What is President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy?
Monday Trump is scheduled to release a new US national security strategy on Monday. This past Tuesday Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster gave a speech laying out some of its components in a speech in Washington.
McMaster’s speech was notable because in it he laid out a host of policies that McMaster himself has reportedly opposed since he was appointed to his position in February.
McMaster for instance has been open in his opposition to linking terrorism with Islam. He has also reportedly insisted on limiting US actions in Syria and Iraq to defeating Islamic State. McMaster reportedly fired his deputy for Middle East policy Derek Harvey last summer due to Harvey’s advocacy of combating Iran’s consolidation of control over Syria through its proxies President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah.
In his speech on Tuesday, McMaster embraced the policies he has reportedly opposed. He discussed at length the threat of what he referred to as “radical Islamist ideology.”
That ideology, which the US had previously interpreted “myopically,” constitutes “a grave threat to all civilized people,” he said.
McMaster regretted US myopia noting, “We didn’t pay enough attention to how it’s being advanced through charities, madrassas and other social organizations.”
McMaster fingered Turkey and Qatar, two ostensible US allies, as the main sponsors and sources of funding for Islamist ideology that targets Western interests.
He noted that in the past Saudi Arabia had served as a major sponsor of radical Islam. But Riyadh has been replaced by Qatar and by Turkey, he said.
Trump’s electoral victory raised hopes of his supporters and some of his advisers that the US would designate the Muslim Brotherhood has a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood has spawned multiple jihadist terrorist groups including al-Qaida and Hamas. President Recep Erdogan’s AK Party is a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Whereas McMaster reportedly opposed those calls, and his opposition played a role in Trump’s avoidance of the designation to date, McMaster took a significant step on Tuesday toward designating the Brotherhood a terrorist group.
While stipulating that not all Muslim Brotherhood groups are alike, McMaster said there is a “big problem when Islamist radical ideology bridges into political Islam.” He criticized the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and singled out Qatar for its support of “the Morsi model.”
He also noted that Turkey’s ruling AK Party operated through civil society to “consolidate power through one party.” He then said that the AKP’s consolidation of power “is a problem contributing to Turkey’s drift from the West.”
McMaster referred to Iran as a “rogue regime and a revisionist regional power.”
He said the US must “counter destabilizing [Iranian] activity, especially in Syria.”
Among other things, he said this includes blocking Iran’s path to nuclear weapons and blocking support for Iran’s proxies.
The problem with McMaster’s speech and the policy paper it set the stage for is that it is hard to know if they reflect an actual change in policy. Certainly his position and general drift haven’t been reflected in US actions in several key countries this week.
The day after McMaster’s speech the US Embassy in Beirut announced delivery of another $120 million in military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces.
As Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has repeatedly stated, the LAF is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps controlled directly by Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy army.
The Hezbollah-controlled LAF is the fifth-largest recipient of US military assistance worldwide.
According to Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, the LAF has received in excess of $1.5 billion in military aid over the past decade.
The newest arms shipment will include six MD 530G light attack helicopters, six Scan Eagle drones, and communications and night vision equipment.
Earlier shipments this year included Hellfire missiles, M1A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, rocket-propelled grenades, carbines and ammunition as well as helicopters, fighter jets, drones, advanced night vision and communications equipment.
Recently, Iran has become brazen in asserting its military control over Lebanon. A YouTube video posted this week portrayed Kais al-Ghazali, an Iranian- controlled Iraqi militia commander, standing 200 meters from Lebanon’s border with Israel. He and his colleagues were all wearing military uniforms.
Ghazali declared, “I am here with my brothers from Hezbollah. We announce that we are fully prepared and ready to stand as one with the Lebanese people with the Palestinian cause.”
If the LAF is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran-Hezbollah, the Lebanese government is Iran’s satrapy.
Through Hezbollah, Iran controls every aspect of governmental activity.
In an attempt to force the West to recognize that basic truth, last month Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh. Hariri’s father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated by Hezbollah in 2005.
In Riyadh, an ashen-faced Hariri announced his resignation, acknowledging that Iran controls both his government (and him) and the LAF.
Hariri’s resignation was a great loss for Iran-Hezbollah and Western countries that do not wish to acknowledge the obvious. And so, represented by French President Emmanuel Macron, the West joined with Iran to demand that Hariri return to Lebanon.
The Saudis obliged. Hariri returned to Beirut and rescinded his resignation.
