The United States began operating our foreign policy in a fundamentally different way when President Trump took office. Our nation-building projects abroad came into question as military intervention began to be replaced by deal-making as the preferred method for achieving US strategic interests. The region where this is coming into greatest focus is the Middle East. We will soon publish the first regional version of our Grand Strategy – Freedom and Fair Trade which will focus on the Middle East. This piece will serve as an introduction to our thoughts on the current state and how we see the path forward.
This part of the world has long had an outsized influence on geo-strategy due to the dependence of much of the world on its energy production. The United States in particular had to base many foreign policy decisions on retaining access to these vital resources. But now we have become much more energy self-sufficient and our relations with countries in the region have changed accordingly.
America has been the world’s police force since the end of World War II. We sometimes want to avoid that reality, but to the extent there is a global emergency number that phone rings at the Pentagon, not the UN. But we do not respond to all bad actions around the world, nor could we or should we. This determination of which US interests warrant military solutions is an integral part of President Trump’s America First strategic focus.
The answer to how many conflicts require military action is fewer than previously, especially in the post 9/11 era, and that reality is coming into play as we contemplate ending combat operations in Syria and Afghanistan. President Trump prefers other ways to influence both friends and foes and has put America back on a path to the successful Reaganesque model of Peace through Strength. This includes a strong military primarily aimed at deterrence, although still ready to act when it is the proper tool.
But we will now shift toward more engagement in all of the non-military ways such as trade, education, technology and cultural outreach so the people in the Middle East can now view us as partners in prosperity, not crusaders.
This more economic and deal-based strategy that we called Freedom and Fair Trade is how Donald Trump sees America’s role best realized. The “Freedom” portion involves a preference for countries which do not oppress their people, but not an interest in telling them exactly how they should do that.
The US has a national interest in more countries allowing their people to exercise personal liberty. Free people who can create and operate governments that serve their interests cause far less trouble than those run by tyrants, autocrats, or theocrats.
“Fair Trade” is not just about economic activity, but our relations with other countries in all ways.
US interactions with other nations should initially be judged based on how the other nation treats us. Do they treat us fairly and as friends? If so, it is easy for us to reciprocate. If they do not treat us as friends, then the question is: Can we change their behavior and incent them to do so, or should we punish them for damages they do to us or our other friends?
Military force can be the right answer to specific threats, and we should never hesitate to use it when required. But there are many other levers of power available and using them should always be preferable to any military action and certainly any deployment of ground troops.
This leads the US to exploring ways to expand our relationships in the region. It also hearkens back to an old concept of justice to determine how we should interact with any given country. This definition, which the Greek thinker Simonides is said to have drawn from a consideration of ‘the poets,’ is that justice entails “doing good to your friends and harm to your foes”.
President Trump has taken a fresh look at both the region and US interests there and is now actively engaged in determining just how to do both of those things. Let’s take a look at the current state of things and some possible paths forward.
One thing that has changed significantly is the recognition that Iran is not a partner for peace as had been the unfortunate belief during the Obama Administration. This understanding by both the US and others has led to the coalescence of two ad hoc coalitions. One consisting of Iran, Qatar and Turkey who have strengthened relations considerably and another arrayed against Iran consisting of most of the rest of the Gulf Arab states, Egypt and the United States with a growing participation by Israel.
This realization that Iran was the true threat in the region has led to greatly increased partnership between the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. It has even gained precedence above the Israel/Palestinian issue as a matter of importance. This realignment has offered a path toward both overcoming the threat from the Mullahs of Iran and modernization of the Arab Muslim world away from malign influence of the Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sanctions and the nurturing of a counter-Iran coalition are certainly harming our foe, the Mullahs who misrule Iran. But this is leavened with an outreach to the people of Iran that says absent the destructive activities the regime perpetrates, we have no quarrel with them. If their rulers stop spending their resources on external expansion and extremism, there is a prosperous future awaiting them.
The Gulf Arab States
The modernization program underway in Saudi Arabia offers a tremendous chance to change the US relationship with the Muslim world. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken tangible steps in cutting off funding for extremist clerics and providing many new freedoms for women. The number of young people in the Arab world is large with approximately two thirds of the population under the age of 30. Connecting with these millennial Arabs can present the US to them as that shining city on a hill from years past.
