Trump knows what Obama refused to acknowledge — that the U.S. cannot shirk its duty as the world’s policeman and the region’s sheriff. Obama hoped that he could just ignore this region or let others lead.
In September 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. This was just days after then-U.S. President Barack Obama effectively decided not to take military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad, who had just used chemical weapons against his people. Two years later, having realized that the U.S. left a vacuum in the region, Russia returned with a force not seen since the end of the Cold War.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who was sworn in less than 100 days ago, has decided to change the political equation the Russians have created. Surprisingly, the Russians are willing to listen, despite their repeated mention of the sorry state of relations between Moscow and Washington.
The U.S. media is fond of reporting on Trump’s so-called illicit ties to the Russian government. But the truth of the matter is that it was Obama, in 2013, who tried to cozy up to the Russians, because he wanted to reach a nuclear deal with Iran — which he considered the most important part of his legacy, much more than an intervention in Syria.
Russian-American relations reached “a low point,” as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this week, as a result of the situation in Syria. But both superpowers are still determined to fight terrorism together and support an international inquiry of the chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib province last week.
The joint press conference Tillerson held with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday underscored the fact that superpowers have their own language, and when the U.S. talks like the superpower that it is, Russia has no choice but to play along, even if the Russians made sure Tillerson had to wait until the very last moment before he was told he could meet Putin in Moscow (and the meeting was only two hours long).
Despite all that has been said on Russia-U.S. relations, it is important to note that relations between two big powers are by definition different than any other forms of bilateral relations. Moreover, the current escalation is a plus for Russia because it puts it on equal footing with the U.S. That is why Russia made sure Tillerson’s visit had all the hallmarks of a summit in which the world’s leading superpowers determine how the world is going to run. As far as the Russians are concerned, this is the main accomplishment of the meeting. In the grand scheme of things, it is a win-win for both sides: Trump can distance himself from Russia, and Putin can prove that he can stand up to the Americans.
Despite what most people think, Trump actually acted strategically when he ordered the missile strike last week on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The strike was designed to send a much wider and strategic message, that would resonate well beyond Syria — in Iran, in North Korea and in Russia. It was designed to make sure people think twice before they mess with the U.S.
Trump knows what Obama refused to acknowledge — that the U.S. cannot shirk its duty as the world’s policeman and the region’s sheriff. Obama hoped that he could just ignore this region or let others lead.
Yours truly predicted Trump would be tested in his first months in office, just like President Ronald Reagan was tested in his first year in office. Back then Reagan had to respond to air traffic controllers who went on strike at federal airports; now Trump has to deal with the Russians and Assad. Trump has no qualms about doing an about-face, even on issues that he is not supposed to care about. Both Reagan and Trump changed the rules of the game when they responded to those early tests. Such behavior creates the element of surprise and proves that a president is willing to act like a madman.
On Thursday evening, President Trump met with China’s President Xi and bombed Syria. The decision came as Trump traveled on Air Force One to meet with Xi at Mar-a-Lago. An hour into their dinner, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched and pounded an airbase in Syria. The message wasn’t just for Assad and Putin. It was for Xi and his North Korean client state. The era of a weak America was over.
Xi had come to America expecting an easy photo op visit. President Trump would urge action on North Korea and Xi would smile coldly and shoot him down. Talk of fairer trade would be similarly dismissed.
And then Xi would go home and laugh that the bold new American leader was another paper tiger.
Except that President Trump had a different plan. Instead of Xi showing how tough he could be, Trump gave him a front row seat to a display of American power. The message was both obvious and subtle.
And President Xi, along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei, aren’t laughing.
The obvious part was as blatant as a 1,000 pound explosive warhead slamming into concrete and steel, and as obvious as upstaging Xi’s efforts to stonewall Trump while warning that North Korea could be next if the Chinese leader continues to be obstinate.
Trump had warned throughout the campaign that he would not be laying his military plans on the table. “You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do!” he had mocked Clinton.
His address to the nation came an hour after the missiles had struck. The element of surprise had held.
