Can Trump channel Kissinger?


With US President Trump about to embark on a Middle East tour, the conditions exist for a grand bargain, but does the US have the strategic vision to achieve it?

In the 1970s, US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger identified a rare alignment of the planets and re-ordered the Middle East. Consider the context; a Soviet-backed war against Israel in 1973 (the fifth such war in 25 years) was pushing the Jewish state to the precipice. The oil weapon, unsheathed by Saudi Arabia, produced the first great oil shock for the American economy. President Nixon, mired in the Vietnam and Watergate crises, was otherwise distracted. The American brand was in retreat across the world. 

By the end of Kissinger’s machinations, Israel had decisively won the war, embarrassing the Soviets; Egypt had been plucked from the Soviet camp (the US’s biggest Cold War win) and signed a peace treaty with Israel; a balance of arms was established whereby the 1973 war became the last state-to-state Arab–Israel war; and the Saudis were on their way into America’s fold, allowing for the uninterrupted flow of oil, which has underpinned the global economic rise over the last four decades. 

Now consider today’s Middle East. The policies of the last two US presidents have been dismal. Hundreds of thousands have died. The Arab Spring became an Islamist Winter, and at least four Arab states are currently either failed or nearly there. Countries that once relied on the US to protect their interests now have little trust in Washington. Russia, largely excluded from the Middle East because of Kissinger, has returned in dramatic fashion. Iran has risen from annoying supporter of global terrorism to the most important actor in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Its repressive regime faces little risk domestically. And, on top of that, it now has the license, signed by Barak Obama, to be a nuclear state in a decade. 

But amidst this chaotic outcome of shambolic policy lies the seeds of a grand bargain. That’s because all the parties that have once or might again heed the US want something, and only the US can deliver.  Let’s take a look at the main actors.

Saudi Arabia, most other Arab states and Israel want Iran contained. This includes less influence in Iraq and a defeat in Syria. Israel wants security from Palestinian terrorism (with or without a Palestinian state). The Palestinian Authority wants a state, though isn’t politically strong enough to deliver the minimum concessions, and it wants Hamas contained. Many Arab state leaders want a relationship with Israel, but cannot until the Palestinian question is answered. And the entire Arab leadership wants Islamists undermined, even though they offer little alternative.

Without being too prescriptive, here’s what Trump should be aiming for. Nothing can happen until the Iranian–Russian relationship is effectively severed. Russia is transactional (as, happily, is Trump). Russia should be assured its naval infrastructure in Syria will remain and, more importantly, it should be granted a ‘privileged sphere of influence’ in Eastern Europe, by stopping any hints of NATO expansion and removing support for Ukraine, as well as the removal of anti-ballistic missiles from Poland and the Czech Republic. In return, the US should make clear that the Middle East is its own privileged sphere of influence.

Iran wants to upturn the regional order and replace the US as regional hegemon. Its strategic objective, not its religion, makes it an ideological enemy of the West, and it should be countered, by sanctions, by proxy wars and by funding opposition groups. Remember, it wasn’t UN sanctions that brought Iran to the nuclear negotiation table, but a European Union decision (forced by American action) to exclude Iran from the SWIFT international finance regime.

Saudi Arabia and Israel each have a role to play in countering Iran.

The other group of interest ideologically committed to undermining the West is the Sunni Islamists. The public and private financial support for violent Islamist groups—including those fighting in Syria—needs to end. The Saudis have come a long way since September 2001, but they have a long way to go. By acting against Iran, the US will create considerable leverage over the Arab states to make demands.

On Syria, the US needs to realise that Islamic State isn’t the principle enemy, and needs to make clear that the only way to prevent an Iranian win is a Saudi-led Arab occupation of the country, with US support—a policy of ‘we will help those who help themselves’. With American assistance, Arab country troops should enter Syria and fight all groups associated with Iran, including Hezbollah, Iranian soldiers (if they don’t pull out) and the myriad ‘Popular Mobilisation Forces’. Syrian soldiers will stand down very quickly. Any other group, such as al-Qaeda, that fights this Arab–US coalition, must be swatted aside. Once stabilised—and it wouldn’t take long—the Arabs and the world would be in a position to determine what to do next while Arab (not American) troops occupy the country. The outcome would not be excellent by any means, but it would be better than the status quo, and it would mark an undeniable defeat for Iran by its principle enemies.

Despite finally getting some real aid from the US, the Kurds are drifting towards the Iranian camp, because Iran might give them want they want—independence, or at least greater autonomy in Syria. Kurdish support must be won to the West, and the West, notwithstanding Turkish objections, should promise the Kurds a homeland.

