The foreign policy establishment is beginning to bite back. While President Trump was outperforming even by his own low standards in a press conference Thursday, Senator McCain, Secretary of Defense Mattis, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of State Tillerson were busy in Europe declaring their unqualified commitment to the NATO Alliance, urging the allies to meet their 2014 commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense by 2024, opposing any softening with Russia on Ukraine, denouncing those who doubt Western values, and lauding the post-World War II liberal international framework. Trump likely wasn’t listening–he doesn’t even listen to the questions asked at his own news conference–but no doubt his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, heard what amounts to a cabinet and Congressional rebellion against his boss.
The courage to talk this way comes in part from Trump’s truly miserable ratings with the American public. At 40%, his job approval rating one month into the presidency is the lowest on record:
|Trump||2017 Feb 13-15||40|
|Obama||2009 Feb 12-15||64|
|G.W. Bush||2001 Feb 19-21||62|
|Clinton||1993 Feb 12-14||51|
|G.H.W. Bush||1989 Feb 28-Mar 2||63|
|Reagan||1981 Feb 13-16||55|
|Carter||1977 Feb 18-21||71|
|Nixon||1969 Feb 20-25||60|
|Kennedy||1961 Feb 10-15||72|
|Eisenhower||1953 Feb 22-27||67|
He started lower than everyone else and has dropped more than all but Clinton:
|Initial approval||Mid-February approval||Change|
The American public views Trump as less trustworthy and well informed than his predecessors, as well as less able to get things done and to communicate:
Americans generally respect NATO:
They also think Trump has damaged America’s image abroad:
This is unprecedented: a president with radical foreign policy intentions whose appointees are speaking out in ways that amount to rejection of those intentions. They are trying to hem in the President and prevent him from pursuing the worst of his ideas.
Trump still is the president however. He may be hemmed in by his own minions on NATO and Ukraine, but he is still free to act elsewhere. Iran and Syria are the likely arenas. He won’t renounce the Iran nuclear deal, because the Israelis don’t want him to. But he may seek heightened confrontation with them in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, or Syria. He may also try for a partnership with Russia in Syria by abandoning support for the Syrian opposition and trying to ween Moscow from what I suspect is an unbreakable tie to Assad. No successor regime will be as friendly to Russian (and Iranian) interests as Assad has been.
Trump is also rumored to be considering deployment of more US troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). He wouldn’t be the first American president to seek to bolster his popularity at home by waging war abroad. But Americans seem to me tired of foreign interventions. ISIS, while dreadful, is a threat to individual American citizens–even to substantial numbers of them–but it is not an existential threat that can destroy the United States. Apart from North Korea’s eventual capability to deliver nuclear weapons to California, the only threat of that sort I see on the horizon is President Trump’s attack on America’s courts, its free and independent media, its Muslim citizens, and its domestic tranquility.
Iran for the moment appears to be taking a low key approach to responding to new US sanctions aimed at its ballistic missile program and support for Hizbollah. It is continuing to test missiles and radars, without however any indication as yet that they are nuclear capable. That is the minimum we should expect of them.
Iran as I understand it has already blocked Americans from entering, in response to Trump’s travel ban. They can do much more. It is easy for the Iranians to hassle the US Navy in the Gulf and the strait of Hormuz. US troops are particularly vulnerable to Iranian surrogates in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Hizbollah maintains capabilities to strike the US not only in Lebanon but also elsewhere, including inside the US. Use of these capabilities could significantly escalate the conflict with the US, which would likely respond with military force, either openly or clandestinely.
Whatever happens, the likelihood is a significant deterioration of already pretty bad relations between Washington and Tehran. Trump, who denounces the Iran nuclear deal regularly in stentorian tones, may even be aiming to get Iran to renounce it. This would leave the Iranians free to pursue nuclear weapons without however any real possibility that the US could restore the multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table. Military action would quickly become the only option for stopping the Iranian nuclear program from producing everything needed for nuclear weapons.
