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The New Neocons and the Middle East

Alastair Newton - 20th April 2017
The New Neocons and the Middle East

Alastair Newton argues that there are some parallels between what seems to be happening presently inside the Trump Administration and the shifting dynamics inside the Administration of George W Bush which led to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is a chapter from the e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.

The ‘war’ in the White House

“So whose advice will Mr Trump follow? The answer is unclear. Yet the stability of the world may depend on it.”

The Economist, 25 February 2017

Shortly after this year’s jamboree at Davos I was approached by one of my financial sector clients to write a piece on ‘war risk’, which seemed to be a recurrent theme at the Forum. The first substantive section of the resultant report was headed “The ‘war’ in the White House”. It focused in particular on the ‘world view’ of President Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, and whether it would prevail over the perspective of other senior members of the Administration sometimes referred to in the corridors of power in Washington as the ‘adults’ or ‘grown-ups’.

Around that time, some White House watchers (eg Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight) were identifying as many as eight groups in the Administration, all struggling for influence. I don’t doubt that this was — probably still is — correct. But, for the purposes of my client base, it is really too granular. So, my personal focus has been on what I see as the three main ones, ie:

• The ‘Breitbart Set’, notably: Mr Bannon, Senior Advisor Stephen Miller and (for economic purposes at least) Director of Trade Policy Peter Navarro;

• The ‘grown-ups’, notably: Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn and National Security Advisor HR McMaster; and,

• The ‘family’, ie: Senior Advisor Jared Kushner and his wife, Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump.

Although I have been clear in my mind that the third of these groups, ie the family, is by far the most interesting and influential, I have, so far, been very cautious in offering any strong opinion about either Mr Kushner’s or Ms Trump’s substantive views on any of the major issues confronting the Trump Administration. However, ‘events’ in early April do seem to offer some clear pointers, at least as far as international security in general and the Middle East in particular are concerned.

As a consequence, in this article I look to set out the case for why the still evolving and less than clear Trump Administration policy in the Middle East is likely to revert to something close to pre-Obama ‘conventional’ Washington thinking — in stark contrast to the nationalist “America First’ policy espoused by many of Mr Trump’s supporters and which was a cornerstone of his successful election campaign.

When ‘fake news’ is not so fake

“The purge of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie loyalists from the Donald Trump presidential transition team has little to do with Christie’s Bridgegate scandal and everything to do with a battle between Bush-era neoconservatives and national security realists for control over key departments of the Trump administration.”

Wayne Madsen, 16 November 2016

 

Anyone who follows the right-wing commentators in the US could legitimately argue that I am belatedly coming to an opinion similar to that which has been prevalent in that particular circle for some time, ie that Mr Kushner enjoys a world view which has much in common with that of the neoconservative members of the George W Bush Administration. Indeed, in many respects Mr Kushner personal ‘political’ history to date can be said to follow a similar (if somewhat accelerated) trajectory to the history of the neoconservatives as a group since its origins in the 1960s, not least in that, as the right-wing regularly points out, he was a committed Democrat until he joined his father-in-law’s campaign team.

In the article from which the quote at the start of this section was taken, right-wing commentator Wayne Madsen claims that, during the transition, Mr Kushner was looking to fill the Trump Administration with neocons. If this claim was justified then it has to be said that, even though several neo-cons (perhaps most notably former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton) were almost certainly considered for key posts, Mr Kushner was not really very successful. Indeed, no doubt under the influence of Mr Bannon, Mr Trump went as far as to block the appointment of Mr Tillerson’s first choice for Deputy Secretary of State, Elliott Abrams, albeit not, on the face of it at least, because of his neoconservative leanings. At the time, this hardly seemed surprising given the stark contrast be-tween Mr Trump’s “America First” campaign keynote and contemporary neoconservative thought.

Instead, as the names in the ‘grown-ups’ column make clear, Mr Trump opted largely for individuals drawn largely from the mainstream, ie neither right-wing nationalists of the Bannon mould nor neo-conservatives.

