumbent and pragmatic president Rouhani was emphatically re-elected, this would be the choice of the Iranian people. And whilst the Supreme Leader has the ultimate say on foreign matters, even he cannot totally ignore the fact that most Iranians clearly prefer their government focus on strengthening the economy, rather than engaging in foreign adventures.
But equally, regime conservatives and the elements within the revolutionary guard who make a lot of money from Iran’s economy being closed might see this as opportunity to reverse their setback in the presidential election. They may be inclined to pick up any American gauntlet thrown at their feet in the hope that a conflict would rally ordinary Iranians and force the more pragmatic and reformist elements in the regime to fall into line behind their hard-line positions.
This would have direct implications for Australian troops in the region, especially those involved in our training mission in Iraq. Regardless of whether Australian forces are enlisted in any anti-Iran campaign, there is a risk that our troops, aircraft or ships operating in the Middle East may find themselves targeted in any Iranian retaliation given our close association with the US. In the same way that Washington may choose to target Iranian allies in the region to send a message to Tehran, Tehran might choose to do likewise.
Of course, none of this may come to a head until the Islamic State’s caliphate is well and truly destroyed. But that moment is approaching which means an important decision looms for the Australian government. Do Australian forces stay in the region to continue training the Iraqi army and consolidating the gains made in fighting Sunni extremists? After all, the fight against groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda is unlikely to end even after the Caliphate is gone, as the horrific events in Manchester seem to suggest. And while much of the counterterrorism effort will be at home, or in our immediate region, there will continue to be a need for intelligence and military operations in the Middle East. Or does Australia quietly pull back from the Middle East before a new round of strategic competition and confrontation, this time focused on Iran and its allies, gets into full swing?