In exchange for action against Iran, Israeli settlement activity must be restrained, and some helpful unilateral moves (such as small withdrawals or issuing of building permits in Area C of the West Bank) should be encouraged. The Palestinian leadership lacks popularity for two reasons; peace with Israel has not brought tangible benefits and endemic corruption. With the threat of reduced aid, corruption must be made to end, and pressure on Israel to make the unilateral moves will help Abbas’s popularity. (But Israeli moves cannot be seen as occurring because of violence, as that will benefit Hamas and harden Israeli attitudes.) Official Palestinian celebrations of violence, such as naming youth events after suicide bombers, must end immediately.

Only the US has the ability to achieve these ends. Pursuing this strategy will not create Utopia. People will still be killed. The losers—Iran and its proxies—will respond with terrorism. But what the above represents is a strategy, not merely a collection of ad hoc tactics. What has been missing for the last 20 years is strategic vision in the US and the right constellation of events on the ground. The latter is now in place. Will Washington step up to the plate?

Ehud Ya’ari is one of the few ‘must-read’ Middle East analysts. He writes well, with authority but without emotion, and he’s usually spot on. He’s written an article in Foreign Affairs about Iranian plans for the Levant, and ended it with concrete proposals for US policy:

In responding to Iran’s plan to secure influence in the Levant, the Trump administration should work with its regional counterparts to thwart Iran’s attempt to build these two corridors. Turkey, a NATO ally, should be encouraged to resist Iran’s efforts to dominate, through the corridors, the main trade routes serving large amounts of Turkish exports to the Arab world. The Kurds, both in Iraq and in Syria, should be provided military equipment to face the Shiite militias. Jordan should assist the Sunnis of western Iraq, as well as the Shamar Bedouin federation of the Syrian desert, which has traditional ties with the Saudis, in organizing their own forces. The United States should back Israel’s effort to prevent the Iranians from securing a foothold on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. But above all, the United States should continue talking with Russia and insist that sooner rather than later, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will have to go.

A view from Saudi Arabia

A young academic in Saudi Arabia has written an impassioned and respectful open letter to Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman about the challenges he ought to address.

It’s worth a read, even if the remarks on co-opting Wahhabi Islamism to modernity is a bit hopeful, and he essentially avoids the third interest group in the Middle East—what this blog dubs the Sunni Islamist continuum (and that Sunni Islamist movements and militias obtain substantial private Saudi donations).

Still, the recognition that Saudi Arabia has to move away from an oil economy (and hints on how to do that), the need to confront Iran and entertain relations with Israel are all important.

Worth watching

An article worth reading reveals Hezbollah fighters are growing tired of their Iranian overlords in Syria, and are causing problems upon their return to Lebanon. A way to fix the situation might be for the Hezbollah leadership to refocus the fight against Israel, as opposed to against fellow Arabs. Watch for increased anti-Israel rhetoric and maybe, if things from a Hezbollah perspective get bad enough, attempts to spark renewed confrontation with the Jewish state.

A word to the wise

Israel should not let itself be carried away by having Trump in the White House. Four years of unrestricted settlement growth will only produce an eventual backlash. Rather, now is the time to build ‘economic peace’.

The recent UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements provoked critical comments from the Australian government (which isn’t on the Council). The peace conference in Paris (for which Israel wasn’t present) provoked critical comments from the British government. And with the Trump ascendancy, there is now a pro-Israel administration in the US (though Trump may well prove to be unpredictable). 

The alignment of conservative governments in these three English-speaking countries (especially since the UK will be increasingly independent of EU foreign policy) has the Israeli government salivating, given the sustained diplomatic pressure placed on Israel during the Obama years.

Indeed, a day after the Trump inauguration, Israel announced hundreds of apartments will be built in east Jerusalem, with Netanyahu boasting he will be ramping up construction in the settlements.

But Netanyahu ought to be cautious, for a couple of reasons.

Although a large segment of the American public love Trump, an equally large section loathes him, as does much of the media. Polite society around the world find him a caricature, at best. If Israel seeks to do whatever it wants, protected by Trump, the popular hatred of Trump will be extended to Israel by association. 

Further, after a couple of years of international diplomatic frustration, the next US administration will pile pressure on Israel as a way to expunge memory of the Trump era, in much the same way that Obama immediately put pressure on Israel, after eight years of American support under Bush. (And there is little doubt, given the depth of feeling about Bush, Obama and Trump, that Trump’s replacement will be an anti-Trump, in much the same way that Obama was an anti-Bush and Trump is an anti-Obama.)