This being said, although the story has really only burst fully into the open in the wake of Mr Ban-non's early April departure from the Principals’ Committee of the National Security Council (NSC/PC), it had been no secret in Washington for weeks that he and Mr Kushner were at odds over a whole range of issues. Whether he jumped or was pushed, even though Mr Bannon’s removal from the NSC/PC was primarily a victory for General McMaster, it was nevertheless one of several issues where, in my view, the National Security Advisor and Mr Kushner have common cause.

PNAC 1.0

"History may not repeat itself but it does rhyme…”

Joseph Anthony Wittreich, 1987
 

In so saying, I am struck by what I see as an echo of the alliance which formed in 1997 under the banner of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Founded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, the PNAC was rightly labelled as a neoconservative think tank; but it included in its membership both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — respectively Vice-President and Secretary for Defence to George W Bush — whom I would not personally label as neocons.

I am sure some commentators would disagree with me over Messrs Cheney and Rumsfeld. And, to be fair, there is more than enough room for different perspectives here. For starters, how neoconservatives define themselves has evolved since the 1960s — and, indeed, since the first reference I can find of a neoconservative, Irving Kristol, applying the term to himself in print — in 1979. However, given that I draw comparisons in this article between the George W Bush Administration and the Trump Administration, I think it reasonable to apply the criteria of that era, chief among which was a willingness to pursue unilaterally US military interests, including through pre-emptive strikes (to which I shall return). This was enshrined and elaborated in a 20 September 2002 National Security Council text entitled National Security Strategy of the United States, subsequently commonly referred to as the ‘Bush doctrine’.

This doctrine seems to me to be a somewhat narrower mandate than that proposed in the PNAC’s 1997 statement of founding principles, which set itself up as a blueprint to “shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests”. In addition to major increases in defence spending (to which Mr Trump has also committed himself), it argued for the promotion of “political and economic freedom abroad”, strengthened ties with democratic allies (seemingly not a priority for Candidate Trump at least), extending "an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles” (ditto) and challenging “regimes hostile to our interests and values”. The authors boiled this down to a call for “Reaganite…military strength and moral clarity”.

Where I think the key difference arises between the ‘true’ neocons and Messrs Cheney and Rumsfeld is in the former’s commitment to — if necessary, long-term — nation-building. In contrast, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr Rumsfeld’s top priority — for which he had the backing of Mr Chen-ey — appeared to be proving what became known in the press as the ‘Rumsfeld doctrine’. The essence of this was the use of high-technology combat systems, a high reliance on air power, and ground forces which were both light and nimble. It contrasts strongly with the use of overwhelming numerical force which had been one of the key elements in the 1990/91 liberation of Kuwait.

Unfortunately, although the Rumsfeld approach was successful as far as ousting the regime in Baghdad was concerned, it also ran contrary to all the received wisdom on securing the peace, which established doctrine made clear required far greater numbers than the US and its allies committed to the theatre not only in the early post-invasion days but throughout. This despite the fact that there were those in the Administration — notably the then Director of Mr Bush’s National Economic Council, Larry Lindsey — who argued at the time that the Pentagon was severely underestimating the cost of peace-building. In common with several other members of the Bush economic team Mr Lindsey had previously been at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) which included leading neocons Michael Ledeen and Richard Perle in its ranks. Mr Lindsey felt strongly enough about this to go public, a move which cost him his job.

Although the history of the invasion and occupation of Iraq is clearly packed with policy (and other) mistakes, this breach with neoconservative thinking on nation building seems to me to come close to ‘original sin’ and to set its principal drivers apart from the ‘true’ neocons.

All this being said, the extent to which the PNAC per se influenced the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, in particular the invasion of Iraq, is a matter of academic dispute. But there is no disputing the fact that ten of the 25 original signatories to the PNAC’s statement of founding principles served in that Administration; and that the triumvirate of Messrs Cheney and Rumsfeld plus Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (whom I would classify as a genuine neocon) were very influential indeed in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

A Damascene conversion?

“Whether these ghastly images have put Donald Trump on a Damascene road is not yet knowable.”