The increased alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE was one of the first foreign policy initiatives of President Trump as he traveled to Riyadh to meet with the leaders of the Muslim world telling them:
This fertile region has all the ingredients for extraordinary success – a rich history and culture, a young and vibrant people, a thriving spirit of enterprise. But you can only unlock this future if the citizens of the Middle East are freed from extremism, terror and violence.
This started with a weapons sale and partnership in a counterterrorism center with Saudi Arabia and has continued with US support for the efforts of the Saudi/UAE coalition to oppose Iran’s attempt to gain control of oil routes in Yemen. The deal also included a commitment to increase economic partnership and with the Saudis looking to generate more activity apart from oil production in the Vision 2030 plan this offers a chance to do so.
Iraq and Syria
The war against ISIS in both of these countries is near its end, but the battle to keep it from reemerging is not. The Sunni regions of both countries will remain a potential problem as long as both central governments remain disengaged or even antagonistic to these segments of their population. SSG recommended more autonomy for the Sunni citizens in our plans for an end game for Syria and a more audacious plan for self-determination of these regions.
We remain convinced that significant tribal engagement is vital for any chance of stability to be created. We are hopeful the assistance from regional allies like the Saudis and UAE for both rebuilding and security can continue to help in this regard.
The influence of Iran has greatly increased in both countries during the war against ISIS. Shia militias were expanded and others created that often owe as much, or more, allegiance to Tehran as either Baghdad or Damascus. These must be confronted as no longer acceptable if either country is to have an opportunity to prosper.
Turkey is a major wild card for the United States in considering the friend/foe calculus. They are a member of one of our most important alliances NATO, but under President Erdogan they have transitioned to an extreme form of Political Islam and drifted into closer ties with Iran and Russia. President Trump’s announcement of a withdrawal from Syria recently was partly predicated on an attempt to draw Turkey back into a more productive alliance with the US.
This included a deal to sell them Patriot missiles along with agreements about security and protection for US allies the Kurds along the Turkish border in Northern Syria. It remains to be seen if Turkey under Erdogan can forego its extremism and ties with US enemies, but it was important to make the attempt. We will have suggestions for other non-military ways to continue this outreach in our regional strategy document.
The Arab Spring turned sour for Egypt with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. While elected in a democratic vote, they immediately began to dismantle the democratic process and tried to replace it with their oppressive version of Political Islam. That version of total theocratic control was counter to what was promised in their electioneering and this led to their removal by the military.
President el-Sisi and his government are strong allies of the United States and we share both a mutual interest in stopping extremists and promoting prosperity. Our regional strategy includes a joint effort with them to increase the quality of life for the Egyptian people through upgrades to their infrastructure.
We have had an unfortunate habit of allying with the Kurds when it is convenient and then leaving them exposed when expedient. That is unfair to them as a people and worse as a way to treat a valued and trusted ally. We will be proposing some increased autonomy and especially some protection for the Kurds in the region in our new strategy.
They have earned it and we will gain the reward of their increased welfare by the addition of a stable friend in a region where we have few.
Israel has been America’s strongest ally in the region and that will only grow more important. As a fully functional example of what prosperity in the Middle East looks like, Israel can be part of creating new opportunities for trade and partnership. In addition, the longstanding issue of the Palestinians is receding from its previous primary role, known as linkage, where no major issues could be resolved before that problem was solved. The threat from Iran and the need to create economic growth have supplanted it.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has led a powerful effort to improve relations with the other countries in the region and this should be an area of emphasis for the US going forward.
There is also the issue of Qatar which hosts a major US military base, but which has continued funding Islamist groups. It has also been involved in helping Iran evade sanctions and continue its dangerous activities. It is time to consider whether the US base merits our continued friendship, or if the second half of the friend or foe determination comes into play. The other Gulf Arab states have been conducting a diplomatic and economic effort to push Qatar away from its unacceptable behavior. The US should wield influence to push this to a closure that decides the issue one way or the other.
The US does not have ambitions of empire or expeditionary conquest. The conduct of all our overseas military operations throughout history shows this clearly. We have remained in some places as allies, but never as conquerors.
The Freedom and Fair Trade strategy capitalizes on our strengths as a friend and the fear of having us as a foe. This is a moral and smart use of our preeminent status as a world power.
We should apply these principles in creating new opportunities to work productively with our friends in the region and to pressure our enemies. We will all benefit from the engagement and increased trade and can perhaps help change its status as the world’s perpetual hot spot.
We look forward to sharing more of our thoughts on how to improve both US relations with the countries in the Middle East and the prosperity of all those who live there.