We should therefore appreciate the low-key approach the Iranians have taken so far. By far the best bet for the US on the nuclear weapons front is strict implementation of the deal. Even hard-line opponents of it are coming down on that option. It just doesn’t make any sense at all to do anything else.
Even with full implementation (on both sides), relations between Iran and the US are unlikely to improve during a Trump administration. The President’s National Security Adviser, General Flynn, is Tehran’s favorite American general, because appears to have accused President Obama of creating and supporting the Islamic State, a standard Iranian propaganda talking point. But he is also ferociously anti-Iranian and I would say a certifiable Islamophobe. He appears to be driving Iran policy, at least for now, but Steve Bannon, the white nationalist (I would say supremacist) chief White House strategist no doubt concurs.
Trump himself is stridently anti-Iranian, which scores him points both domestically as well as with the Israelis and Gulf states. Apart from the nuclear deal, these constituencies, as well as many others, have two problems with Iranian behavior: its aggressive support of proxies in the region (especially in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain) as well as its continued support to Hizbollah worldwide.
Iran is still a revolutionary regime aiming to maintain its semi-autocratic brand of theocracy, arm Shia populations in other countries to resist abuse, and use those surrogates to defend itself. It sees the US and Israel as its most dangerous main enemies, with the Gulf states a close second. At least in American eyes, there has been no sign of moderation in Iranian rhetoric and behavior since the signing of the nuclear deal. President Rouhani is enjoying at least some of its benefits to the Iranian economy, but the Supreme Leader, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and most of the Majles remain just as staunchly and stridently anti-American as Trump is anti-Iranian.
No, I don’t see much likelihood this will change. The main thing now is to prevent increased tensions between the US and Iran from exploding into armed conflict. Cooling it is the best we can hope for.
The Atlantic Council yesterday introduced a book by a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, Geneive Abdo, titled A New Sectarianism: The Arab Spring and the Rebirth of the Sunni-Shia Divide. Abdo was interviewed by Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief of the Al-Hayat newspaper, and the conversation was broadcast on CSPAN.
Abdo‘s book focuses on the aftermath of the Arab Spring and how the divide between Sunni and Shia factions has widened since 2011. She specifically studied Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The divides undermine already unstable states and may lead to more conflict in the future.
Abdo explained that while many of the revolutionaries of 2011 were optimistic that all the various factions would come together to build a better government—particularly in Egypt—in reality, every faction wanted dominance more than peace. Radical factions took advantage of the chaos to take power and left more moderate factions behind. The competition for dominance over religious messaging is still increasing.
The Sunni-Shia divide has increased as Saudi Arabia and Iran have tried to co-opt the respective Sunni and Shia causes throughout the region. This rivalry between Saudi and Iran comes at the expense of the majority of Sunnis and Shias in the region, who identify more with their own unique brand of Shiism or Sunnism rather than the Iranian or Saudi brand. For example, many Arab Shias feel that Iran controls the Shia who dominate the Iraqi government, which therefore does not represent the Iraq’s interests. The divide between Sunnis and Shias is further exacerbated by intra-Shia and intra-Sunni conflicts throughout the Arab world.
Abdo considers Saudi and Iranian meddling in regional affairs highly detrimental to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. For example, the Arab Spring in Bahrain was initially a joint Shia-Sunni effort against the government. However, once Saudi Arabia intervened, the conflict became Sunni Bahranis and Saudis versus Shia Bahranis. As a result, Shia Bahranis are virtually silenced in public discourse, to the detriment of the country.
Despite the general animosity between Sunnis and Shias in the region, many governments have avoided uprisings by warning their people that their country could become like Syria. In Morocco, Abdo met individuals who were unhappy with their government, but do not dare protest for fear that Morocco could become the next Syria. Even the Syrian government has been using this tactic. Bashar Al-Assad has often reminded Syrians that as bad as his rule is, it’s better than ISIS rule—if Assad were to leave, the alternative could be much worse.