Thomas Donnelly, 7 April 2017

Today the PNAC is defunct; it was wound up in 2006 and replaced by the Foreign Policy Initiative, also founded by Messrs Kagan and Kristol, in 2009. And, in any case, even adding General Mattis to the mix (as I think one can reasonably do), a Kushner/McMaster alliance hardly amounts to a new PNAC. Nevertheless, it is, as I shall explore later in this article, a powerful and potentially dominant new triumvirate.

Furthermore, although one cannot be sure given her public coyness about her views, it reasonable to assume that Ivanka Trump shares at least some of her husband’s perspectives, adding to the neocon heft in the President’s inner circle. Certainly, the right-wing bloggers think so.

Then there is Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell. She was a top aide to Ms Trump during the transition and, although not noted as a neocon herself, may have been pivotal in bringing Mr Kushner together with General McMaster. It is very relevant to note that, together with Mr Kushner (and Gary Cohn), she was the focus of ire among the right-wingers even before the Syria strike; and her position has undoubtedly been strengthened since then by the removal of fellow deputy KT McFarland from the national security team.

Consistent with the principle that ‘every picture tells a story’, the photograph of the Trump ‘war room’ in the aftermath of the Syria strike speaks volumes. Even though there are several cabinet members present who would not normally be involved to this extent in national security because this meeting took place in the margins of the Trump/Xi Jinping summit, Mr Kushner is front and centre. Mr Bannon, on the other hand, is sitting completely out of the President’s line of sight and too far behind him easily to whisper in his ear. Ms Powell too is in the second row, but she is sitting right behind Mr Tillerson and General McMaster (and next to Mr Cohn).

Overall, it is well worth noting that the neocon journal, The Weekly Standard, in the article from which the quote at the start of this section is taken, has been quick to praise Mr Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against Syria and to ask whether a strategic shift was “afoot”. As the author, Thomas Donnelly, makes clear (and as I shall echo later in this article), it is, as yet, early days. But Mr Donnelly is also correct in pointing out that, to judge from the statement the President made to the press announcing the airstrikes, Mr Trump was moved to action by the horror of a gas attack by which “…Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children”. Hardly the reaction of a man committed solely to furthering American interests, even though it is undoubtedly the case that the US does have a major interest in preventing the spread and use of WMD.

Of course, the cynics may claim that Mr Trump was driven largely by a desire to differentiate himself from President Barack Obama — as he has on several other issues. I don’t doubt that there was indeed an element of that. But my personal belief is that it would be selling the current President short not to acknowledge the genuineness of his upset during the press conference, which came through despite his obvious discomfort at having, under-rehearsed, to use a teleprompter.

Pre-emption and Pyongyang…

“Particularly in the past decade or so, we have lived in a society increasingly marked by belief in the use of force as a first and only option.”

Ron Paul, 9 February 2013

It is, I think, uncontroversial to say that neither in his election campaign nor in his first 18 months or so in office, President George W Bush exhibited few, if any, signs of neoconservatism. Indeed, even though he was by no means as extreme as Candidate Trump, Mr Bush’s leaning towards a more restrained foreign policy could be said to be a milder version of a key Trump campaign theme. But the 9/11 attacks brought about a dramatic change, leading to the so-called ‘Bush Doctrine’ and its justification of ‘pre-emptive war’.

Notwithstanding the US’s extensive and increasing use of drones, the general consensus is that the doctrine of pre-emption was quietly dropped during the Obama presidency. And I don’t think it would be reasonable to view the 7 April strike against Syria as in any way pre-emptive. But, considering the heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula, it is, I believe, an open question as to whether pre-emption is now back on the table. Indeed, in an article published by Global Policy on 5 April, I went further, opining that the Trump Administration “may well conclude ultimately that a preemptive military strike would be preferable” to a genuinely nuclear-capable North Korea — a view with which Beijing at least now seems to agree.

…and more in the Middle East?

“There seems to be no central guiding brain behind the evolution of the Trump team's foreign policy. The US president himself has failed to articulate any clear approach.”