And Xi came away with a very different message. The Obama era was over. The new guy was bold, dangerous and unpredictable. Like many of Trump’s American opponents, Xi understood now that the jovial man sitting next to him could and would violate the rules of the game without prior warning.
China would have to be careful. There was a cowboy in the White House again.
And that was the subtle part. Trump does not care very much about Assad. What he truly cares about is American power. Left-wing critics quickly pounced on Trump’s past opposition to strikes on Syria and his criticisms of Obama for not enforcing his own “red line”.
There is no contradiction.
Trump didn’t believe that strikes on Syria were a good idea. But once we had committed to a red line, then we had to follow through if we were going to be taken seriously.
And so Trump enforced Obama’s red line. Not because of Obama or Syria. But because of America.
“When he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world because it was a blank threat,” President Trump said.
President Trump intends to get things done. And he knows it won’t happen with “blank” threats.
Asked about whether the strikes represented a message to Xi and North Korea, Secretary of State Tillerson replied, “It does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line and cross the line on violating commitments they have made.”
“President Trump has made that statement to the world tonight,” he added.
The message is more subtle than a 1,000 pound warhead. But not by that much.
President Trump’s move bewildered leftist critics who had to shift from accusing him of having a secret relationship with Russia to accusing him of ruining our relationship with Russia. It also enraged some supporters who maintained a dogmatic non-interventionist position. But Trump doesn’t make decisions based on ideology. He measures policies against real world objectives, not abstract philosophies.
What he has always wanted to do is solve real problems.
The problem he was solving on Thursday wasn’t Assad. President Trump recognizes that Syria is an unsolvable problem and that little good can come of extended engagement with it. There are no good guys in Syria. Only Sunni and Shiite Jihadis and their victims. Syria is and will always be a dead end.
The problem is that Obama thoroughly wrecked American prestige and power over eight years. And that makes it painfully difficult to get anything done when no one in the world will take us seriously.
President Trump sees North Korea’s nuclear weapons as a major threat. But he also sees the crisis as a way to leverage our military might to achieve better trade deals with both partners and rivals. He is not wedded to a globalist or anti-globalist ideology. Instead he sees every problem as an opportunity.
He is not committed to any international coalition, globalist or anti-globalist, except where it temporarily serves American purposes. That is what being a true nationalist actually means.
That is what makes him so unpredictable and so dangerous.
President Trump made a point in Syria. He timed that point for maximum effect. The point isn’t that Assad is a bad man. Though he is. It’s not that he isn’t a Russian puppet, though only the lunatic left could have believed that. The point is that he is determined that America will be taken seriously.
Cruise missile diplomacy isn’t new. Bill Clinton fired over 500 cruise missiles into Iraq. Not to mention Sudan. Bush fired cruise missiles into Somalia. Obama signed off on firing cruise missiles into Yemen and Syria at terrorist targets. The difference is that Trump isn’t just saving face with cruise missile diplomacy.
President Trump’s real objective isn’t the Middle East. It’s Asia. He doesn’t see Russia as our leading geopolitical foe, but China. Syria was the opening shot in a staring contest with the People’s Republic. The moves in this chess game will sometimes be obvious and sometimes subtle. And Trump is usually at his most subtle when he’s being obvious. That’s what his enemies usually miss.
President Trump’s first step in Syria was to reestablish physical and moral authority on the international stage while the President of China had to sit there and watch. He humiliated Democrats and their media operation at the peak of their Russia frenzy. And he sent the message that America is back.
It’s not a bad return on a $60 million investment. We’ve spent much more in the field with less to show for it.
The Obama era in international affairs ended with whimper and a hollow Nobel Peace Prize as a trophy. The Trump era in international affairs began with 59 cruise missiles and a big bang.
A new age of diplomacy, Israel Hayom, Prof. Abraham Ben-Zv, April 5, 2017
The character of the new American diplomacy is slowly becoming clear, both in terms of style and essence, and especially as it pertains to the Middle East. We are being given the impression that U.S. President Donald Trump is trying to adopt the management style of late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who tended to bypass his secretary of state.