Too often, according to Abdo, Washington analysts overlook radical tweets and Facebook posts because they are in Arabic or because they are not considered to be reliable. However, radical anti-Sunni or anti-Shia tweets are widely disseminated and significantly contribute to sectarian hatred. The anonymity of social media allows information and ideas to spread without the burden of individual responsibility.
Though Abdo was hesitant to speculate on how a Trump administration would affect the Sunni-Shia divide, she expects Trump to be much tougher on Iranian interventions than Obama was. But his hyper-focus on countering violent extremism will not leave much room for paying attention to sectarian reconciliation in the region.
When asked if she sees any room for Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, Abdo said that a real peace between these two countries is unlikely. Both Saudi and Iran benefit from the regional rivalry, so it is unlikely that either country will take any steps towards rapprochement. Additionally, there is little that the US can do to encourage these regional rivals to reconcile—the best that we can do is work with them and around them.
1) HEARING: Human rights under siege worldwide | Tuesday, July 12th | 10:00 AM | 2172 Rayburn House Office Building | Chairman Royce on the hearing: “Human rights violations are on the rise around the world. In Iran, the courts carry out public amputations and floggings. In Putin’s Russia, journalists are jailed for exposing government corruption and reporting the facts. In failed states like Syria, we’ve seen abhorrent treatment of civilians, including genocide. We’ve even seen backsliding in respect for human rights among established democracies. These are disturbing trends, and this hearing will seek answers on how the U.S. should respond.” Witnesses include: The Honorable Mark P. Lagon, President of Freedom House. Thomas Farr, Ph.D., President of the Religious Freedom Institute. Ms. Amanda Schnetzer, Director of the Human Freedom Initiativeat the George W. Bush Institute. Mr. Mark Bromley, Chair at the Council for Global Equality
2) Economic and Labor Reform in Bahrain | Wednesday, July 13th | 12:00 PM | Brookings | Click HERE to register | No country in the Gulf region and perhaps in the broader Arab world has thought about and experimented with reform more than the Kingdom of Bahrain. Indeed, Manama was setting up economic visions of the future long before the trend became popular. However, the country’s reform process faces various challenges, posed by an ongoing political crisis at home and an increasingly turbulent regional environment. Ausamah Abdulla Al Absi, Chief Executive Officer of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), will join the Atlantic Council to discuss Bahrain’s reform accomplishments and shortcomings and lay out the country’s path toward sustainable development. In his capacity as head of the LMRA, Mr. Al Absi is responsible for realizing Bahrain’s economic reform plan. Since its inception in 2006, the LMRA has played a crucial role in HRH Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s economic reform program. Additionally, the large and vastly important institution oversees the implementation of Bahrain Vision 2030. Speakers include:
Ausamah Abdulla Al Absi, CEO of the Labour Market Regulatory Authority, Kingdom of Bahrain Introduced by: Barry Pavel, Vice President, Arnold Kanter Chair, and Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Moderated by: Bilal Y. Saab, Director, Middle East Peace and Security Initiative, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Atlantic Council.
3) Blasphemy Laws and Censorship by States and Non-State Actors: Examining Global Threats to Freedom of Expression | Thursday, July 14th | 2:00 PM | 2322 Rayburn House Office Building, click HERE for event details | The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission | The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission will hold a hearing that will examine blasphemy laws, state censorship, actions by non-state actors, and other threats to freedom of expression around the world. This hearing will examine these issues, while seeking to provide concrete recommendations for how U.S. policy makers can most effectively encourage the protection of freedom of expression around the globe. This hearing will be open to members of Congress, congressional staff, the interested public and the media. The event will be hosted by Joseph R. Pitts, M.C. and Co-Chairman, TLHRC. James P. McGovern, M.C. and Co-Chairman, TLHRC.