However, the Trump presidency provides an opportunity for Israel. Many, including myself, argue that sustained international pressure on Israel is counter-productive, since it convinces Israel that the world will not have its back when it comes time to make potentially dangerous concessions. Well, now a supportive administration is in place. I’m not suggesting that Israel withdraw precipitously from the West Bank, as this will only encourage terrorism. But Netanyahu and others have spoken in the past of ‘economic peace’, and of building up the Palestinian Authority as a responsible economic actor ahead of, or hand-in-hand with, further withdrawals. This doesn’t mean merely pressure on the Palestinians to curb corruption (though that is vital). It means Israel putting in place measures that really help Palestinian individuals, businesses and government. With Trump in the White House, and conservative governments in London and Canberra, Netanyahu has a unique opportunity to have the international community offer the right balance of carrots and sticks to the Palestinians at the same time Israel does. Will Netanyahu recognise and grasp this opportunity, or will he bow to populist tendencies, and reap the whirlwind in four years time?

The Game of Camps vs Two Blocs and a Continuum


Former Israeli Deputy National Security Advisor Eran Lerman (now at the Begin–Sadat Centre) has penned a 30-odd-page summary of the strategic environment of the Middle East, which he has dubbed the ‘Game of Camps’. It almost exactly matches the assessments made in this blog, which means I like it very much!

The key difference in the report is, whereas Lerman (and others, including another of my favourite academics, Jonathan Spyer) divide the Middle East into four camps, I say there are three. I combine Lerman’s Islamic State (‘and other al-Qaeda offshoots’) with his Muslim Brotherhood camp, into what I call the Sunni Islamist continuum (‘bloc’ is too strong a term).

Lerman makes the distinction between the two in how they use or don’t use violence, and accept or reject existing state structures – one wants to break them down, the other does not. (Another way to make the distinction is to classify them as being either salafi or otherwise). Both are legitimate ways to make such a distinction, but I’m not sure that such a distinction needs to be or should be made. Groups like the Brothers want to, eventually, combine Muslim states into a regional or global caliphate. But, for now, they’re willing to work peacefully within the physical and administrative/political bounds of their own countries. But is this an ideological rejection of violence, or a tactical decision due to a perception that violence doesn’t work? I think the latter, and my evidence is the pride of place pro-jihadi figures like Sayid Qutb have in the Brotherhood pantheon and, of course, the fact that hamas is officially part of the Brotherhood.

It’s worth remembering that part of al-Qaeda’s founding concept was that violence against strong states like Egypt didn’t work to advance the caliphate. In a way, both the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda came to the same conclusion – the Brothers in Egypt don’t use violence because it doesn’t work and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan used violence against America because violence against the ‘near enemy’ didn’t work.

So, for me, a member of the Sunni Islamist continuum is a person or group that believes that their interpretation of Islam takes precedence over political/state institutions (as we in the West perceive them) and who are willing to act on this belief. Hence, the continuum ranges from groups like the Brothers, to hamas and through all the way to Islamic State.

But all of this is rather academic. Lerman’s work has more parallels with my thinking than differences, only he writes with more and better examples and decades of experience. If you’ve got an hour or so spare, and want to learn about the coming years in the Middle East, read Lerman’s work.

Whither Jordan?

There’s nothing in this article from the Washington Institute to suggest that Jordan is on the precipice, but it’s a timely reminder that a Jordanuan collapse would be catastrophic to Western interests in the Middle East.

Jordan has numerous key population blocs, each of which are influential for different reasons and to whom the establishment must cater. 

The Bedouins that make up the original population of Jordan, but who are today a minority in the kingdom, form the bulk of the military’s officer corps and the public service. They feel that ‘their’ country (and the privileges to which they feel entitled) has been progressively given away to foreigners. 

Palestinians, most of whom are descended from the refugees of 1948, form the country’s majority. Though most have full Jordanian citizenship, they have retained their own national identity, and form a pressure group within Jordan for the King not to be too friendly to Israel. They make up the bulk of the private sector, but are relatively excluded from the public sector. 

There are also hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Some are rotting in refugee camps, others are living in the country’s few cities, begging, working for next to nothing and paying sky-high rent. 

Jordan has long been a loyal, if not particularly influential, member of the Status Quo Bloc. Its wants and needs are closely aligned to those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel (the latter being only a proxy member of the bloc) – stability and US security guarantees. The problem is, Jordan has next to no resources, which limits its influence. 