Hariri was embarrassed by Ghazali’s video. So Iran’s satrap denounced Ghazali and said his “activities of a military nature” 200 meters from Metulla were illegal.
He also insisted that his satrapy “is not a banana republic.”
Ahead of the US Embassy’s announcement of the new tranche of military hardware going to the Hezbollah- controlled LAF, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear that the Trump administration continues to view the LAF and Hariri as positive bulwarks against Iran and Hezbollah. Tillerson met with Hariri in Paris. After their meeting, Tillerson praised the French government for pressuring Saudi Arabia to permit Hariri to return to Lebanon where he could continue to pretend that he isn’t controlled by Iran.
Rather than shake their heads at the irony of Hariri becoming the servant of the forces that murdered his father, the Trump administration embraced the absurd lie of Lebanese independence.
Last Friday, Tillerson met with Hariri in Paris. After their meeting Tillerson praised the French government for pressuring the Saudis to let him return to Beirut to serve as Iran’s fig leaf.
“I think as to Lebanon, things have worked out in a very positive way, perhaps even more positive than before, because there have been very strong statements of affirmation for Lebanon, which will only be helpful,” Tillerson said.
He also expressed criticism of Saudi Arabia. Whereas Trump has backed the Saudis’ war against Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen, their political and economic campaign against Qatar designed to compel Doha to end its support for jihad and its alliance with Iran, and their moves in relation to Hariri, Tillerson criticized those efforts.
“With respect to Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Qatar, how they’re handling the Yemen war that they’re engaged in, the Lebanon situation, we would encourage them to be a bit more measured and a bit more thoughtful in those actions to, I think, fully consider the consequences.”
Tillerson also belittled the importance of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying that the embassy won’t be moved to Jerusalem for years.
In recent weeks, members of Congress have expressed anger at statements by both US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that indicated the administration is not requiring Qatar to stop funding Hamas.
Lawmakers sent separate letters to Haley and Mnuchin requesting clarification of the administration’s position. Whereas the administration informed Congress it continues to view Hamas as a terrorist group and demands Qatar end its support for Hamas, the administration’s diffident approach to Qatar has raised eyebrows.
Since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar in June in retaliation for its sponsorship of terrorism and its alliance with Iran, administration officials have pointed to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar as a reason for US’s hesitant approach. Al Udeid is the air operations center for all US air operations in the Middle East and Central Asia.
US Air Force Gen. Charles Wald transferred US air operations from Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan’s Air Base to Al Udeid in 2001. According to Wald, the US has several readily available options to replace Al Udeid. The Saudis have expressed willingness for the US to move their operation center back to Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon recently budgeted $143m. to expand its air base in Jordan.
It isn’t surprising, and to a degree it is reasonable, that the US is of two minds about its Middle East policy. For decades the US has both opposed and appeased its Middle Eastern enemies, and supported and turned on its allies.
Under Obama, the two-faced policy was driven by Obama’s ideological conviction that the US must align its Middle East policy with Iran and away from its traditional allies led by Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Under other presidents – including Trump – the US’s double-dealing has been more a testament to the US’s inability to tell its friends from its foes.
Over the years, the US has been unable to tell its allies from its enemies because they were fluid.
As McMaster rightly recalled, for years the Saudis behaved like the Qataris. And they also served as the anchor of the US alliance system with the Sunni Arab world.
Even today, as Crown Prince Muhammad and Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Egypt make unprecedented steps to fight both jihadist forces and the ideology of jihad, the US cannot know whether either leader will be alive tomorrow or if they will have a sudden change of heart and leave the US high and dry.
Yet despite the uncertainty about their future, today we have more clarity than we had in the past.
Today it is obvious that Iran, its satellites Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Gaza and its allies Turkey and Qatar are the ascendant enemies of the US and its allies.
The forces willing to confront and fight them – Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE – are also self-evident.
True, Muhammad and Sisi may not be around forever. But the steps they have already taken to move their nations and Sunni Islam more generally away from jihadist ideology and practice are unprecedented.
Their actions to date have earned them Washington’s support.
The significant positions McMaster set out on Tuesday will in all likelihood be reflected in the document Trump will release on Monday. But as the arms transfer to Lebanon, Tillerson’s remarks in Paris, and the administration’s incoherent position on Qatar make clear, even the best national security strategies are not worth the paper they are written on unless they are translated into real policies implemented on the ground.