David N. Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State
Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Chairman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
Ms. Vanessa Tucker, Vice President for Analysis, Freedom House
Ms. Nina Shae, Director, Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom
Dr. Karin Karlekar, Director of Free Expression Programs, PEN America
Dr. Courtney C. Radsch, Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists
Mr. Wael Aleji, Spokesperson, Syrian Network for Human Rights
4) After Fallujah: Security, Governance, and the Next Battle Against ISIS | Friday, July 15th | 12:00 PM – 1:30 PM | Middle East Institute hosted at the Johns Hopkins Kennedy Auditorium | Click here to register | Iraqi forces have expelled the Islamic State (ISIS) from Fallujah, but difficult work lies ahead to retake the territory still under ISIS control, provide security, and rebuild. Restoring government and the rule of law, returning the displaced, and rebuilding homes and infrastructure will be crucial for sustaining the victory. Who will have the power and legitimacy to manage local resources and services? What will it take for civilians to return? Can the Popular Mobilization Forces that played an important role in the liberation of Fallujah be demobilized or absorbed into the army, or will they remain independent power centers? The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) are pleased to host Robert S. Ford (MEI), Charles Lister (MEI), Jessica Lewis McFate (Institute for the Study of War), and Douglas Ollivant (New America) for a discussion of these and other questions regarding the aftermath of Fallujah, how ISIS may react in defeat, and the challenges ahead facing the liberation of Mosul.
5) How to Defeat Terrorism in Iraq | Wednesday, July 20th | 10:30-12:00| The Institute for World Politics | Click here to RSVP | Sheikh Jamal al-Dhari will share his vision for his country: a political re-crafting of the existing government structure away from sectarianism and towards a new constitution based on Iraqi national citizenship and inclusive of participation from all sectarian communities. HE Sheikh Jamal al-Dhari is the Chairman of the Iraq National Project and President of Peace Ambassadors for Iraq (PAFI). One of the leaders of the al-Zoba tribe in Iraq, he is the nephew of the late Islamic scholar and religious leader. Sheikh Harith al-Dhari Jamal was born in the Abu Ghraib district of Iraq on July 16, 1965. He grew up within the al-Zoba tribe and in the 1970s he attended the Hafsa School. In the 1980s, Jamal was conscripted into the Iraqi Army to fight in the Iran- Iraq War. During his time on the frontline, he fought alongside both Sunni and Shia officers and friends, in the Iraqi Republican Guard. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by coalition forces, Jamal was a strong proponent of Iraqi nationalism and self-rule. In 2005, he and his family fought against al-Qaeda’s occupation of Iraqi territory and, as a consequence, Jamal lost 70 members of his family in the struggle. In 2014, Jamal helped to establish the nonprofit think tank Peace Ambassadors for Iraq, whose purpose is to advocate for a renewed system of government in Iraq, to determine the best policies to fully eliminate ISIS/Daesh and other terrorist forces from Iraq, and to build international support for an all-inclusive Iraq. Presently, Jamal is working for a renewal in Iraq by forging a non-sectarian and inclusive settlement for all Iraqis.
Here is the draft of the State Department dissent message on Syria, on which the New York Times based its coverage yesterday. So far as I can tell the final version is not publicly available, but this draft is polished. The argument is basically that the US has sufficient moral and strategic reason to attack Syrian government forces with stand-off weapons with the goal of getting President Asad to abide by the internationally mandated cessation of hostilities and initiate serious negotiations on a political transition, as required by the Geneva I communique and numerous subsequent international decisions. The dissent memo admits some downsides: a deterioration of relations with Russia and possible “second order” effects.
Those downsides require more consideration. There is no international mandate to attack Syrian government forces. Intervention in this case would in that sense have even less multilateral sanction than the NATO attack on Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, where there was a UN Security Council mandate, albeit one that authorized “all necessary means” to save civilians rather than to change the regime. Asad has not directly attacked the US, even if his reaction to Syria’s internal rebellion has created conditions that are inimical to US interests by attracting extremists and undermining stability in neighboring countries.
