Speaking last week to a group of Lebanese politicians, former US deputy assistant secretary of defense Mara Karlin said the Middle East and counter-terrorism were no longer the priority of US global security strategy.
Karlin, who worked as the Pentagon’s chief for strategy and force development and is now the director of the Strategic Studies Programme at Johns Hopkins University in the US, said Washington’s current strategy focused on confronting Beijing and Moscow’s increasing power in Asia and Europe.
Karlin’s remarks, carried by Lebanon’s Arabic media, were not a big surprise to the audience, barring that they came a day before Iran’s downing of a US military surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz, an attack that could have led to war with the Islamic Republic.
Many analysts had feared that the Iran-US escalation could have risked setting off a chain of events that could have led to an unintended catastrophe in the Middle East which for decades has remained “the most strategically important area of the world” for US global strategy.
US President Donald Trump said Iran had made a “big mistake” in shooting down an American drone. He was reported to have approved military strikes on a handful of Iranian targets such as radar and missile batteries on Friday.
US bombers were in the air and ships were in position to attack, but the operation was called off by Trump.
It is not exactly clear why Trump countermanded his order, but he said the cancellation of the air strikes on Iran with 10 minutes to go would have been “unproportionate”. He said he had called off the strikes after being told 150 people would die.
Under different circumstances, this late reversal could have been lauded as a wise decision by a man who came to office nearly two years ago vowing to get America out of its wars abroad and not to wage a new war himself.
But while Trump’s abrupt decision to dial down the conflict with Iran could underline his choice of restraint over retaliation, it may also cast light on US Middle East policies under his administration.
Indeed, Trump’s hesitation was most likely connected less with the Iran standoff and more with his style of politics, which is based on instinct and the lasting impact he might have on America and the world.
Putting together Karlin’s theory of new American priorities and Trump’s hotchpotch Middle East policies raises plenty of questions about whether the US is downplaying its 100-year-old security strategy in the Middle East.
To most experts, Trump’s Middle East policy represents a significant change from that of his predecessor Barack Obama. But apart from seeking to bolster Israel, Trump’s strategy has remained to a large extent shrouded in mystery.
From the perspective of the United States’ Arab allies, Trump’s response to the Iran crisis by de-escalation has not only showed the high-stakes game played by the US president but also that US Middle East policies are by no means under control.
The standoff with Iran came as Washington was preparing for two key Middle East events that show the importance the administration attaches to US Arab allies in advancing Trump’s instinct-driven approach to regional problems.
The first was a bizarre meeting between the chiefs of the national security councils of Israel, Russia and the United States in Jerusalem on Monday, allegedly to discuss Middle East “security issues”.
The gathering, billed as a “security summit”, was initiated to discuss primarily the situation in Syria and Iran’s role in the region. Yet, speculation has been running high about a broader deal over areas of influence in the post-Syrian-conflict Middle East.
Details of this “grand bargain” may never be proclaimed officially for obvious reasons, but the fact that the Trump administration is participating actively in this unprecedented process signals Washington’s engagement in developing efforts to reshape the Middle East.
If things go well, the meeting could lay the foundation for tripartite cooperation in the Middle East that would bolster Washington’s position in a multipolar regional system that many expect to emerge.
The Trump administration on Tuesday also unveiled the first plank of its long-awaited plan, or “deal of the century”, to end the seven-decade conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Trump’s son-in-law and one of his top advisers, Jared Kushner, revealed the economic blueprint of the plan at a meeting in Bahrain that Washington said aimed to secure funds for the economic phase of a broader peace proposal to end the conflict.
The administration plans to unveil the latter in November after the Israeli elections in September.
Contrary to the notion of America’s quitting the Middle East, therefore, these two events reflect the engagement of the Trump administration in the region and in particular its wishes to protect enduring US interests and those of its ally Israel.
What Trump’s retreat from attacking Iran indicates is that Washington’s priority in the Middle East remains Israel, though other issues such as oil, terrorism and nuclear threats will also likely keep it engaged.
From the US Arab allies’ perspective, the strategic muddle behind Trump’s indecision on the Iran standoff is in part a consequence of his failure to take a strong stand on Iran in line with their push to confront the Islamic Republic.
Trump’s de-escalation with Iran has exposed the administration’s credibility issues, as the US Arab allies, responsible for shaping the public narrative around Iran, have started to feel a deep frustration about Trump’s real intentions towards Iran.
By softening his tone on the Islamic Republic and showing an unwillingness to go to war with Iran, Trump is raising new worries with his Arab allies amid their continuing concerns about Iran’s regional influence.
Clearly, the US Arab allies, which abhorred former president Obama for what they saw as his appeasement of Iran, have been building their strategy since Trump came to power on the assumption that he would finally rock the boat on the “empire of evil”.
In public remarks, Saudi officials were quick to express their support for the Trump administration announcement that Washington was working on building an international consensus on the recent crisis.
Following the explosions on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman two weeks ago, Saudi Energy Minister Khaled Al-Falih pointed the finger at Iran and called for “a rapid and decisive response to the threat”.
Indeed, commentators in the Saudi and other Gulf media have expressed the hope that the United States will use the showdown with Iran to trigger regime change in Tehran, if necessary by military means.
For US allies in the Gulf, Trump’s failure to act forcefully against Iran cannot be explained by his renowned inconsistency and confusion or his re-election considerations, but rather by his underestimating the threats they feel are coming from Tehran’s exercise of its brand of power politics.
Facing up to this fact and drawing the necessary lessons from Trump’s Iran debacle is the only way for the US Arab allies to ensure that they are not trapped in another Trump-generated fiasco.
Being overly enthusiastic about Trump’s “bomb the hell out of them” discourse has been proven wrong. Now that Trump has travelled so far down the road to war, the US allies in the Gulf should consider other options, including talking to Iran.
Many in Washington have already started saying that it is time to engage Iran and get a deal with its leaders. Even Trump has said Iran could have him as “a best friend” if it does not acquire nuclear weapons.
This is a pivotal moment in the Middle East, when the general trajectory is moving towards more chaos and confusion.
The two events in Bahrain and Jerusalem this week have clearly demonstrated that the Arabs will be paying the price for both peace with Israel and the new deal between Russia, the United States and Israel about areas of influence in post-Syrian-conflict region.
The message that Trump’s indecision on Iran has sent is that there is still an opportunity for the Arab world to drop unorthodox policies that have failed to upend Iran’s aggressive stances and seek innovative ones instead.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The lesson from Trump