The Middle East is once again reeling, and there is speculation of an imminent war. It is a war that nobody wants, but the drums are getting louder. Scenarios are even being discussed and analysed, and that makes it a scary prospect. The region has had more than its share of instability and crises, and another war is the last thing it needs.
Much of this tension can be attributed to the bluster, miscalculations and the lack of a well-thought-out, comprehensive strategy by the Trump administration. Ionut Popescu in his article Trump does not have a grand strategy, in Foreign Affairs on May 21, 2018, argued that, “Of all the criticisms raised against the foreign policy of US President Donald Trump, the most predictable is to deplore his lack of a grand strategy.”
Trump is accused of being anti-strategic and derided as incapable of developing and executing a purposive course of action over time. Others concede that although Trump does indeed have a grand strategy, it is ill-conceived and insufficient.
The ‘America first’ platform, though strategic, is “plagued by internal tensions and dilemmas that will make it difficult to achieve the president’s stated objectives.” Although the wisdom of Trump’s specific decisions remains to be seen, critics are wrong to suggest that his lack of a grand strategy, or pursuit of an ill-conceived one, is necessarily fatal. In fact, US presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan have often used an emergent strategy to improvise their way to success.
The Trump administration’s robust approach in the Middle East comes on the heels of the Obama administration’s retreat from the region.
The Obama period was marked by the urgency to reach the Iran nuclear deal at any cost, thus deliberately overlooking Tehran’s shenanigans and evil designs in the region, not to mention its ballistic missile programme. Although the deal was welcomed by the international community, Trump — who has always described it as the worst-ever deal — pulled out of the accord.
Soon US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled the Trump administration’s new strategy towards Iran, labelled ‘Plan B’. Arguing that Iran won’t enjoy carte blanche in the Middle East, he warned Tehran in his first foreign policy address, threatening to reimpose the crippling sanctions that had been lifted by the Obama administration after forging the nuclear deal.
Demanding that Iran comply with 12 conditions ranging from its nuclear programme to its regional expansionist interventions, Washington insisted that Iran withdraw all forces under Iranian Revolutionary Guards command from Syria. The US also repeated its demand that Iran stop supporting and funding terrorism and terrorist groups.
These tough demands are part of efforts to tighten the screws on Iran, politically and militarily. Tehran suffered another setback when it lost leverage in Iraq following the recent parliamentary elections. The surprise victory of fiery Moqtada Al Sadr’s coalition was not what Iran envisaged as the dominant force in Iraq, and this could change the political dynamics there.
Adding to Iran’s woes were the frequent Israeli attacks on Tehran’s military assets in Syria. The bombings drew no retaliation from the Iranians who lack the power to deal with Israel’s aggression. But how long could this go on? The fear is, this “new normal” could trigger a mini-war that could spill beyond Syria. Or we could witness a mini-war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza!
As uncertainty prevails in the region, Trump’s unorthodox and unprecedented moves and miscalculations are causing much political anxiety.
The relocation of the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem was a needless, provocative move, pushed through without extracting any concession from Israel to push the two-state solution forward. The action on May 14 angered Arabs and Muslims. While the US celebrated provocatively, Israel massacred more than 65 Palestinians in cold blood within the Gaza Strip.
To add insult to injury, Washington rejected Kuwait’s motion to the UN Security Council and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation emergency summit’s demands for an international investigation into Israeli atrocities and an international protection force for Palestinians.
The Gulf crisis — involving the quartet of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt against Qatar — will soon pass its first year anniversary with no solution in sight. And this festering issue has cast a long shadow on the most effective pan-Arab regional organisation. But the longer the GCC crisis drags on, the more uncertainty looms.
Amid this atmosphere of animosity, there is an urgent need for cooler heads to prevail. The Middle East has to step away from the abyss, or the region will be plunged into a devastating war. It is a scenario best avoided.
Abdullah Al Shayji is a professor of Political Science and the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. Twitter: @docshayji.