[Note: This article is a slightly amended and updated version of one which was first published by Arab Digest on 20 May 2019.]
“…what stands between war and peace in the Gulf is Mr Trump himself. Having promised to end Middle Eastern wars, rather than start new ones, he appears driven less by a desire for military conflict than by the illusion that he can apply the North Korea playbook to Iran. It is not war he seeks but a return to negotiations — on his own, tougher terms.”
Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, 22 May 2019
Predictable within clear-ish parameters…
When Donald Trump was a ‘mere’ presidential candidate back in 2016, he promised that, if he was elected, he would make US foreign policy “unpredictable”. It is not at all clear how important this factor per se was in securing his victory; but the overall thrust of what has been termed ‘Trump nationalism’, under the Make America Great Again banner, clearly counted for something with voters. It is, therefore, worth asking what the reality of something similar, alongside the campaign strap-line Keep America Great, means for US foreign policy over the coming 18 months or so through to the 2020 election, not least for the Middle East.
Personally, I never entirely bought into the idea that Mr Trump’s foreign policy has been particularly unpredictable even when his instincts were, to an extent at least, kept in check by the likes of then Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Indeed, I have argued on innumerable occasions over the past couple of years that, for all Mr Trump's propensity for seemingly sudden lurches, he does generally operate within broad parameters which are remarkably consistent. And, to be fair to other commentators, at least since the arrival a year or so ago of Michael Pompeo and John Bolton (pictured above) in the Trump Administration I have not been alone.
To take just one example, international relations expert Thomas Wright put it thus in an article entitled ‘Trump’s foreign policy is no longer unpredictable’ which was published in Foreign Policy in January:
“At the two-year mark, it is now clear that the president is dominating this struggle, even if he has not yet won outright. For the first time, it is possible to identify a singular Trump administration foreign policy, as the president’s team coalesces around his ideas. This policy consists of a narrow, transactional relationship with other nations, a preference for authoritarian governments over other democracies, a mercantilist approach to international economic policy, a general disregard for human rights and the rule of law, and the promotion of nationalism and unilateralism at the expense of multilateralism.”
…but confusing where there is division within ‘Team Trump’
However, Mr Wright does see a stand-out exception to this assessment in the case of the Middle East, on which, contrary to the generally valid subhead to his article “Gone are the days of a divided Administration”, he qualifies as follows:
“Differences remain between the president and his team. The most striking example is in US Middle East policy. Trump and his advisers agree on taking a hard line against Iran. But the president is deeply reluctant to commit US resources to rolling back Iranian influence in Syria and would like to see a retrenchment from the region. In his view, US efforts should be confined to supporting allies in taking any actions they deem fit to counter Iran (such as Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen), imposing sanctions, and pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This is the one issue where the president’s current team has made statements that appear to contradict him.”
Again, I find myself in broad agreement with Mr Wright.
Ultimately, it’s all about reelection…
All this being said — and when all the theorising over Trumpian foreign policy is said and done — there is, in my view, one consideration which Mr Wright is not alone in failing to mention and which will remain paramount in Mr Trump’s mind on all policy issues, ie winning a second term.
To this end, and to judge from a whole swathe of recent actions, Mr Trump’s campaign team has clearly determined that playing hardball (at home and abroad) is the best way to bolster support among his all-important base. As Gideon Rachman put it recently in a Financial Times Op-Ed (subscriber access only):
“When many Americans feel frightened that both US power and their own living standards are in decline, Mr Trump is making an appeal to American ruthlessness. The US president says to voters that the country cannot afford to be ‘politically correct’ any more. The way to Make America Great Again, in the words of his slogan, is to rediscover the ruthless instincts that made America great in the first place.... The president’s approach signals to voters that he too is a tough guy.”
But this still leaves open the question of just how far this approach will go in practice — especially with a President who has (largely) consistently spoken out against US military engagement in the Middle East.
In this respect, the results of a recent wide-ranging and in-depth study on US voter opinion carried out by the Center for American Progress not only makes very interesting reading but is also instructive, albeit not definitively so. Entitled ‘America Adrift’, its overall conclusion is that “the US foreign policy debate misses what voters really want”, which the report sums up as follows:
“Put simply: American voters believe that America needs to be strong at home in order to be strong in the world”.
