Military escalation is happening in several places these days:
- Syria: in addition to the March cruise missile strike on a Syrian base in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks US attacks on Iranian-backed forces approaching US-backed forces, downing of at least two Iranian-built drones, and downing of a Syrian warplane. Tehran and Damascus are pressing hard in eastern Syria, in an effort to deny the US and its allies post-war dominance there.
- Yemen: the Saudis and Emirates are continuing their campaign against the Houthis while the Americans amp up their campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Today’s promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to Crown Prince of the Kingdom presages more rather than less war there.
- Somalia: the Administration has expanded AFRICOM’s latitude in attacking al Shabaab militants, who are proving more resilient than many anticipated.
- Afghanistan: the White House has delegated authority to increase US forces to the military, which intends to deploy several thousand more Americans to help the Afghans counter the Taliban.
- Russia: Moscow’s warplanes have been conducting provocative maneuvers against NATO for some time, and yesterday a NATO F-16 allegedly approached a Russian plane carrying the Defense Minister.
Meanwhile Iraq’s disparate security forces are closing in on Mosul, civil wars continue in Libya and Mali, and North Korea continues to test its increasingly long-range missiles.
This military escalation is occurring in a vacuum of diplomatic and civilian efforts. Syria talks sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia are slated to reconvene soon in Astana, but prospects for serious progress there on military de-escalation are poor. The UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva are stalled. Planning for governance of Raqqa after the defeat of the Islamic State there is unclear.
The UN has announced a new Yemen Special Representative of the Secretary General, but it will be some time before he can relaunch its efforts. The UN-backed government in Libya is still unable to exert authority, especially over the eastern part of the country. The UN’s Mali mission has been suffering casualties, inhibiting any civilian efforts there. President Trump has tweeted the failure of Chinese diplomacy (more accurately, his diplomacy with China) to produce results with North Korea.
None of this should surprise. Apart from North Korea, the Americans are committed to not relying on diplomacy (in particular through the UN) and to avoiding anything resembling state-building. While they may sometimes think about financing removal of rubble or mines in newly liberated areas of Syria, they are determined to avoid any responsibility for governance or law and order. The Trump Administration wants to follow the formula Bush 43 tried in Afghanistan: kill the Islamic State and Al Qaeda enemies and get out. The failure of that approach has apparently been forgotten.
The only substantial diplomatic effort the Trump Administration has been pursuing is with Israel and Palestine, where there is an almost 70-year record of failures, with only occasional, if important, moments of partial success (I am thinking of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, not the Oslo accords). No one is taking bets that Jason Greenblatt’s efforts will succeed, though they may restrain the Israelis a bit and produce some modest improvements in the conditions under which Palestinians live. The two-state solution is, however, as far off as it has ever been.
The worst may be yet to come. The Trump Administration has aligned itself firmly with Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE against Iran. The Iranians seem increasingly determined to carve out their Shia crescent from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. We are on a collision course with Tehran, even if the nuclear deal hold for now
The Middle East Institute Wednesday hosted a conversation on Iran-Pakistan relations featuring senior fellow Alex Vatanka, retired ambassador to Sri Lanka Teresita C. Schaffer, and MEI’s director of the Center for Pakistan Studies Marvin Weinbaum. The panel—promoting Vatanka’s book Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy, and American Influence—shed light on the tense and cautious relations between almost-allies and almost-enemies at the crossroads of West and South Asia.
The relationship between Iran and Pakistan is a tale of two regional superpowers. Pakistan boasts a population of 189 million; Iran counts 79 million. Pakistan, noted Vatanka, is nuclear armed; Iran aspires to be. Pakistan is majority Sunni Muslim; Iran is majority Shia. The two countries are embroiled in a proxy war in Yemen. There even exist certain pervasive stereotypes, reported Ambassador Schaffer: Pakistanis view Iranians as weak and Iranians see the Pakistanis as provincial.
Yet the countries do not erupt in open conflict.