Jonathan Marcus, 11 April 2017

Without wishing to dismiss for one moment North Korea (which I firmly believe to be the biggest cur-rent threat to international security), what seems to be a very dramatic shift in thinking in Washington has implications potentially at least as significant for the Middle East. The problem is that, although the old stance appears to have been abandoned, as the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus rightly judges it is, to date, uncertain exactly what has taken its place.

As I noted earlier it is still early days, not only since the strike against Syria but also — truth be told — in the settling down of the Trump Administration, which remains beset internally by conflicting forces. Furthermore, and accepting Mr Marcus’s concern that a lack of clarity in US policy in the region could yet “prove catastrophic”, I have to question whether Mr Trump himself, who promised that his foreign policy would be “unpredictable”, finds this particularly concerning. And, as if this were not enough, Mr Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be nothing if not mercurial and we could yet see a dramatic reverse swing from him.

Nevertheless, I do think that we can now see some clear pointers which should help us to assess how the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is likely to evolve.

First, although the ‘Breitbart set’ is still very much part of the team and may be for some time to come, even Mr Bannon’s influence over Mr Trump seems to have waned. The increasingly vitriolic attacks on the President’s alleged betrayal of America’s national interests in the right-wing blogosphere speaks volumes to this effect.

Second, whether Mr Bannon continues to serve or not, we can reasonably assume that ‘the family’ will remain not only firmly on the team but right at its heart for the foreseeable future. Mr Kushner will therefore continue to be highly influential.

Third, among the ‘grown-ups’ although the amount of clout which Mr Tillerson wields remains open to question, General Mattis and General McMaster seem to have established themselves firmly in key positions of influence.

Fourth, a ‘family/‘grown-ups’ axis, aided and abetted by Ms Powell, is likely to get the better of the ‘Breitbart set’ far more often than not.

Fifth, the key to establishing what this means for the Middle East may be Mr Kushner, who formally has lead responsibility for the region in the White House hierarchy.

As Jodi Kantor wrote in The New York Times just prior to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s February visit to Washington, Mr Kushner’s views on the region have, to date, been formed much more on his personal experience than any professional engagement there. Ms Kantor goes on:

“When Mr. Trump ran for president, his son-in-law’s stances on Israel helped shape the campaign. Mr. Kushner helped script a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and consulted with Netanyahu officials behind the scenes. When he brought the candidate and the prime minister together for a meeting, his father, Charles Kushner, was invited to join them. Thanks in part to the younger Mr. Kushner, Mr. Netanyahu will arrive [for his 14 February meeting with Mr Trump] at a White House that has already adopted many of the prime minister’s perspective on the region.”

Pulling all this together in the context of the Middle East (and despite the conflicting signals which have been emanating from Washington since the Syria strike), I think we can reasonably extrapolate as follows.

Islamic State (IS) is set to remain the top priority for the time being — something on which even Mr Bannon can almost certainly agree. This being said, despite Mr Trump’s rhetoric I am sure there are plenty around him who realise that IS will not be ‘destroyed’ by military means alone even if, as seems increasingly likely, its so-called caliphate is eradicated. IS will simply melt away into the ‘badlands’ and look to operate as an insurgency in Iraq and Syria, as well as looking to set up in other troubled states and continuing to export terrorism (in its name at least) to the wider world.

Syria: I tend to accept more or less at face value Mr Trump’s stated desire that the US will not get drawn further into the Syrian civil war. But let’s keep in mind that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) already enjoys extensive US support on the ground there, as well as from the air, of which more below. And I certainly would not rule out further targeted air attacks against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, I agree with Roula Khalaf writing in the 12 April edition of the Financial Times (subscriber access only) that the regime’s continuing attacks on civilians will lead to increasing pressure, including from leading Republicans, to step in again. As a 5 April CNN article by Laura Smith-Spark makes clear, Mr Trump does have more options.

Once IS has been penned back, I am confident that the US will look, through diplomatic means, to have Mr Assad removed from the presidency.

