“There are today essentially four options for Western policy [in the Middle East]: to do nothing; to engage with others in humanitarian relief; to construct a coalition of allies and partners for short-term intervention in Syria; or to construct a coalition of allies and partners for long-term intervention more widely”.
The New Geopolitics of Terror: Demons and Dragons
William Hopkinson and Julian Lindley-French (Routledge, January 2017)
Alphen, Netherlands. 20 May. Another day, another press storm. President Donald J. Trump has just arrived in Saudi Arabia for his first official foreign foray. As he stepped off Air Force One in Riyadh he was hunted by the press pack over his alleged description of sacked FBI Director James Comey as a “nut job”, during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Indeed, one could be forgiven watching CNN or the BBC for thinking this trip is of secondary importance. It is not. The de facto disengagement of President Obama from the Middle East helped create a regional-strategic vacuum that Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Iran and Russia have sought to fill. President Trump’s visit will thus raise expectations that the Administration is about to embark on a new Middle Eastern strategy. What are the strategic options open to the Americans?
Trump certainly wants to convey a sense that the US is re-engaging in the Middle East, and that Saudi Arabia remains a vital US ally. In Riyadh President Trump will pay an official visit to His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as meet the leaders of the Gulf States. At the same time, the President also wants to showcase his America First by closing a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $100bn to the US, and possibly as much as $300bn over ten years. Given the controversial Saudi leadership of an Arab coalition in attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen, such a deal will be politically sensitive to say the least. Critically, both the Americans and the Saudis want to send a message to the Iranians about reinvigorated US leadership in the region to counter Iranian action in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. And, even if nothing is said publicly, President Trump will doubtless seek to buttress the security of Israel by pointing out to the Saudis (to loosely paraphrase Machiavelli) that the sworn enemy of Iran is in some way Riyadh’s ‘friend’.
President Trump will also emphasise his Administration’s focus on counter-terrorism by attending a conference at which leaders from forty Muslim states will discuss how to combat violent extremism. Trump will offer US support for all Muslim leaders willing to engage and destroy Salafist Jihadis. President Trump’s position is not without risk as Saudi Arabia is the spiritual homeland of Modernist Salafism from which Sunni Islamists draw their inspiration.
President Trump will need to properly grasp the complexity of the strategic choices the US faces in the Middle East, the costs it will impose, the policy consistency over time it will demand of Washington, and the set-backs it will undoubtedly face. In my latest book, The New Geopolitics of Terror: Demons and Dragons, which is of course brilliant and very reasonably priced, my friend and colleague William Hopkinson and I chart the recent history of failed contemporary Western strategy in the Middle East, the consequences of that failure, and the stark choices on offer to the US and its allies.
There are roughly four strategic options. First, the US could do next to nothing, which might save American lives in the short-term, but will leave a dangerous and chronically-instable region to fester and open to the interference of other outside actors. Second, the US could focus on the delivering of the kind of conscience-salving humanitarian relief beloved of Europeans, but avoid getting engaged in political strategy. Third, the US could seek to strengthen the Coalition against ISIL so that it is better equipped to attack Islamic State, and maybe better able to influence events in Syria, but avoid a region-wide strategy.
However, if President Trump really does want the Middle East to live at peace with itself and others then the US will need to consider a plan of engagement for the entire Middle East and North Africa. That aim will, in turn, need the Trump administration to realise a fundamental political truism in the Middle East: the state therein exists at the pleasure of Islam, but Islam most certainly does not exist at the pleasure of states. Or, to put it another way, ‘successful’ American strategy in the Middle East will be dependent upon a new accommodation with Islam.
There is also a profound paradox in the US position that Washington will also need to address. States like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have bought off internal Islamist opposition by using oil and gas revenues to fund the expansion of fundamentalist Islam across the world. As America becomes self-sufficient in oil, and as other reserves of hydrocarbons are discovered the income, which has for decades enabled regimes in the Middle East to avoid reform, will decline, and with it what limited stability that today exists.
The Middle East is in need of deep reform and real US strategy will need to reflect that need. Profound reforms are need in governance and government across the region, as well as society-changing investments in education and employment that will take billions of dollars over many years to realise. Yes, much of that investment could come from the region itself. However, the paradox of such change is that it will undoubtedly undermine the very leaders that President Trump will meet this weekend.
Perhaps the real test for President Trump will be to separate his own narrow, domestic political and business interests, from the foreign and security policy of the great country he now leads. The President would do well to heed the words of T.E. Lawrence, who knew a thing or two about Western failure in the region. “The foreigners come out here [Arabia] always to teach, whereas they had much better learn, for, in everything but wits and knowledge, the Arab is generally the better man of the two”.
As President Trump drives into Riyadh he will pass under a huge banner which reads, “Together We Prevail”. I wonder.