One factor that does not contribute to enmity is the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. Ambassador Schaffer stressed in her remarks that Pakistan has always had an aversion to Sunni-Shia squabbles, for good reasons. Pakistan has a significant Shia minority, including prominent families in politics and business. They comprise approximately 10-15% of the country’s population. Pakistani nationalism draws heavily on Islam as a unifying factor—to the point that proposals to replace the country’s secular laws with Sharia have always faltered at the question of which school of Islam would define legal doctrine.
This preoccupation with national interests over sectarian ones is a defining feature of the relationship between Iran and Pakistan. There is an understanding, notes Vatanka, that all-out conflict must be scrupulously avoided. Pakistan’s number one foreign policy priority is its relationship with India, followed by its relationship with Afghanistan. Iran is preoccupied with its Arab neighbors. Neither country stands to benefit from violence along the Iran-Pakistan border.
This distinctive disregard of religious tensions holds true despite Pakistan’s recent decision to join the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance, a coalition of Muslim countries committed to fighting terrorism that has been criticized for its predominantly Sunni membership and an alleged sectarian bent. In fact, noted Schaffer, sparsely populated Saudi Arabia has a long history of drawing upon Pakistani military support. Pakistan’s decision to join the IMA is nothing really new.
Yet the Iranian-Pakistani relationship is strained. Vatanka traces tensions between the two countries back to 1971—before the Iranian Revolution—when the Shah decided to remain neutral in the war between Pakistan and India. This policy of neutrality outlasted the Shah, who was deposed in 1979. The relationship between Iran and Pakistan worsened post-revolution, as Iran’s cozy relationship with the United States abruptly ended. The ideological gulf between the two countries widened: Iran’s zeal for revolution did not match Pakistan’s self-interested nationalism. In addition, the revolution cut off Pakistan’s supply of subsidized Iranian oil. From the Pakistani perspective, Iran’s diplomatic value plummeted.
Despite these historical rifts, Vatanka predicts a cool and reserved future for Iran-Pakistan relations, marked by military caution and mutual indifference. Iran, a natural gas goldmine starved for markets, trades more with Armenia than with its energy-poor neighbor to the east. For the time being, Iran and Pakistan appear locked in a tense and perpetual peace.
Donald Trump has done more damage to the NATO Alliance than the Soviet Union managed in more than 40 years. Even after its implosion, the Alliance endured for another 27 years, fighting its first wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. It has taken only a bit more than four months for Trump to cast a pall over Europe’s most important link to the United States and to render the Alliance irrelevant.
German Chancellor Merkel has concluded that Europe, “to some extent,” has to go it alone. This was her reaction to Trump’s miserable performance at the NATO Summit meeting last week, when he failed to mention the Article 5 commitment to come to the defense of our allies and harshly criticized their failure to meet NATO’s exhortation that they spend 2% of GDP on defense. That guideline was intended for 2024, but Trump treats it as a treaty commitment and pretends that the allies owe arrears for their many years of not meeting it.
This purposeful mendacity has consequences. It has convinced the allies that they cannot rely on the United States. An important corollary is that they need not follow the US on other issues. Trump will soon discover that our allies have no interest in ratcheting up sanctions on Iran, for example, but instead prefer to continue doing good business with Tehran. Nor are the allies likely to line up and salute on the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya. “All for one and one for all” has for decades meant Washington could “to some extent” depend on European backing for American initiatives worldwide. That presumption is now null and void.
Who benefits from this Alliance decay? Russia of course. The vodka flowed in the Kremlin last week. Trump’s own ineptitude and the consequent investigations have stymied his efforts to reach out to Moscow. He is nonetheless proving a useful pawn. Russian President Putin’s fondest hope is to throw NATO into disarray. Trump has done it for him, without any apparent quid pro quo.
