The first is a speculative piece that claims elements of President Trump’s foreign policy team are pressing the administration to change yet another regime in the region: Iran.
The second story concerns Syria. Since Trump took office, many of the president’s most ardent supporters find themselves increasingly flummoxed by his ongoing engagement with the multifaceted, seemingly endless Syrian civil war. The administration’s decision to launch cruise missiles against air bases suspected of being the origin of a chemical weapons attack on civilians, followed by the recent downing of a Syrian air force jet by U.S. warplanes, has sent many a Trumpist over the edge. The critique, put simply, is that Trump excoriated Obama’s haphazard engagement in Syria going back as far as 2013, so why is he doing essentially the same thing now?
He isn’t. While testifying on Capitol Hill this week, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Bashar al-Assad’s forces are once again readying to unleash chemical weapons on civilians. She reiterated the Trump Administration’s commitment to stopping the spread and use chemical weapons in this conflict and in the region. Unlike Obama, Trump has drawn his bright red line and shown he’s more than willing to use force to preserve it.
The assumption that President Trump has reneged on campaign promises is absurd, as I’ve argued repeatedly elsewhere. Trump consistently listens to his generals on military affairs—not only about Syria but also forgotten war in Afghanistan (as well as ongoing problems with Iran and North Korea). Trump has no problem with changing course when circumstances call for it.
But, many ask, why are we bothering with Syria’s internal conflict? The best answer is mind-numbingly complex and relates to ethno-religious realities. But the short answer is we need to fight in Syria because we’re fighting ISIS and we’re trying to put Iran back in check.
If we want to defeat ISIS, we need to act in Syria. The Trump administration also perceives, correctly, that Iran is an enemy of the United States. Some Trump supporters bemoaned the administration’s recent historic arms deal with Saudi Arabia. But shoring up Riyadh is essential for containing Tehran.
In reality, Trump’s foreign policy team is trying to re-establish the old balance of power system that dominated the Mideast until the ill-fated Iraq War in 2003. Until then, the United States was able to keep itself from becoming too bogged down in the paralyzing politics of the Mideast by playing the regional powers against one another. After Saddam Hussein’s ouster, however, Iran was loosed from its cage, the Sunni states suddenly felt threatened, and Wahhabī terror groups from the Sunni world (al Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) expanded their operations. Thus, the chances of rekindling the pre-2003 balance of power arrangement were nil. Remember, the “neoconservatives” who populated the George W. Bush Administration explicitly discounted the old balance of power regime in the region as “immoral” since (in their eyes) it led to the rise of the jihadist terror that ultimately came calling on September 11, 2001.
Several factors are helping shape America’s new grand strategy for the Mideast. First, the American people remain steadfastly opposed to greater levels of military intervention in the region (and whatever the experts say “ought” to be the case, this can never be discounted.) They want us to tidy up the conflicts we’re still engaged in and then come home. This is something that virtually all of the Trump Administration members want, too.
Second, the United States needs to ensure that it prevents future terrorism from the region, so it will need to go to these havens of terror (such as Syria) and conduct operations against those terror groups.
Third, if left unchecked, Iran will continue to gain regional dominance and that dominance will not be confined to the Mideast. From its perch, an Iranian-dominated Mideast would threaten the United States (and the entire world) with nuclear terrorism.
Further, any attempts by Iran to dominate the region would spark a nuclear proliferation on the part of the Sunni kingdoms. And while the elites of the Sunni kingdoms, are allied with us, many of their people are aligned with the jihadist terror networks that hate us. Without our support, these elites will fall and the jihadists will rise to power. Or, the Sunni states will acquire nuclear arms and use them against the Iranians. It’s all around bad for the United States, since regional nuclear warfare—particularly among religiously-motivated states—probably would not stay confined to that region.
Trump’s stated goal, even before he began his presidential campaign in 2015, has always been to put Iran back into the box where it was well contained until 2003. Thus, President Trump has expressed his disagreement with the Obama Administration’s ill-advised executive agreement with the Iranian regime. It is also why Trump has maintained (and expanded, in some cases), America’s force presence in Syria.
Unlike Obama, Trump isn’t interested in deposing the Assad regime. But the administration nevertheless understands that Assad is a client of both Iran and Russia. Trump’s stiffening posture in Syria has naturally led the Iranians to consider that the president means business when he says that he won’t allow Tehran to build a nuclear arsenal.
The administration’s recent statement on chemical weapons in Syria also sends a clear message to Iran: stand down, or suffer the consequences. Don’t believe us? Just wait and see what happens if Assad uses chemical weapons again. It will cost him more than 20 percent of his air force, of that you may be certain.
Trump’s approach is what Thomas C. Schelling called a compellent threat, or “initiating an action (or irrevocable commitment to action) that can cease, or become harmless, only if the opponent responds.” It is likely that, despite their bluster, the Iranians will not push back too hard against Trump—especially not with the recent displays of force that he’s put into effect in Syria since April.
There’s another angle to this struggle: the Sunni kingdoms. The Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were largely left in the lurch by Obama. For eight years, they were dismayed as their allies pivoted away from them and into the arms of Iran. Now, with President Trump, the Sunni states have some strategic reassurance that America is backing them. Trump’s displays of force and his forceful rhetoric in Syria and indirectly with Iran solidifies the Sunni kingdoms’ trust that we are not simply going to abandon them when things get tougher (and they will).
Everyone knows that the United States wants to return to the role it enjoyed in the 1990s: that of an offshore balancer. The Trump Administration is fully aware that the American people are tired of Mideast wars. But we mustn’t withdraw in haste. Even though the United States cannot perfectly replicate the balance of power system that existed in the Mideast prior to the Iraq War, we can build a new system that reflects the ethno-religious rivalries of the region. The United States can pit the Sunni kingdoms (along with Israel) against predominantly Shiite Iran and then take a step back.
Now that we’re moving away from notions of turning the Mideast into the American Midwest, we can get serious about what we need to do as opposed to what we’d like to do. It’s not pretty. But, then again, it’s the Mideast. Nothing there is going to be pretty. We can step back without jeopardizing our own safety. That means we must work with those actors on the ground willing to work with us, and secure America’s vital interests and security once again.
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