Preliminary signs indicate that Trump sees his current wandering adviser and envoy, Jared Kushner, as a confidant and trustworthy emissary for sensitive diplomatic missions. This is clear from his mission to Baghdad at the beginning of the week and in his ongoing involvement in advancing the peace process in the Palestinian arena. Kushner is also expected to take part in the U.S.-China summit (set to take place in Florida this week), reflecting his role as moderating figure in the charged relationship between Trump and the Chinese leadership and indicating his growing power.
While a young and energetic Kushner hops between continents as the president’s representative, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lags behind him, excluded and disconnected from the big decision-makers.
This gives a good idea of style. As for the essence — when it comes to the Middle East in particular, we are seeing a sort of diplomacy that is radically different than former U.S. President Barack Obama’s approach. This is especially true regarding the Trump administration’s efforts to establish a Sunni anti-Iranian axis led by Cairo and Riyadh. While the Obama administration abandoned the United States’ traditional partners on this front, and instead, worked tirelessly to reconcile with Iran, the current White House is signalling unequivocally that it is determined to at least turn over a new leaf in its relationship with these regional powers and to upgrade strategic cooperation with them in order to uproot terrorism.
While Obama’s relationship with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was characterized by coldness (in contrast to the warmth he showed to Egypt’s previous leader, Muslim Brotherhood member and sworn Hamas supporter Mohammed Morsi), Trump’s approach is quite different. El-Sissi’s state visit to Washington this week was marked by extraordinary warmth and cordiality on the part of the American president. This was an effort to erase the remnants of the recent past — especially the memory of punitive and alienating policy led by Obama against the Egyptian leader — from the Egyptian consciousness.
A similarly dramatic improvement can be seen in U.S.-Saudi relations, wherein strategic cooperation has also been upgraded recently, especially (but not only) regarding fighting on the Syrian front and in the struggle against the Houthi militias operating in Yemen with Iran’s help and support (against al-Qaida forces in the field). This follows the deep ebb in their relationship due to Obama’s tireless efforts to appease the Ayatollah regime in Iran, the sworn enemy of the Saudi royalty. Regarding Syria, in 2013, Obama abandoned the civilian population there to its fate, remaining, despite his declarations, completely passive even after Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed all the red lines by using murderous chemical weapons against masses of civilians. On Tuesday, too, Assad’s forces carried out a major chemical attack, harming many civilians, in the country’s destroyed and divided north. Based on the growing military involvement and the Trump administration’s determination to deal with the “axis of evil” there too, we can assume that the White House will have a different response to this war crime.
Finally, regarding U.S.-Israeli relations, we are witnessing the expression of exceptional support and identification, reminiscent of the golden age of late U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (during which time then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Arthur Goldberg’s speeches reflected the strength and resilience of the “special relationship”). While the Obama administration focused on efforts to settle the conflict, which it defined as a core issue of utmost local and regional importance, the Trump administration is demonstrating a much more relaxed and relevant approach to the complex situation. On this front too, there is real change in the form and style of American diplomacy in the Trump era.
US is back, Israel Hayom, Prof. Eyal Zisser, March 19, 2017
(Please see, for example, A new foundation for Saudi-US relations. — DM
The Trump administration is not even 100 days old, but the Middle East is already feeling the change. The United States is once again taking an active role in the region, and more importantly, Washington is once again standing by the allies and friends it had abandoned. It is now abundantly clear that America can differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys in the region, and that it plans to act for the former and against the latter.
It is an open secret that the election of President Donald Trump, despite being portrayed as an enemy of Islam who gobbles up Muslims, was greeted with a sigh of relief in the region, and in some cases with overt jubilation. America’s allies were fed up with former President Barack Obama and his administration, which turned its back on them during tough times and did not hesitate to criticize them and even question their legitimacy.