As far as the interests of Russia are concerned, President Vladimir Putin’s top priority will be to keep the Russian people convinced that the rodina is not only a major player in the region but is also not being pushed around by the US. Muddying the waters around use of chemical weapons as he may, he must by now be well aware that the Trump Administration is not about to play second fiddle in the Middle East; and that, in future, it will therefore be much harder even for his redoubtable foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to out-manoeuvre Washing-ton in the way he did during the Obama years. (Indeed, I have argued for some time that, based on his experience at Exxon Mobil, Mr Tillerson is far more likely than his predecessor, John Kerry, to get the measure of Mr Lavrov.) A realistic reappraisal by the Kremlin could yet see some scope for cooperation with Washington, keeping Russia firmly at the ‘top table’ — which seems to me to be broadly the direction which Mr Lavrov was tentatively trying to take relations at his 12 April meeting with Mr Tillerson. To try to ensure this, I reckon that Mr Putin would ultimately be willing to sacrifice Mr Assad personally, provided that a Moscow-friendly regime remains firmly in situ in Damascus. Regrettably, this would not be an outcome which, in my view, would bring peace and stability to a reunited Syria; indeed, as David Gardner intimated in a 30 November 2016 article in the Financial Times (subscriber access only), an Alawite regime of any description imaginable in Damascus is only likely to continue to act as a valuable recruiting tool for IS.

Iran: Irrespective of the outcome of the 19 May presidential election, it is, I believe, only a matter of time before the Trump Administration turns its attention more directly to Iran. This fits not only with both Mr Trump’s and Mr Kushner’s world view but also with the well-documented hackishness on Iran of both General Mattis and, if perhaps somewhat less so, General McMaster.

The hardliners in Tehran will have to be very careful if they are not to risk provoking the US into military action of some sort (granted that they may be tempted to do just that in an effort to shore up support for the regime at some stage). And especially as Mr Trump is likely to remain unable to have the nuclear agreement scrapped unless Tehran is caught blatantly breaching its side of the bargain. ‘Harassment’ of US warships and, more especially, continued testing of ballistic missiles are both possible triggers. However (and just to be absolutely clear), I would put a very low probability indeed on an Iraq-type wholesale invasion of Iran.

Iraq: An early step towards eroding Tehran’s regional influence is likely to be further bolstering of the US footprint in Iraq, military (there are already nearly 6,000 US military personnel there) and otherwise. Although, as previously noted, I do not expect significant US engagement in Syria, I do think this is much more likely in Iraq — in other words, a reversion to nation building. There are already reports of Saudi Arabia (see below) looking to mend fences with Baghdad, which both Riyadh and Washington see as a key step in undercutting Tehran. This being said, clearly pushing Iran out will not be easy. Not only is the government in Baghdad very close to Tehran but the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has played just as major role as the US in boosting Iraq’s own military (including the Shia militia) to the point where it has been able to push back successfully against IS’s caliphate. Once the common cause of shoe-horning IS out of Mosul has been achieved, the current tactical rapprochement between Iran (which has just sent a new ambassador to Baghdad who is a senior advisor to Quds commander General Qassim Suleimani) and the US may quickly fall apart. As the 15 April article ‘Who runs Iraq’ in The Economist (subscriber access only) concluded: “Iraq, like Syria, is a theatre where Mr Trump badly needs a clear policy”.

The Kurds: As a counterweight to Iran if nothing else, the Trump Administration will want to bind the Kurdistan Region firmly into the Iraqi state. However, the situation in Syria is likely to prove more complicated, for all of the recent pledges by both Mr Tillerson and Mr Lavrov that it must remain a unified entity (at least de jure). Balkanisation to a greater or lesser extent seems to be highly likely, which would mean the continuation of some sort of at least quasi-autonomous Kurdish entity in the north of the country, ie ‘Rojava’ on the border with Turkey.

Ties between the US-backed YPG and the (terrorist-designated) PKK more or less guarantee continued cross-border tensions, especially if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan persists in playing to the nationalist gallery at home. Furthermore, even putting to one side other causes of friction between Turkey and the US, I think the ‘Kurdish question’, which dominated Mr Tillerson’s recent visit to Ankara, ensures no ‘reset’ in bilateral relations of the sort Mr Erdoğan appeared to have been hoping for immediately after the US election.