The Russia angle is also daunting. Moscow may well react by intensifying its attacks on the opposition forces the US supports, who are already targeted by Russian warplanes. Unilateral US intervention against Syrian government forces would also help Moscow to argue it is doing no worse in Ukraine, where it supports opposition forces behind a thin veil of denials that its forces are directly involved. The US is not ready to respond in kind to Russian escalation in Ukraine, if only because the European allies would not want it. Kiev might be the unintended victim of US escalation in Syria.
Second order effects could also include loss of European, Turkish and Jordanian support, because of an increased refugee flow out of Syria, as well as increased Iranian support for the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, destabilization of Bahrain and Shia militias in Iraq. Greater chaos in Syria could also help ISIS to revive its flagging fortunes and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra to pursue its fight against the Syrian government.
These downsides are all too real, but so is the current situation: Russia, the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah are making mincemeat of the US-supported Syrian opposition while more extremist forces are gaining momentum. President Obama is reluctant to attack sovereign states that have not attacked the US directly without an international mandate of some sort. That is understandable. But doing nothing military to respond to a deteriorating situation is a decision too, one with real and unfortunately burgeoning negative consequences for US interests.
Hezbollah is the way out of this quandary. It is not a state. It is a designated terrorist group that has killed hundreds of Americans, and many others as well. The Americans say they are fighting terrorist groups in Syria. Why not Hezbollah? Its ground forces there have become increasingly important to the Syrian government’s cause. Getting Hezbollah out of the fight would arguably have as much impact on the military balance as strikes on the Syrian army, which is already a declining and demoralized force.
Washington need not start with military action. It could lead with diplomacy, telling Moscow and Tehran that we want Hezbollah to leave Syria tout de suite. If it fails to leave by a date certain, we could then strip it of its immunity and treat it like the other terrorist groups in Syria. Moscow might even welcome such a move, since Hezbollah efforts in Syria strengthen Iran’s hold, not Russia’s.
Tehran would be furious, claiming Hezbollah is in Syria at the request of its legitimate government. Hezbollah would likely try to strike US, Israeli or even Jewish targets in the region or beyond. It has managed in the past to murder Jews as far away as Argentina. Doing so would confirm the thesis that Hezbollah is a terrorist group and redouble the need to act decisively against it.
No suggestions for what to do or not do in Syria are simple. The situation has gotten so fraught that any proposition will have complicated and unpredictable consequences. But the State Department dissenters missed an opportunity to duck some of the President’s objections and strengthen their own argument by focusing on a terrorist group, rather than the regime’s own forces. Don’t forget Hezbollah.
Iran’s Fars News Agency asked me some good questions. Parts of the interview were included in this article, but parts were also cut, as one might expect. I am publishing here the full text, which I hope will find its way into print also in Iran:
Q: What is your opinion about Iran’s plan to resolve the Syria tension?
A: As I understand Iran’s “plan,” it involves 1) a ceasefire, 2) formation of a national unity government, 3) a rewritten constitution and 4) national elections. This is an outline many can accept, even if some might quarrel with the order.
But “the devil is in the details” we say in English:
1) How does the ceasefire come about? Who monitors and enforces it? What sanctions are there against those who violate it? What if some armed groups refuse to participate in it?
2) Who participates in the national unity government? Does Bashar al Assad step aside or remain as president? How is the security of opposition people participating in a national unity government ensured?
3) Who rewrites the constitution? Within what guidelines? How is a new constitution approved?
4) Who calls elections? Who supervises them? Who ensures a safe and secure environment for the campaign as well as the elections? Who counts the votes?
I suspect there will be many more differences over these questions than over the four-point “plan.”
Q: The UK recently announced that the conflict in Syria will not be resolved unless Russia and Iran use their influence on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to help reach a political solution. What do these signals mean?
A: I’m not sure what the UK meant. It is certainly the consensus in Europe and the US that there is no political solution in Syria if Bashar al Assad insists on staying in power. His opposition won’t stop fighting as long as he is there. Iranian and Russian support enables him to remain. I see no sign that either Moscow or Tehran is prepared to risk losing their influence in a post-Assad Syria, which will surely resent the enormous support they have provided him.