The Obama administration was obviously biased in favor of pro-Islamic elements in the region, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It also courted Iran and tried to appease it, in the hope of dissuading it from pursuing its nuclear ambitions and maybe scaling back its destabilizing activities in the region. This all created an unbridgeable gulf between Washington and its old friends, who came to conclusion that even the minimal understanding Washington had of the region’s complexities was no longer there, and that perhaps the Obama administration had lost touch with reality.
Trump is not committed to the former administration’s value system, which was used to pass judgment and essentially sacrifice his allies and friends. For all of Obama’s high-minded values, he essentially let Syria falter and allowed its fate to be decided by the impulses of President Bashar Assad and his friends in Moscow and Teheran.
Many have assumed that Trump would prefer to wait before taking action in the Middle East, a region with which he is not familiar and which does not require immediate American intervention, especially since Obama left him almost no wiggle room. But, surprisingly, the American efforts in the region under his leadership have been the most intense in recent memory.
Last week, Trump hosted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, whose associates were quick to declare that the meeting was a historic turning point in the countries’ bilateral relations, because the two leaders saw eye-to-eye on the Iranian threat and on the need to counter its efforts to destabilize the region. Similar voices have been heard in Cairo and in Ankara.
Trump is also sending additional forces to Syria to strengthen the American hold on its eastern part. This is designed to help deal a crushing blow to Islamic State and provide a counterweight to the Russian presence, and even more importantly, to the Iranian presence there. Trump has also tried to have the Israelis and the Palestinians resume direct talks without accepting the prerequisites set by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Trump’s actions regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are part of a more comprehensive effort to advance regional cooperation in the region, an effort Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has been pushing for months. Trump hopes this effort will usher in new arrangements between Israel and its Arab neighbor and the Palestinian Authority.
Trump may not have a deep understanding of the region, but he has the instincts of a businessman who wants to win. He may very well prove that one does not have to be impartial to reach a deal, as President Vladimir Putin has proved in Syria. Trump may be able to make Israel and the Palestinian reach certain understandings even while showing his support for Israel. Most importantly, the deal that Trump promotes will not be bound by the value system of Obama or the Europeans, nor will Trump say amen to every request made by the Palestinians. Trump will only make sure the deal advances both sides’ interests.
Only time will tell whether Trump can effect the change he desires in the region.
A new approach to U.S. Middle East strategy, Center for Security Policy, , February 15, 2017 and
The Trump administration has a unique opportunity to implement a new strategic policy to bring some semblance of stability to the current Middle East chaos. Under the pledge of putting “America first,” our core national security interest in the region should include the following:
• Re-emphasizing our support for our friends and allies while assisting threatened minorities (Christians, Assyrians/Chaldeans, Kurds and Yazidis).
Our strategy in the past has been reactive, but now must be driven by our vital core objectives. In that sense, it is not in the U.S. interest to become involved in a 1,300-year-old, intra-Islamic sectarian fight between Shiites and Sunnis. From a Western perspective, there is no good side in this conflict. Both want to kill us.
It also must be recognized that much of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement nation-state system formed in the Middle East after World War I is coming asunder. Syria and Iraq are fractured states and a readjustment of a regional balance of power between Shiite and Sunni will evolve out of the current crisis with or without U.S. involvement. Our invasion of Iraq and the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni army removed the main blocking force to the expansion of Iran’s Shiite Crescent and ensured the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq.
A Sunni entity that clearly is not ISIS should be assisted to coalesce in what used to be Iraq. Such an entity could involve Anbar Province and the Nineveh Plain, where Assyrians/Turkman/Yazidis are unifying in an effort at preservation and stabilization.
In areas outside of Alawite and Kurdish control and areas liberated from ISIS in the former Syria, Syrian Free Army (SFA) commanders believe that with U.S. and other Western support, they could pry off significant forces from jihadi militias to create a force to defeat Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and ISIS. This approach should be explored. In implementing a new strategy, we must proceed in a manner that gains cooperation from those whose involvement is essential. This includes Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and Turkey. The Gulf states must be persuaded to end support for Sunni jihadis, which can only happen if they are assured that they will not be threatened or surrounded by Iran’s Shiite Crescent.