Saudi Arabia: There are already clear signs that the Trump Administration is set to enjoy much better relations than its predecessor did with Riyadh. Indeed, I see every prospect of a very firm Riyadh/Washington axis emerging against both IS and Iran. I expect Washington quietly to continue to favour Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef (MbN), a proven force in counter-terrorism who is highly respected by the US security establishment, over Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salmon (MbS), who has pitched his country into an unsuccessful military campaign in Yemen. This despite the latter’s early efforts to woo Mr Trump…and vice versa.

Yemen: By all informed accounts Yemen is at least as big a disaster as Syria, albeit one which gets much less attention. Like it or not, the growing presence of both IS and, more especially, al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) there more or less ensures that the US will remain engaged and probably increasingly so, even if mainly through drones/airstrikes and support for (and guidance of) Saudi Arabia’s campaign. Washington will also want to counter Tehran's influence there (which has grown significantly since the Saudi intervention).

Egypt: It appears that Mr Trump has struck up a sound relationship with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. I think this is likely to be sustained, not only because of Egypt’s own struggle with Islamist terrorism (counter-productive though its approach may ultimately prove to be) but also because of the Sisi regime’s generally supportive stance towards Israel, which would likely see Cairo playing an important role in any attempt to relaunch the Middle East Peace Process.

Israel/Palestine: Reverting to the article by Jodi Kantor to which I referred earlier:

“Mr. Kushner is helping Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu craft a strategy to recruit Sunni Muslim countries that oppose Iran to help foster an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The approach is a long shot: Negotiations are dead. The Israeli right is pushing for more settlement in the West Bank as talk among Palestinians turns to a single state in which they have equal rights.”

Without meaning any disrespect to Mr Kushner, it would be quite astonishing if he were to find a widely acceptable solution to a problem which has confounded seasoned statesmen and diplomats for over 25 years (ie since the 1991 Madrid Conference). Even if Riyadh, as Mr Kushner appears to hope, can be persuaded to put its weight behind a revived process of some sort.

More likely, in my view, is that any initiative quickly runs into the sand; and that Israel continues to consolidate its physical presence on the West Bank towards the point where a two-state solution becomes completely non-viable. At the same time, I see, if anything, an even lower probability of an agreement being reached involving a unitary state in which the Palestinians would have equal rights.

Pivoting back?

“…there’s a good case to be made that, at least in regard to the Middle East, a coherent approach is emerging from the administration. This represents both a reversal from the Iran-first gambit of the Obama years and a reaffirmation of the traditional US strategy that held sway from Jimmy Carter in 1979 through George W Bush in 2009.”

Thomas Donnelly, 7 April 2017

Pulling all this together, I sense that (not unlike Mr Trump seems to be doing) I am about to back-track on a long-held conviction. I have argued for some years that the Clinton/Gates ‘strategic pivot’ to Asia, adopted but only partially implemented by Mr Obama, would accelerate in the latter part of the current decade. And that, especially in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal and given the US’s move towards energy self-sufficiency, this would likely be in part at the expense of the US military profile in the Gulf region. However, I am now leaning firmly towards the view that, while avoiding the sort of major on-the-ground engagement to which George W Bush committed America in Iraq, the Trump Administration will retain a high military profile there for the foreseeable future, working closely with the US’s traditional Sunni allies. This view is certainly one which seems to be prevalent among Arab leaders and it is one which has done much to boost Mr Trump’s personal popularity among Arabs. However, as Frank Gardner has pointed out in a 15 April article for the BBC, it remains to be seen whether Mr Trump’s “Arab honeymoon” lasts.

At the same time, Israel will once again enjoy strong, if not more or less unquestioning, support from Washington.

In short, I tend to agree with Gideon Rachman, writing in the Financial Times on 10 April (subscriber access only) that:

“…the Trump Administration may ultimately turn out to be more conventional than his critics feared, and his nationalist supporters hoped”.