“…in perhaps the most important findings in the survey, voters across generational and partisan lines strongly desire more domestic investment in infrastructure, health care, and education to increase the United States’ global competitiveness rather than merely increasing military and defense spending.”
…and shoring up ‘the base’…
However, what is certainly more important to Mr Trump than opinions which are seemingly shared by a majority of America’s electorate is the following:
“…regular Fox News viewers express much higher levels of agreement than do non-Fox viewers on issues related to military engagement and prioritizing military spending, as well as on ‘America First’ sentiments.”
The report goes on:
“One-third of American voters fall into what we label the ‘Trump nationalist’ camp. Composed heavily but not exclusively of Republicans and regular Fox News viewers, this group is strongly in favor of prioritizing military spending and strongly against immigration and the United States acting as the world’s policeman…. Regular Fox News viewers are twice as likely as non-Fox viewers to score highly on our military engagement index — 44 percent versus 22 percent, respectively….”
It is likely no coincidence that the 44% number matches to within a couple of percentage points what has been Mr Trump’s overall approval rating for many months now.
Coupled with the 78% of Republican voters who approve of Mr Trump’s handling of foreign policy generally, this is pretty good news for the President, at least as far as his base is concerned.
However, turning specifically to the Middle East Mr Trump appears less well placed, even among his supporters, as far as his enthusiasm for Saudi Arabia is concerned. In an assessment of attitudes towards other countries, the Kingdom ranked fourth (of 15 countries listed) in the category “mostly an enemy”, an assessment shared by 36% of those polled. Strikingly, this is two places higher than China (on just 23%). A further 19% of those polled put Saudi Arabia in a second less than favourable category, ie “mostly a competitor”. Furthermore, only 19% saw it as “mostly a friend”, ranking it just tenth out of 15 (again, as it happens, two places higher than China) in this, the final, category.
It is not hard (no matter how fair or unfair) to make a link between the “mostly an enemy” rating and the following finding:
“Concerns about protecting the country from attacks and terrorism clearly dominate other important goals in voters’ minds. Nearly 90 percent of American voters say that ‘protecting the US homeland from enemy attacks and terrorism’ should be either a top or very important goal of US foreign policy, with a full 63 percent of voters saying it should a top priority.”
And especially not when coupled with this:
“Asked to choose the three most important foreign policy priorities over the next five years from a specific list, ‘protecting against terrorist threats from groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda’ ranks at the top of the list, chosen by 40 percent of voters…”.
This, in turn, presents Mr Trump with a second potential problem, not to say dilemma were push to come to shove, in the form of the contradiction between, on the one hand, his clearly, and oft-stated, desire not to be drawn into military action in the Middle East and, on the other, not only the branding of Iran’s IRGC as a terrorist organisation but also Mr Pompeo’s claim last month of links between the regime in Tehran and al-Qaeda.
Given that in the Center for American Progress survey a whacking 71% of those polled slotted Iran in the category of “mostly an enemy” (which put it second only to North Korea), in making this claim Mr Pompeo may be pushing at something of an open door as far as public opinion in the US is concerned. And perhaps especially in the light of a Reuters/Ipsos poll published earlier this week in which 51% of the respondents said that they believed that war between Iran and the US is likely “in the next few years”, an increase of 8 percentage points relative to a year ago (albeit with 49% recording disapproval for Mr Trump’s handling of the Iran issue).
Both the claim and Mr Pompeo more generally therefore merit much closer attention, in my view.
…which is not John Bolton
Consistent with this, I am increasingly of the view that much of the media is focusing too tightly (if, perhaps, understandably) on Mr Bolton’s hawkishness over Iran versus Mr Trump’s desire to ratchet back the US military presence in the region. The big problem I have with this is that it tends to exclude/ignore others who have influence over the President when it comes to US policy and actions in the Middle East and who may be pushing in the same direction as Mr Bolton to potentially greater effect.
Writing in the Financial Times on 14 March 2018, Edward Luce, described Mr Pompeo as a “Trump enabler” who “eliminates the gap between Mr Trump’s anti-globalist instincts and the stance of America’s chief diplomat” and who will therefore bring “Mr Trump’s America First foreign policy…closer to becoming a reality”. I broadly agree with this assessment of the Secretary of State. However, I cannot help but wonder if Iran may be the second of two notable exceptions (the first, acknowledged by Mr Luce, being Russia and Vladimir Putin).