Support for Islamist movements ranging the full Sunni Islamist continuum – from Muslim Brotherhood to Islamic State is growing in Jordan. And, as elsewhere, the perceived exclusion from the ‘rightful privileges’ of individuals belonging to various communities is often a pathway to Islamist extremism. 

With poverty, unemployment, cost of living, competing communities, fresh waves of refugees and a relatively impotent government (mostly because of unintentional constraints rather than unwillingness or incompetence), the challenges to Jordan are immense and unlikely to lessen soon. 

Were Jordan to descend into chaos, it would mean the instability that is characterised by Syria and Iraq would continue into Jordan – a contiguous slab of chaos in the Middle East. It would mean more ungoverned territory in which extremist groups could train and operate. Jordan’s long border with Israel would be a nightmare should the country collapse, as jihadis would seek to attack the Jewish state. This might well draw Israel into fighting in a way that the violence in Syria never has. It would also be a powerful symbol of failure if a pro-Western, pro-Saudi country going under at a time when Iran is on the ascent. 

While I don’t think it’s inevitable that it will happen, I can’t actually think of any pragmatic policies (i.e. affordable, actually implementable policies that wouldn’t create serious blowback) the West can implement vis-a-vis Jordan to help prevent it from happening. 

What will the post-America Middle East look like?

In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Martin Kramer makes the argument frequently made here that American dominance in the Middle East is rapidly waning. 

But Kramer believes that this is on purpose:

The United States, after a wildly erratic spree of misadventures, is backing out of the region. It is cutting its exposure to a Middle East that has consistently defied American expecta­tions and denied successive American presidents the “mission accomplished” moments they crave. The disengage­ment began before Obama entered the White House, but he has accelerated it, coming to see the Middle East as a region to be avoided because it “could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.” (This was the bottom-line impression of the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to whom Obama granted his legacy interview on foreign policy.)

If history is precedent, this is more than a pivot. Over the last century, the Turks, the British, the French, and the Russians each had their moment in the Middle East, but prolonging it proved costly as their power ebbed. They gave up the pursuit of dominance and settled for influence. A decade ago, in the pages of this magazine, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that the United States had reached just this point: “The American era in the Middle East,” he announced, “. . . has ended.” He went on: “The United States will continue to enjoy more influence in the region than any other outside power, but its influence will be reduced from what it once was.” That was a debatable proposition in 2006; now in 2016, Obama has made it indisputable.

The question to ask, then, is what’s next? Kramer doesn’t believe the US will be replaced by any single outside power. Rather, numerous powers will have greater or lesser influence. 

He’s right. The trend in the Middle East will continue to be that which has prevailed over the last decade. The Status Quo Bloc (i.e. with dictatorial and Sunni (though non-Islamist) leadership) and the Resistance Bloc (i.e. led by the Shi’ite Islamist Iran) will continue to compete through proxy conflicts (e.g. Yemen and Syria) and terrorism sponsorship. 

The third main influence (which almost, but never quite congealed into a bloc), the Sunni Islamist continuum, will continue to mount considerable challenges through war and terrorism (e.g. Islamic State et al), and non-violent movements (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood). Turkey, the only Sunni Islamist country, will continue to be frustrated by the fact the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs are more powerful than it and the various Sunni Islamist non-state actors reject Turkey’s leadership pretentious. 

An outcome of the US shift from the Middle East is the increasing cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc—both have realised that they need each other in the face of less American support and a resurgent Resistance Bloc and Sunni Islamist continuum. Nothing is overly public, of course, but few are denying it. 

The more important consideration is how outside players act. 

Barring a turn-around in US policies after the January inauguration of a new president (some adjustment will happen, but the US public doesn’t have the will to stomach what would be necessary to repair US fortunes in the region), the US will continue supporting, through arms sales and soaring rhetoric, Israel and the Status Quo Bloc. However, it will largely allow the region’s players to fight it out themselves. 

This allows Russia, in particular, to increase its influence in the region. Russia is a country that ruthlessly backs its friends, and isn’t put off by their sloppy human rights records. It also acts only according to what it perceives as its own interests. It backs Syria, not because of an ideological commitment to the Resistance Bloc, but because it has extensive Russian naval infrastructure in Syria, and because Russia does not like the principle of a government being overthrown by its people (given how unpopular rule-from-Moscow is in many of Russia’s far-flung, Muslim-majority areas). While Russia finds itself on the same side as Iran over Syria, this doesn’t mean Russia is wedded to the Islamic Republic. Israeli officials have visited Moscow on multiple occasions over the last little while, as have Egyptian officials—proof that Russia is enjoying the perceived lessening of American skin in the game. Still, despite warming ties, Russia and the Status Quo Bloc are wary of each other, due to the latter’s still-close ties to America, Russia’s ties to Iran, and the financial support of Islamist groups in Russia’s Muslim-majority border regions.

