Trump's Middle East policy is absurd and incoherent

Trump's Middle East policy is absurd and incoherent
Comment: President Trump has abandoned his promised 'non-interventionism' to destroy whatever remnants of a delicate balance remained in the Middle East, write Behnam Gharagozli, Jon Roozenbeek, Adrià Salvador Palau.
6 min read
Trump's flailing policymaking-by-Twitter has left different government agencies pursuing different foreign policy objectives [Getty]

Recent Middle Eastern geopolitics have been shaped by a series of military conflicts with a common denominator: the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

On Iran's side are Russia, Iraq, parts of Yemen, Syria's President Assad and Lebanon's Hizballah. On Saudi Arabia's side are the United States and intermittent commitments from the other part of Yemen, Syrian rebels, some Iraqi Sunnis, Pakistan, Egypt, other Gulf sheikhdoms, and Israel.

The Saudis had been seen to be on the losing side given Assad's continued hold on power, Riyadh's failing campaign in Yemen and Iran's increasing influence throughout the region.

Syria is a microcosm of the complexities of the situation.

Iran and Russia have supported the Syrian regime while the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries have provided support to the anti-Assad Syrian rebels. All sides in the conflict have been accused by one party or the other of supporting terrorism. This includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and even the United States. It is hard to know how much truth lies in each accusation but what's clear is that nobody can claim innocence.

However, much of the Arab world has recently found a convenient scapegoat for its woes. In early June, Saudi Arabia and its three most important regional allies - Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain; all also US allies - severed diplomatic relations with Qatar.

The first "justification" for this step was that Qatar's state news agency had reported Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani expressing praise for both Israel and Iran.

Qatar immediately denounced these reports as "fake news" and accused hackers of breaking into their systems and broadcasting something the emir never said.

Whatever the case, Saudi Arabia saw fit to impose a strict embargo on Qatar and demand a series of concessions, including being more transparent with Qatari funding for rebel groups, closing down media networks including Al Jazeera and The New Arab, and reducing diplomatic ties with Iran.

Meanwhile, Trump's misguided and unequivocal support for the Saudi monarchy against Iran has emboldened Saudi Arabia to take these unprecedented steps

Qatari commercial planes then avoided the Saudi blockade by flying through Iranian and Turkish airspace, a move telling of the shifting balance of power in the region. Turkey and Iran, despite their historical geopolitical differences, also came to Qatar's aid with military exercises, food and geopolitical support.

Qatar finally responded to Saudi Arabia's demands with a blanket rejection, and massively increased its gas production.

The Qatar-Saudi feud did not appear out of thin air. After a number of quarrels over Al Jazeera and a long-running gas dispute, Qatar's commitment to the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been wavering.

More importantly, Qatar's tacit support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which promotes a strand of political Islam that is apparently incompatible with that put forward by the Saudi royal family - and which was a key player during the Arab Spring - irritates Saudi Arabia, because it fears the prospect of a similar revolution in its own country.

Wary of this political divide, Qatar has hedged its bets by building stronger diplomatic ties with Iran, thus worsening trust relations within the GCC.

Meanwhile, Trump's misguided and unequivocal support for the Saudi monarchy against Iran has emboldened Saudi Arabia to take these unprecedented steps.

Washington's incoherent response by different arms of the US government has left all sides at a loss

Qatar's firm response escalated the situation even further, forcing Donald Trump's new administration to respond. Trump wasted no time in expressing his support for the Saudi embargo, despite calling Qatar a "crucial strategic partner" during a speech in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, just a few short weeks before.

The US State Department then followed by saying exactly the opposite: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on all countries involved to use diplomatic channels to resolve the conflict, a gentle nudge telling Saudi Arabia to de-escalate the situation.

Washington's incoherent response by different arms of the US government has left all sides at a loss. And to top it all off, the US decided to sell - or at least pretend to sell - weapons to both the Saudis and Qatar after accusing both of sponsoring terrorism. 

These absurd Trump-fuelled incoherences have made the US and the region worse off, for two main reasons:

Trump has firstly contributed to the escalation of a lingering crisis between two important Middle East allies. The US depends upon the Saudis for cheap oil - and has done so since the 1940s - while it also has an important military base in Qatar.

Barack Obama's relations with Saudi Arabia were famously tense, and he refused to express his full support for Saudi policy in the Middle East. Trump has no such qualms, and as such, Saudi Arabia has been given free rein to bring further disturbing regional conflicts.

Secondly, Saudi Arabia's increased belligerence towards Iran has made Tehran nervous. To exacerbate the situation, senior American officials such as Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have called for regime change in Iran - despite the US pledging not to do so in the 1981 Algiers Accords.

This is not to be taken lightly, as this wouldn’t be the first time that the US has instigated an Iranian regime change.

Trump has already proven to not be up to the task when it comes to managing the Middle East

To further worsen matters, Trump essentially told Iran that it deserved the recent Islamic State group attack in Tehran that killed 12 people. Not only is this morally reprehensible, it was a tacit American approval of the atrocious tactics of the very group that Trump insisted was one of the biggest threats to American national security.

And finally, Trump's newfound stance on Iran directly contradicts his campaign rhetoric: while running for president, he was highly critical of recent US attempts at regime change in the Middle East. Now, Trump encourages his Middle Eastern allies and government dignitaries to push for regime change in Iran and Syria.

Crudely put, none of this makes any sense.

Although there were already contradictions in the alliances in the Middle East - such as the US and Iran fighting the same enemy in Iraq while opposing each other in Syria - Trump has made things much worse. He has pushed tensions to a point that, if left unchecked, will result in a catastrophic situation that will serve no country's interest: the Saudi-Iran Cold War getting hot. 

Trump has already proven to not be up to the task when it comes to managing the Middle East.

Leaving aside hiccups like openly considering a one-state solution for Israel and Palestine - which Binyamin Netanyahu thinks is crazy - his actions and rhetoric have been completely incoherent. He has reacted flailingly to things he should have left alone, and has stayed silent when he could have de-escalated tensions.

The incredibly flimsy and childish policy pursued by the US government, unable even to maintain a coherent position, is likely to cost the US a lot of influence in the region, with all parties involved no longer regarding the US as a trustworthy or stable ally.

Behnam (Ben) Gharagozli received his BA with Highest Distinction in Political Science from UC Berkeley and his JD cum laude from UC Hastings College of the Law. While at UC Hastings, he served as Development Editor of the Hastings International and Comparative Law Review.

Follow him on Twitter: @BenGharagozli

Jon Roozenbeek is a PhD candidate at the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He studies Ukraine's media after 2014. Before coming to Cambridge, he worked as a freelance writer, editor and journalist.

Adrià Salvador Palau Is a PhD candidate in the Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. He has written several journalistic articles about politics and international relations. He is interested in how data science can be used to better understand political dynamics.

Follow him on Twitter: @adriasalvador