The Economist, also in March 2018, described Mr Pompeo as “a zealous, evangelical Christian accused of Islamophobia” (noting, by way of one example, his persistent campaigning while he was in Congress to have the Muslim Brotherhood designated as a terrorist organisation. In this respect Mr Pompeo seems to have much in common with another influential evangelical, Vice President Mike Pence, whose strong support of Israel is believed by some commentators, for example Ron Campeas writing in The Times of Israel in January 2018, to be an important driver of US policy in the Middle East, including over Iran.
The significance of this is reflected in, notably, Mr Trump’s decisions to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the occupied part of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Even though the proportion of Americans who are white evangelicals is shrinking — to around 17% of the electorate in 2016 — they comprise a much heftier chunk of Mr Trump’s base to whom he will continue to pander, not least in whatever his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, comes up with to try to seal the “deal of the century”.
One Middle East leader who clearly understands this is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As NBC’s Jonathan put it in a recent article:
“…white evangelical Christians are proving a more reliable partner both for Republican President Donald Trump and for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than American Jews, who largely vote Democratic and who are deeply fractured over Israel's policies”.
Add to this his long-time family friendship with Mr Kushner and one has to ask whether, in common with Messrs Pence and Pompeo, Mr Netanyahu may ultimately have more influence over Mr Trump when it comes to Iran than does Mr Bolton.
Oil and troubled waters?
This takes me to one further individual, ie Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Certainly, MbS is not without influence with the US President and perhaps even more so with his son-in-law. However, in practice he may be of greatest importance to Mr Trump for his perceived ability to push the price of oil lower, as reflected in my 29 April article.
Much as Mr Trump may wish to please his base over Israel, all the evidence to date points firmly to him being at least as concerned over the electorally highly sensitive issue of the price of gasoline at the pump. Opec oil ministers and their allies (minus Iran) meeting in Jeddah this past weekend faced something of a quandary. On the one hand, tensions in the Gulf and turmoil in Libya and Venezuela have put significant upward pressure on the price of crude. On the other, the ongoing escalation in the trade war between China and the US poses a threat to global growth and, therefore, demand for oil which could see the price of crude tumbling again. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a final decision on any shift in current policy seems to have been left until another Opec+ meeting scheduled for 25/26 June (and my personal view is that, with Mr Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping not likely to meet before the 28/29 June G20 summit, we may see further procrastination even then).
If anything, the quandary facing Mr Trump may be even deeper. His trade war with China may push the price of crude down; but (contrary to his claims) it also risks pushing up inflation in the US — which makes a simultaneous sharp increase in the oil price consequent to some sort of military action in the Gulf an electorally dangerous double whammy.
However, this month’s setbacks over China/US trade notwithstanding, I still believe that Mr Trump is aiming to reach a deal with Xi Jinping and that this is likely to materialise in the not too distant future (and possibly even as early as the end of June). In this scenario, the trade war-induced threat to economic growth is reduced and demand for oil (and, therefore, the price) reverts to the status quo ante — meaning that any war-induced spike would start from a higher level than would be the case if the trade war were to continue. Again, therefore, there is persuasive downside from the US President’s perspective.
Not conclusive but…
I almost headed this final sub-section ‘conclusions’ before recalling that none of the above is actually conclusive! Nevertheless, a combination of Mr Trump’s well-established antipathy towards US military engagement in the Middle East (coupled with the seeming absence of clearcut support for war with Iran even within the Trump base) and election-related concern over the price of gasoline strongly suggest to me that the President’s firm preference is to keep the pressure on Tehran short of taking related military action. This in the (almost certainly forlorn) hope of persuading the Iranians to come to the negotiating table.
In other words, unless something causes a fundamental shift in public opinion in the US towards even deeper anti-Iran sentiment (which may, of course, be what Messrs Bolton, Pence, Pompeo and Netanyahu are all aiming for in their own way), I continue to believe that a major miscalculation by one side or the other would be needed to provoke Mr Trump into military action. This certainly cannot be ruled out. But it is still not my base case.