The Trump administration’s recent declaration putting Iran “on notice” is a step in the right direction, as were U.S. Treasury sanctions on 12 entities for supporting Iran’s illicit ballistic missile program. Further, President Trump’s call for establishing safe zones in Syria, e.g., one in the northern Kurdish area, one along the Turkish border, and one on the Jordanian border, could help relieve economic pressure on Jordan and Turkey, which are providing support to millions of refugees. In return, we should expect Turkey and Jordan’s support for our new regional strategy.
President Obama’s policy that deliberately empowered Iran to advance its geostrategic ambitions and move toward a deliverable nuclear weapons capability is over. Our so-called nuclear agreement with Iran must also be terminated and Iran’s joint venture relationship, using North Korea as its off-site laboratory to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, must end. Holding Iran accountable to the agreement is a pipe dream. There is no agreement. Further, a clear, unambiguous declaration from the Trump administration with appropriate follow-on action will go a long way to gain Saudi and GCC cooperation.
With regard to Syria, Bashar Assad must go. It appears Russia may support such action as it reportedly proposed Alawite Gen. Manas Tlass (formerly with the Hafez Assad regime) as his replacement at the Astana talks. SFA commanders may accept this as long as the Assad clan is out of power and in exile. Under such an arrangement, the Alawites would keep control of Damascus and their coastal strip heartland, but lose the rest of former Syria. This is the de facto current situation on the ground today.
Russia may find such an arrangement acceptable, provided it keeps its bases in Latakia and Tartus. While these are major concessions, issues involving Ukraine/Crimea must also be part of the discussion, as well as Libya. The bottom line in the trade-offs must be Russia’s commitment to help in getting Iran, Hezbollah and Shiite militias out of what formerly was Syria.
Turkey also may be helpful in the overall realignment but must be managed carefully, as Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) is moving toward an authoritarian neo-Ottoman jihad state. Clearly, the No. 1 Turkish concern is the Kurds. One option may be to not allow the Kurdish northern-Syria enclave “Rojava” to extend to the Turkish border. There would instead be a safe zone there, guaranteed jointly by Russia and Turkey. Gas and oil pipelines also are major factors that must be included in discussions with both Russia and Turkey.
Since we have no vital objectives in Afghanistan, we should stop wasting our national treasure to support a corrupt tribal society.
If this new strategic approach is followed, our vital core strategic objectives will most likely stand a better chance of being achieved while gradually bringing the current chaos under control.
Mike Pompeo, the new CIA head, just flew to Riyadh to give a medal to the reigning son of the king (who is said to suffer from dementia). While some conservatives regard this as a travesty (e.g., a “Not the Onion” commentary from Zero Hedge), I think this is meant to be an open signal to support the House of Saud, whose help is needed against the Iranians anyway and who support President El-Sisi against Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It’s not clear what the Saudis did in exchange, but they have been under the gun, fearing that Western media would expose their role in support of violent jihad. So this looks as though the Saudis have done a lot to settle those debts. It’s not the kind of public gesture the CIA does a lot.
The Saudis can shut down ISIS/AQ/Al Nusra, or whatever the worst gang of maniacs calls itself today. They also have no problem with selected assassinations. SecDef Mattis has a long record of talking about morality and immorality in warfare, and he does not like sadistic monsters. I think the moral dimension of defensive war has been missing during the Obama years.
These are all calming moves in a very agitated international situation. I believe that Trump is going to move aggressively against Muslim Brotherhood infiltration, probably with Saudi backing. The Saudis are ideologically aligned with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the M.B.s, but tactically, they could abandon them. Violent jihad arose with OPEC, and now that OPEC is declining, it would be smart to convince the Saudis that the jig is up.
We can see if there is a marked decrease in jihadist violence. If not, then the hypothesis is wrong.
The possibility of public exposure of their role in 9/11 is still very real and can be used to ensure their good behavior.
This is Kremlinology, but it’s falsifiable. There are many dangerous enemies in the world, including George Soros domestically, and the intelligence agencies can torpedo a lot of stuff. It is smart for Trump to calm things down and focus on the hard parts first.