As Mr Rachman goes on to make clear, this is not without its risks. First, the boost which the Syria strike has given Mr Trump’s approval ratings may encourage him into more risky military adventurism. Second, there is the risk of serious escalation in the Middle East per se.

How great either of these risks are is near impossible to say at this time. In the short-term, probably the most worrisome escalatory risk (though not necessarily the most probability) is a clash of some sort between US and Russian forces if/when Mr Trump opts for further intervention in Syria. This be-ing said, despite the hawkish rhetoric in the immediate aftermath of the 7 April missile strike, I am confident that both sides will do their utmost to avoid this — and/or to defuse quickly any ‘incident’ which does blow up.

A little farther downstream, as I have intimated earlier, Washington’s focus is likely increasingly to be on countering Iran’s wider regional aspirations. To this end, as yet there is no sign that the Trump Administration is willing to countenance engagement with Tehran as the way forward, suggesting that military means — albeit largely through proxies — will be very much to the fore. This clearly is not without its risks. And it is not at all clear that, come what may, it would achieve long-term stability given the deep-rooted and long-standing historical rivalries involved here.

This being said, risk-fraught though such a policy shift may be, the seemingly most likely alternative could be worse. For, as Mr Rachman also points out, there is also the risk of another Trump U-turn, this time towards the Bannon world view.

Another respected FT columnist, Edward Luce, pointed out in a 12 April op-ed (also subscriber ac-cess only) that Mr Bannon is not only still around but is also “the only person in the Trump Administration who comes close to having a strategic brain”; and that his consistent perspective “comes closest to Mr Trump’s” previously established views. My personal view is that were Mr Bannon to regain the upper hand the risks would be greater still. He is not only a firm disciple of Samuel Huntington's ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis who believes that the Judeo-Christian West (in which he includes Russia) is now engaged in an existential struggle against Islam, he also claims that the West has to fight a major war every 80 years or so in order to renew itself. Although from public statements he has made he could see this as coming between China and the US — he regards war between the two in the South China Sea as in “no doubt” within the next decade — there is no reason I am aware of to assume that he has ruled out a major conflict in the Middle East.

At present, Mr Bannon looks unlikely to regain that upper hand, as Mr Trump appears to be moving increasingly into more conventional thinking to judge from recent statements about Nato and China’s alleged currency manipulation. However, and perhaps most critically of all, as Mr Luce concludes, whether it is national security or US domestic economic policy we are considering it is worth keeping in mind that:

“Mr Bannon’s fortunes are the best measure we have of whether Mr Trump remembers why he was elected.”

As I have opined in several articles over the past nine months or so, Mr Trump’s entire career to date suggests that he divides what he sees as a ‘zero sum’ world into two categories of people, i.e. ‘win-ners’ and ‘losers’; and that for him being firmly in the former category is the be all and end all. The ultimate definition of a first-term president who ends up a ‘loser’ must surely be failing to win a second term of office, a trap into which Mr Trump will surely do everything he can not to fall. Herein lies, perhaps, Mr Bannon’s strongest lever to push back against my emerging new ‘triumvirate’.

Perhaps especially if this assessment is correct, Mr Trump faces some much tougher decisions in the future than deciding whether strike at the Assad regime over the use of chemical weapons. And nowhere more so than in the Middle East.

 

 

Alastair Newton, is a professional political analyst who was based in the City of London from 2005 to 2015. As such, he sought to anticipate, analyse and explain political and geopolitical events worldwide which may impact on financial markets. In addition to regular commentary on current political “issues” he is also co-author of major studies on China, India, Indonesia, Israel/Iran and North Korea. Prior to his move to the City, Alastair spent 20 years as a career diplomat with the British Diplomatic Service. He served in Sub-Saharan Africa, Paris (at the OECD) and in the United States. In London, he worked in intelligence co-ordination (including during the 1990/91 gulf War), policy planning and economics relations, as well as running the Prime Minister’s G7/8 team from 1998 to 2000. He was on secondment from the Diplomatic Service to the City from 2000 to 2002.

Photo credit: Chris Devers via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND