The appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser is one more step in trying to hem in President Trump on national security policy. He remains in charge of immigration, health care, trade and many other subjects, but the Washington establishment (aka “the blob”) is trying to reassert control of some important foreign policy issues:
- Vice President Pence has been in Europe reassuring the NATO allies of the Administration’s wholehearted commitment to the Alliance and openness to partnership with the European Union, despite the President’s often expressed skepticism of both.
- Defense Secretary Mattis has done likewise with NATO and also visited Baghdad, in part to reassure the Iraqis that we are not, as the President has suggested we would, going to “keep” their oil (whatever that means).
- H.R. is well-known for his book criticizing the generals for not objecting to escalation of the Vietnam War–he isn’t likely to stand by idly if Trump pursues courses of action that can’t be justified or sustained. Nor is he likely to ignore or denigrate the intelligence community.
- Secretary of State Tillerson has been reassuring Ukraine of America’s support, including on Crimea, and calling out the Russians for failure to implement the Minsk 2 agreement.
- Republican Senator McCain has trashed Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin, with Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republicans cheering him on amidst growing pressure for serious investigations of the White House’s Russian connections.
With those holes plugged, the main thrust of White House thinking about foreign and national security policy still has two major outlets: Iran and North Korea.
The nuclear deal with Iran is safe because the Europeans have made it clear they will not reimpose sanctions if Trump undermines it and the Israelis have told Trump they prefer the current restraints to none at all. But Tehran’s support for Bashar al Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq gives people in Washington heartburn. Despite the nuclear deal, Tehran has few friends in DC because it has been far so aggressive in pursuing its regional interests.
The May 19 Iranian presidential election is already raising the political temperature in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard is doing military exercises and shooting off missiles, though it is not clear whether any of them since General Flynn’s “notice” violate UN Security Council resolution 1929:
Iran is prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons and States…
President Rouhani is feeling the heat, both from the Iranian right wing and from the Americans. Reformists have no one else to vote for, so he will likely to tilt towards the hawks in an effort to improve his prospects, which are good but by no means unassailable. He is also trying to improve relations with the Gulf Arabs, which would solidify his claim to restoring Iran’s influence and prestige in the region.
North Korea is the far easier and more worthy target. Let’s not even consider North Korea’s assassinations, human rights abuses against its own population, and oppression. Kim Jong-un is well on his way to getting missiles that can reach US bases in the Pacific and eventually the US West coast. The Chinese appear to be at their wits’ end with him. The problem is this: no one knows what, if anything, will bring the North Koreans to heel. If we were to try and fail, Pyongyang can retaliate with massive artillery barrages against Seoul. He could even use a few of his nuclear weapons.
If the establishment professionals succeed in their effort to hem Trump in with respect to Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and Iraq’s oil, he still has the opportunity to make a giant hash of things. The President is in charge. Getting Iran and North Korea right will not be easy, especially if the President decides he is better off listening to Steve Bannon than H.R. McMaster. Bad judgment is Trump’s consistent vice. He can get the United States into a lot of trouble.
In an event held by the Atlantic Council on Monday February 13, experts gathered together to discuss challenges to the Yemeni peace process and its outlook for success. Moderated by Mirette F. Mabrouk, Deputy Director and Director for Research & Programs at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, the panel included H.E. Khaled Ayemany, Permanent Representative of Yemen to the United States, Nawda Al-Dawsari, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, and Nabeel Khoury, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
Ayemany said UN Resolution 2216, passed in 2015, is the most important legal instrument the international community has to end the conflict by recovering legitimate governance and law and order. But the Obama administration has kidnapped the entire peace process and negatively impacted the outcome. According to Ayemany, the United States has always had a special relationship with Yemen, especially in the war against terrorism. But the “deceiving alliance” with America under Obama led to obstacles in the peace process largely due to other regional American concerns in Syria and with Iran. Ayemany feared that Yemen would become worse than Somalia if the government was dissolved completely, and hoped that the Trump administration would reverse the Obama administration’s damaging effec. Iran is also a significant actor in the conflict, though Ayemany felt Iran had lost its ability to gain control or influence in Yemen.
Al-Dawsari discussed her research into civilians’ perspectives on the peace talks, noting there is deep resentment and distrust of both the negotiations as well as the actors involved in the peace talks. The UN-sponsored peace process is deeply flawed because it is elite-centric and neither inclusive of Yemenis nor understanding of the conflict. There are two major reasons for the conflict—power struggles between former president Saleh and his traditional allies, and local grievances and resentment towards elite. Because the UN and the international community have only addressed the former cause, peace talks have and will continue to fall short. Allowing elite actors and issues to monopolize peace talks, Al-Dawsari argues, will not end the conflict. It is important to engage local actors who have the potential to develop a more comprehensive solution.
Alyahya discussed the role of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict. Because Yemen is in its back yard, Saudi Arabia is interested in having a stable and prosperous neighbor. The Kingdom has attempted to keep Yemen afloat with aid. Alyahya highlighted the achievements of the coalition, which he said now controls 80% of land in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s help is far preferable than what Yemen might look like had the Kingdom not intervened at all.
He also discussed Iran’s role in the conflict. With a wide network of militias across the Arab world, Iran maintains influence over the Houthis and provides material support in the form of weapons and training. Saudi Arabia is frustrated with the roll back of US operational support and wants the Trump administration to increase assistance through intelligence sharing as well as political and logistical support.
Khoury provided insight into the bigger picture of the conflict as well as obstacles to peace on the national, regional, and international level. On the national level, Saleh’s departure left a void that Yemen struggled to fill; if Yemenis had gotten together to form a power-sharing arrangement for governance, the country would not today be entrenched in conflict. Regionally, Khoury echoed Alyahya in saying that it is important for Saudi Arabia to have a stable Yemen, but intervention further complicated the picture by throwing Yemen into the greater regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. On the international level, Khoury identified three goals the United States has in Yemen: pursuing its counterterrorism efforts, supporting Saudi Arabia’s operations, and countering Iran’s influence. There is no “Yemen first” approach; if the country were to fall apart, it would be worse than Afghanistan.
The panelists also discussed the various rounds of peace talks, the role the international community has played, and what the outcome of the current process might be. Al-Dawsari said that tribal leaders, whose local capacity can better resolve internal conflicts, could more effectively mitigate the broader conflict in Yemen. Khoury agreed that the crux is at the local level and that the peace process has not empowered traditional tribal mediation skills. To truly be successful, the talks must bring major tribal powers together. Alyahya believes that the coalition should stand behind a legitimate Yemeni government and in support of stability on the ground.
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.
- Challenges to the Yemeni Peace Process | Monday, February 13 | 10:00am – 11:30am | The Atlantic Council | Register HERE Please join the Atlantic Council for an on-the-record discussion with H.E. Khaled Alyemany, Yemen’s permanent representative to the United Nations, to discuss challenges and opportunities in the Yemeni peace process. In March 2015, an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen at the request of Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi to reverse an offensive by Houthi rebels allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who was ousted following mass protests in 2011. Almost two years into the conflict, we will assess the main challenges and opportunities in the peace process and the prospects of a sustained political settlement to end the war as well as the role the United States could play in bringing that to fruition.
- Afghanistan: Prospects for 2017 and Beyond | Monday, February 13 | 12:15pm – 1:45pm | New America | Register HERE With his inauguration as President, Donald Trump is the third president to command American forces in Afghanistan. Yet Afghanistan continues to receive little attention in public debates over policy. More than 15 years after American forces first entered the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, what are the prospects for the Afghan government and people and how will Donald Trump shape American policy towards Afghanistan?
- Yemen at a Crossroads: The Role of the GCC in 2017 | Monday, February 13 | 6:00pm – 7:30pm | Persian Gulf Institute | Register HERE Please join PGI for a discussion on Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC’s) role in the country for the coming year. We will begin with opening remarks by three individuals with unique experiences in the region followed by a group discussion -that includes you! It will be moderated by PGI President Shahed Ghoreishi and will feature PGI Research Director Robert Bonn. The event will also include time for networking and further discussion in a more informal setting at the end. The bios of our panelists are below. Please reserve your tickets soon because space is limited in order to promote a quality group discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!
- The Arab World Upended: Revolution and its Aftermath in Tunisia and Egypt | Tuesday, February 14 | 12:00pm – 1:00pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register HERE As Egypt marks the sixth anniversary of the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, The Arab World Upended undertakes to track the similarities between the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the great Western revolutions. It also seeks to explain why the two Arab uprisings experienced such vastly different outcomes and examines the likely enduring legacies of these first two major Arab revolutions of the 21st century on the politics of the entire region.
- Iraq and the GCC: New Realities in Gulf Security | Tuesday, February 14 | 1:00pm – 2:30pm | The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington | Register HERE This AGSIW panel will discuss the state of relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Iraq. How do Gulf countries view Iraq’s evolving regional role? What role might they play in reshaping Iraq’s domestic landscape, particularly the crucial struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and bolstering its political stability? Besides counterterrorism and trade, what other opportunities for cooperation and strengthened ties can be explored? Can Iraq reassure GCC states regarding its relationship with Iran, or even use them as a counterweight to Iranian pressure? Could Baghdad help mediate between Tehran and its GCC rivals? What is the Gulf interest in the Kurdish question, and its impact on other regional concerns, including Syria? How does American policy factor into these and other questions?
- Challenges and Opportunities for US-Iraqi Relations in the New Era | Wednesday, February 15 | 9:00am – 10:00am | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register HERE Fourteen years after the American-led invasion, Iraq remains a fractured country and stability continues to be an elusive goal. The Kurds in the north are threatening secession while neighboring Iran is projecting its influence to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Iraq is the site of one of the most intense fights against ISIS where Iraqi troops, assisted by American special forces, are slowly working to recapture Mosul. As an oil and gas rich country, Iraq is also an important player in the world energy markets and more strategically significant to the United States than many other states in the region. Complicating the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is the recent White House executive order that temporarily bans Iraqi citizens from entering the United States. Experts will discuss the future of U.S.-Iraq relations within the context of a new American administration.
- UN Human Rights Chief on His ‘Impossible Diplomacy’ | Thursday, February 16 | 4:30pm – 6:00pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register HERE Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian career diplomat and leader in international criminal justice, serves as the seventh United Nations high commissioner for human rights. He led in the creation of the International Criminal Court and in the framing of the world’s legal definition of “crimes against humanity.” On Feb. 16, the U.S. Institute of Peace will host Amb. Zeid as he receives the annual Trainor Award from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Amb. Zeid will speak on “The Impossible Diplomacy of Human Rights.”
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.
It really is: the novice President has set a blazing pace in destroying alliances, alienating friends, strengthening adversaries, and provoking enemies. To wit:
- Phone calls with the traditionally friendly President of Mexico and Prime Minister of Australia ended in acrimony, with the former over who would pay for the border wall and with the latter over whether the US would keep its commitment to take some refugees.
- Europeans are predictably objecting to the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Chancellor Merkel has scolded the White House. The Brits are going to debate in parliament whether to go through with their Prime Minister’s invitation to Trump for a state visit, which would likely generate record protests.
- The Islamic State (ISIS) is using the immigration ban for recruiting purposes, as it fits perfectly with its narrative that the United States is at war with Islam while doing absolutely nothing to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks.
- National Security Advisor Flynn and the President have explicitly put Iran “on notice” about its missile tests and its assistance to the Houthi side of Yemen’s civil war. Watch this space for more sanctions or military action, though it is also possible the Americans are bluffing or just satisfying their domestic constituencies. The Iranians are likely to continue both missile tests, which they say do not involve nuclear-capable vectors, as well as assistance to the Houthis.
- Trump approved a Special Forces operation in Yemen that largely failed (he announced that it succeeded) and killed civilians, including children, as well as one American.
Binyamin Applebaum, who writes for the New York Times, has helpfully prepared a map illustrating those Trump has angered since taking office (click on the legend to read it):
No doubt more is in the offing. And the domestic front has been no less hyperactive: nomination of a Supreme Court Justice whose high school years included leading a club called “Fascism Forever” (you really can’t make up stuff as good as this), preparation of an executive order on “religious freedom” that would create giant loopholes enabling discrimination, and approval in the Senate of an Attorney General with a compelling record of racism and (il)legal efforts to suppress voting by minorities.
This would all be comical but for the likelihood it will lead to tragedy. While offending friends and allies, Trump remains committed to his bromance with President Putin, who shows no sign of giving Washington anything of value in return for its affection. The war in Ukraine is heating up and the Russians have nixed Trump’s proposal for safe zones in Syria, which can’t be created unless Russia as well as its Iranian and Syrian allies sign on.
Iran is the most likely point of serious friction, not only because of Flynn’s warning but also because the new administration appears determined to teach lessons that Tehran doesn’t want to learn. But North Korea is another possible friction point, as Pyongyang has the same attitude. War with either would be a major enterprise rife with risk and gigantic expense that few allies would be willing to share with a president who has no appreciation for the long history of America’s relationships with them. Trump is a unilateralist who will incur the full costs of any intervention against Iran or North Korea. He will find it difficult even to get multilateral sanctions beefed up against the North Koreans, as he has already done a lot to offend China.
America First is America on its own.