The notion that the US or NATO would contest Russian action in Ukraine or Syria has evaporated. The consequences will be felt not only in those two countries but also in increased Russian audacity in the Baltics, the Balkans, Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere. I was just informed of a Montenegrin detained and expelled from Moscow. Apparently he was on an unpublished non grata list. We’ll be seeing a lot more of that kind of harassment. Putin will push until there is a push back, which he will have concluded isn’t coming any time soon.
He is correct. Trump is pushing back against his democratic allies far more than against any autocracy. His only real enemies at this point are what he likes to call radical Islamic terrorism and Iran, the two of which he has somehow managed to conflate despite their mutual sectarian enmity. Trump simply ignores the fact that Russia is increasingly aligned if not allied with Iran, not only in Syria. Nor does he pay any attention to the fact that Russia and Iran have never focused their attacks there on the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, but instead collaborated in launching the latest chemical weapons attack on more moderate anti-Assad forces.
This is a brave new world in which the president of the United States is not what I would regard as loyal to democratic principles, at home or abroad, or to our democratic allies. Memorial Day commemorates those who have died in the nation’s service. I feel their loss even more deeply when we abandon the ideals they were seeking to defend. This is indeed a sad Memorial Day for America and its allies.
Military colleagues (same ones who produced this fine piece) recently asked some good questions. I replied:
- How could DoD and DoS be better postured to address regional and world conflicts to ensure a whole of government approach to identify and synchronize lines of effort in both planning and execution?
While intellectually DoD and DoS are more in agreement on a whole of government approach than any other time I can remember in the past 20 years, there is a gigantic imbalance in the capacities and cultures of the two institutions. State persists with a “sink or swim” culture fundamentally opposed to planning, which is still honored more in the breach than the observance. It also lacks appropriate personnel and resources. That is about to get worse, not better, due to budget cuts.
Ideally, State Department officers should train with military units with which they might deploy in the future. That would vastly increase mutual esteem and communication. But it is mostly impossible today. The best that can be hoped for is some commonality in the training materials for both, though State is likely to be doing precious little training for stabilization operations in the next few years. I fear we are back to where we were 20 years ago: our military instrument is far more potent than our civilian instruments, and there is a yawning gap between them.
2. What does a successfully concluded campaign against ISIS look like? Considering costs, reputation, and balance of influence, how should the U.S./Coalition define success? Is the defeat of ISIS a success if it causes the balance of power in the region to shift towards Iran, Assad, or Russia?
Success in Syria should be defined in terms of sustainable peace and security. That won’t be possible under Assad or with the Russians and Iranians playing the roles they play today in propping up a minority dictator and repressing the majority Sunni population. So long as Assad is there, Syrians will be fighting him. The longer it lasts, the more those Syrians will be extremist.
After a successful campaign against ISIS, Syrians in different parts of the country should be able to govern themselves, repress terrorist activity with forces that do not oppress or attack the rest of the population, begin to return economic activity to prewar levels, and return to their homes or resettle freely without fear of persecution. We are a very long way from that, even in the most stable parts of the country (some Kurdish-controlled areas and parts of the south).
3. Does U.S. foreign policy strike the right balance in supporting U.S. interests and its role as a global power? Or, should the U.S. consider a more isolationist approach to foreign policy? What impact could an isolationist policy have on Middle East security and stability, balance of influence by regional and world actors, and U.S. national interests?
It is a mistake to ask foreign policy experts about isolationism, which they will all condemn, but I’ll go this far: U.S. interests in the Middle East are not as salient as they once were and we should be thinking and planning about reducing our commitments and burdens there.
The main U.S. interests in the region apart from counter-terrorism are generally defined as these: non-proliferation, oil, maintenance of alliances, and human rights/democracy. The only significant proliferation risk in the region (Iran) is on hold for 10-15 years or so, the U.S. is far less dependent on Middle East oil than once it was, our allies are mostly interested in military assistance, and we appear to have mostly given up on human rights and democracy in the region.
I think it is arguable that a) deterring Iran could be (maybe better be) accomplished with a much reduced U.S. presence in the Gulf, b) we should not be spending as much American treasure as in the past or risking American lives for oil flowing out of the Gulf to China and Japan (which should share that burden more than in the past), c) our allies should be taking on more of the burden of defending themselves with the enormous amount of kit we’ve sold them, and d) human rights and democracy will gain traction in the region better with less U.S. military presence.
4. What are the competing national interests of the U.S. and Iran in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S. / Iranian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
Iran is a revolutionary power looking to extend its security perimeter into neighboring states and to burnish its Islamist credentials by resistance to Israel. It will be impossible to overcome these problems exclusively in a bilateral U.S./Iran context, though increased communication between Tehran and Washington (including diplomatic representatives at some level in each of their capitals) is highly desirable.
Regional stability would also benefit from some sort of regional security architecture—think OSCE in Europe or ASEAN in Asia. This would aim at de-escalating Sunni/Shia, Saudi/Iranian, Turkish/Iranian, and other regional conflicts and tensions. There are few places on earth today with less regional cooperation and connectivity than the Middle East and North Africa.
5. What are the respective national interests of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S./Russian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
After a rough start, the Trump Administration has gotten more plaudits lately: the cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield and the Mother of All Bombs used in Afghanistan pleased those who wanted the United States to show more “resolve.” Vice President Pence then used those two attacks to suggest that North Korea should not try to test the President, all but laying down a new red line. The US would react, he suggested, if Pyongyang tested missiles or a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mattis is rallying allies in the Middle East and National Security Adviser McMaster has been in Afghanistan and India. The President has met with the NATO Secretary General, signed on to Montenegrin accession to the Alliance, endorsed the Export-Import Bank, and certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal.
That is all good. It is starting to look like a more or less normal American administration, even if it is using force with more abandon than its predecessor.
It’s not, mainly because of Trump himself. His congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Erdogan was the tip-off, as it ignored the obvious problem of a popular referendum used to establish autocratic powers. While Mattis and McMaster are adults who will try to do things right and steer Trump in productive directions, the President’s instincts and mode of operation still raise serious questions. No clear strategy has followed up either the Syrian or the Afghanistan attack. President Assad is still killing civilians with abandon, with help from the Russians and Iranians. The Taliban are still making progress in Afghanistan, perhaps more than ever before. Unless something changes, both American attacks will soon be seen as one-offs that presage no serious plan in either country.
The North Korean situation is similar. While the Americans boast that all means are on the table, Kim Jong-un knows perfectly well that his tens of thousands of conventional artillery pieces targeted on Seoul’s more than 20 million people will deter Washington from serious use of military force. Pence’s bravado was aimed squarely at the American and Chinese audiences. The best he can expect from Pyongyang is a willingness to talk. Kim does not back down on development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, because they are the guarantee of his regime’s survival.
Even if the Chinese exert their maximum leverage, Pyongyang is likely to stay adamant. Meanwhile, the Americans made fools of themselves by losing track of the carrier battle group the White House and Pentagon had said was on its way towards the Korean peninsula when in fact it was near Indonesia. I can only guess how much laughter that is causing in Beijing and Pyongyang. They’ve certainly now learned to doubt whatever Trump claims, which would have been wise anyway.
Despite this and other gaffes, there is at least some reversion to a more normal foreign policy direction. Secretary of State Tillerson remains alone at the State Department, with no other presidential appointees. That in a way is good, as it leaves any issues on which the Administration has given no new guidance in the hands of professionals who will continue to do what they were doing before, albeit with a bit less confidence and a bit more hedging of their bets. But any real progress depends on developing strategies for Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea, not to mention Yemen and Libya, that are clear and achievable. In other words, we are still adrift.
It is approaching 100 days since Donald Trump took office. He is getting applause in Washington for a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base responsible for launching a chemical attack, and I suppose he’ll get some tomorrow for using the biggest conventional bomb ever in Afghanistan, but he has yet to clarify his goals or enunciate strategy for achieving them in either country, or anywhere else.
Here is a summary of the incoherent foreign policy of a president who is playing golf more often than any in recent memory and spending more money on security and travel for himself and his family:
- Threats to do something about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles if China doesn’t, but it is clear what. Promised concessions on trade to China if it will and backed off his pledge to designate Beijing as a currency manipulator, which in any event hasn’t been true for a couple of years. The guy is one tough negotiator: carrots up front.
- Warm greetings to Egyptian autocrat Sisi, who continues to hold US citizens in prison on trumped up charges (pun half-intended) and has vastly increased repression over and above his predecessors’ already draconian measures, not to mention his cozying up to the Russians and making a peace settlement in Libya impossible by supporting a would-be strongman.
- A plea to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to pause settlements, which Netanyahu is pointedly ignoring with the authorization of the first brand-new settlement in many years.
- An unfriendly meeting with Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, during which Trump pointedly refused to shake the hand of Europe’s de facto leader and strong US ally.
- Increased air strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen that have caused a notable bump in civilian deaths, as well as increased (but now unannounced) US deployments to all three.
- Revelations of a web of contacts between the Trump campaign (and eventual appointees) and Russian businesspeople, spies, and government officials. If there is no fire beneath all this smoke, it will be a miracle.
- Delegation of major responsibilities to son-in-law real estate heir Jared Kushner, who at various times has appeared to be entrusted with Israel/Palestine negotiations, China, Iraq, reducing the Federal bureaucracy, and countering the opioid epidemic.
- Initial efforts to build a pointless wall on the Mexican border that would cost many billions the American taxpayer will need to pay, despite the years of decline in illegal immigration from Mexico. I’d guess no more than a few miles of this wasteful project will ever be completed, as Congress will not provide the funding required for more.
- A travel ban that courts are consistently finding violates the US constitution by singling out Muslim countries that have not in fact sent terrorists to the US.
- Decisions on coal that will make it impossible for the US to meet its commitments under the Paris climate change agreement.
I could go on, especially with respect to domestic policy: utter failure so far to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, a Supreme Court nominee so extreme his approval required the Senate to nuke the long-standing requirement for 60 votes in the Senate, and a budget proposal that cuts everything but Defense and Homeland Security, including crippling cuts to the State Department and USAID (not to mention the zeroing out of the UN Population Fund).
There is one reason to hope that things might improve on the international front. National Security Adviser McMaster, who is a serious expert himself, is hiring serious people with real expertise. He has already gotten Trump to reverse direction on NATO, which the President is now praising. But the State Department is still a wasteland, with no appointees to any of the sub-cabinet positions and a Secretary of State who seems not to understand or care for the public affairs part of his job. He was initially laconic to a fault. Now he talks but contradicts himself. I’m not sure which is worse.
Yes, I too would have thought Americans up in arms at this wholesale betrayal of their values, but I’m afraid it is no longer clear what those values are. Are we prepared to play a leadership role in moving the world towards liberal democracy, or are we content to cut deals with the worst autocrats on earth? Are we going to rely on real facts and knowledge, or are we going to try to scam the world, just as Trump has scammed his investors and contractors as well as the students at his “university”? Are we going to pursue a foreign policy that relies at least in part on diplomacy and international assistance, or are we going to use only the military?
Our current course is clear: towards a more militarized, less honest, and more illiberal foreign policy. I’m not seeing anything on the horizon that will turn us in a better direction.
For those who doubt that things are so bad, here is Trump’ April 12 interview with Fox Business, in which he remembered the cake he was eating when he ordered the missile strike but not the country targeted (at 27:30-29:30):
Never mind that he forgets that he opposed an attack on Syria while President Obama was in office and fails to credit his predecessor for the military technology used, not to mention that the meeting with Xi Jinping he claims went well the Chinese think went badly, especially with respect to Syria and North Korea.