Q: What are Turkey’s roles in Syria and the region? Do you confirm its policy in the Middle East?
A: Turkey has four main interests in Syria: it wants Bashar al Assad gone, it wants Kurds in Iraq and Syria to stop supporting the Kurdish rebellion in Turkey, it wants defeat of the Islamic State, and it wants Syrian refugees to return to Syria. The proposed “safe zone” in northern Syria and the Turkish attacks on the Kurds and Islamic State aim to achieve all four objectives, though success is still a long way off.
Q: We know that Turkey had zero foreign policy sometime and it had gains some achievements but today it has taken distance from that. What were and are their problems?
A: As noted above, it has problems with Bashar al Assad, with the Kurds, with the Islamic State and with refugees.
Q: Why is the west silent on Turkey’s support for Daesh?
A: The West has longed implored Turkey to close its border to Daesh fighters and supplies. They have tightened up a lot since ISIS attacked inside Turkey.
It is a figment of Tehran’s imagination that the West is silent. Or maybe a creation of Iran’s propagandists. One of the things most resented in the West is Iran’s implication that the West is not really opposed to Daesh. Nonsense is the polite word we use for that allegation.
Q: Has the US-led coalition succeeded against Daesh?
A: No, but it has had some successes, taking back about one-quarter of the territory Daesh once controlled, depriving it of some of its revenue and killing quite a few of its commanders.
That one-quarter is mostly Kurdish-populated territory. Taking back Sunni-populated territory, especially in Iraq, is proving far more difficult.
Q: How can Muslim countries across the region led by Iran stand against Daesh?
A: The Sunni Muslim countries of the region don’t want to be led by Iran. They are fighting Daesh, but as part of a Western-led Coalition. Iran is also fighting Daesh, but coordination is difficult so long as Iran fails to distinguish between Daesh and more moderate Syrian fighters. From the Western and I think Arab perspectives, it looks like Iran is fighting to defend Assad for sectarian reasons more than it is fighting Daesh.
Q: Let’s go to Iraq. How do you evaluate the ongoing Iran/ Iraq relation? What about the future?
A: Iran has supported Iraq’s response to Daesh quickly and effectively, fearing Daesh success in Iraq would mean trouble sooner or later also for Iran.
But it has used the opportunity in particular to support Shia militias (Hashd, Popular Mobilization Units). That is a mistake, because it exacerbates sectarian tensions in Iraq and increases the likelihood of a breakup of the Iraqi state that Tehran says it does not want.
It seems to me that a strong but non-threatening and unified Iraq is what Iran should be aiming for. I don’t see it doing that at present. Instead the IRGC is pursuing a less wise policy of arming and otherwise supporting sectarian forces that will make keeping the Iraqi state together very difficult.
Q: What is your opinion about latest Russia military developments and build up in some parts of Europe and the Arctic? I do not mean Ukraine at all.
A: The Russians have legitimate interests in the Arctic. But past experience suggests they will try to bite off more than they can chew. They are already overextended in Ukraine and the Middle East. Putin has strong domestic political support, but he lacks the money and military capacity to sustain his aggressive foreign policy.
Q: And thank you for your participating. Could you please explain about Iran/West relations after the deal?
A: I don’t see Iran/West relations much changed, except for the prospect of much greater trade and investment, especially between Europe and Iran, once sanctions are lifted. But Iranian authorities have reiterated their hostility to the United States, which always gets a lot of coverage here.
Washington doesn’t care much about that but wants Iran to stop threatening Israel’s existence and subverting Gulf neighbors through a highly sectarian policy of supporting Shia forces (sometimes political, sometimes military), especially in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon and Kuwait. Iran and the US share an interest in defeating Daesh, but active cooperation on that requires that Iran stop subversion of American friends and allies in the region. As we know only too well, subversion breeds resentment, not influence.