China has been taking an increasing interest in the Middle East, as it seeks to expand its economic empire and sources of oil. It has developed good ties with Israel, the Status Quo a Bloc and the Resistance Bloc, and is unlikely to take sides. Still, its huge reserves of money buy it influence, and it’s a cheaper market for offensive and defensive weapons than the Americans. This recent article about China’s Middle East interests is worth a read.

India has recently become close to Israel, on account of Israel’s impressive defence export potential, its willing to trade in nuclear technology with India, and that both countries face a determined Islamist terrorist threat. It is this fear of Islamism which sees India in favour of supporting the secular dictatorships / monarchies in the Arab world, as it (correctly) fears that greater democratisation in the Middle East will lead to increased instability and the rise of Islamist governments or terrorist movements. And it’s distrust of Pakistan is shared by Iran, which helps the India–Iran relationship. Like China (and the entire world economy), India wants stability in the Persian Gulf, to allow the continued and reliable flow of oil; Indian policies will, more than any other priority, reflect that one.

So, what’s the answer? The Middle East dynamic will continue to be shaped by the Status Quo–Resistance–Sunni Islamist dynamic, with each looking for supporters outside, and outsiders wary, though willing to use their influence. 

Iran’s Manifest Destiny? How the Obama Doctrine is ruining the Middle East

James Jeffrey, of the Washington Institute, has written a cracking article on the fallout, if you’ll exuse the obvious pun, of the Iran nuclear deal.

As he points out, it’s not so much the details of the deal, which was signed last July, that matter as the effects of the regional perceptions of what the deal means.

These effects flow from two anticipated outcomes of the agreement. First, the deal has given Iran the means to expand its regional heft through diplomacy, money, surrogates, and violence, namely by allowing the regime to profit from the release of many tens of billions of dollars of previously blocked oil earnings and renewed oil exports, to leave the negotiating table flush with arguable “victories” (i.e., maintaining the right to enrich uranium and avoiding a confession about its weaponization program), and to become newly attractive as a global trading partner. Second, the Obama administration, bereft of diplomatic successes elsewhere, has become so indebted to Iran for the agreement that it has avoided challenging Iran and, worse, seems to view the agreement as a transformative moment with Tehran, a “Havana in the sand.” 

It’s all multiplied, not so much by the refusal to hold Iran to account, but by the apparently deliberate decision to turn the US’s back on its traditional friends.

This April, speaking with Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview for the Atlantic, President Obama stated that Saudi Arabia must learn to “share” the Middle East with Iran. The fact that he put the burden on Riyadh — a U.S. ally and, whatever its faults, a supporter of the American-led global status quo — rather than on Iran, an acknowledged opponent of that order, is striking.

The article made essentially no mention of Israel or Egypt, but the pattern there is the same – the Obama Doctrine, about which I have previously written, is to put pressure on friends and take pressure off adversaries. The goal is to encourage better behaviour from both, but the outcome is not only the polar opposite, but a perception among both friends and adversaries that the US is no longer interested in what happens in the Middle East. This is an invitation to anarchy, and will be a key learning point in International Relations 101, in future undergrad courses.

Outward recognition is so yesterday

Michael Herzog writes

Arab steps toward normalization have become more meaningful to Israelis than anything they would expect from the Palestinians, allowing Israeli officials to present a paradigm shift: instead of obtaining Arab-Israeli normalization through Israeli-Palestinian peace, they could try to provide space and cover for peacemaking with the Palestinians through convergence with Arab states. 

But this was always the way! Notwithstanding all the other complications, no Palestinian leader could ever be expected to make peace with Israel outside an umbrella of significant Arab (read: Egypt and Saudi) support. For as long as the official Arab line is ‘no peace until Israel concedes everything’ continues, Palestinians daring to make peaceful noises (much less sign an agreement) would be left out in the cold.

I’ve long thought that Israeli-Palestinian peace requires the Arabs to extend an olive branch – perhaps opening a trade office with ‘Palestine’ (and through it, Israel) in East Jerusalem – so as to give Ramallah political cover to make the significant concessions peace will require. 

Herzog also writes

Conceptually, [France’s] efforts are informed by the classic, misguided view that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to regional stability

He’s bang on. France (and much of the rest of the West) has it backwards.