Lighting a match at the gas pump


Lighting a match at the gas pump


Sunday, January 12, 2020

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Donald Trump's clumsy and incoherent foreign policy has left much of the world in bewilderment. He has shaken the foundations on which international relations — political and economic — have been built since World War II. He has disparaged critical international agencies, threatening to withdraw US support or participation. He has even questioned the usefulness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and has already pulled the US out of the Paris Accord on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership that sought to further integrate the global market.

Trump's cheerleaders, immune as they are to embarrassment, seek to explain away his bull-in-a-china-shop behaviour by saying this is how he is, always was and always will be, and that the American voters elected him knowing full well what they were buying. The US economy is doing well, they argue, and that is all that matters. They are oblivious to the damage that is being done to America's image and global leadership.

US global leadership

That global leadership is not built solely on US economic and military might. It rests as much on the strategic alliances that it has forged with other centres of economic and military power. Trump has severely weakened those alliances. The insults he has hurled at important foreign leaders and allies are palpable. He described other NATO members as “deadbeats and free riders”, Justin Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak”, Emmanuel Macron as “suffering from very low approval rating”, Theresa May as having “wrecked Brexit” and said of Angela Merkel, “The people of Germany are turning against her leadership.”

Trump's reckless approach to foreign policy has led to a loss of faith in America's intentions and lack of trust in its commitments. The abandonment of the Kurds in northern Syria, who bore the brunt of the fight against ISIS and lost over 10,000 lives in doing so, leaving them defenceless against Turkish bombardment, sent a clear message to potential partners in conflict everywhere else: no matter what sacrifices you make in serving America's interests, you can be discarded in the twinkling of an eye.

The real trouble is that it will take a long time much longer than the time Trump will reside in the White House to repair the damage he has wrought. It often takes much longer to restore trust that has been betrayed or respect that has been lost than it took to build them in the first place. And the problem does not lie only with Trump. Traditional allies will not have failed to notice the complicity of other key political actors in the US who might have been expected to exert some restraining influence on his idiosyncracies.

Fear of Trump by Republican leadership

With the passing of John McCain, there is no significant Republican politician with the patriotism and cojones to confront Trump on any policy issue. Were he alive today, McCain would hardly be able to recognise the Lindsey Graham he had mentored and from whom much was expected. Only four years ago, Graham described Trump as “a race-baiting, xenophobic bigot”, said “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed... and we will deserve it.” He also declared that “Donald Trump is going to places where very few people have gone, and I'm not going with him.”

The way to make America great again, he mockingly asserted, was to “tell Donald Trump to go to hell”. Today, he is Trump's chief sycophant with an extremely high outrage threshold so high that it was hardly triggered by Trump's demeaning remarks about his mentor. The fact that after 25 years of service in Congress Lindsey Graham needs to cozy up to Trump to ensure his own re-election says a great deal about the quality of that service or the state of American politics or both!

US Middle East policy

Trump's recent action in ordering the drone-strike killing of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani may well be his most immediately consequential foreign policy blunder. In fairness to him, the messy state of US foreign policy toward the Middle East is not of his creation. The biggest ever intelligence blunder that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to destroy weapons of mass destruction that did not exist is part of George W Bush's legacy. That blunder resulted in the deaths of over 160,000 Iraqis and more than 4,000 American soldiers and has cost the US Government more than US$1 trillion.

Saddam Hussein was captured, sentenced to death for crimes against humanity and executed. It is arguable that, wicked tyrant though he was, jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS would not have been allowed to flourish were he still around.

It is arguable, as well, that with the US having installed a fragile Government in Iraq, the premature withdrawal of US forces created the vacuum in which ISIS was spawned. Trump has disingenuously blamed Barrack Obama for that decision without acknowledging that the agreement for complete withdrawal of US combat forces by the end of 2011 was signed under President Bush in November 2008 before Obama took office. If Obama is to be criticised, it can only be for not reviewing and renegotiating that agreement.

Iran nuclear agreement

Trump has made the Middle East situation much worse than how he found it. His repudiation of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated during Obama's tenure was a big mistake. Although it wasn't watertight, it required Iran to cease developing nuclear weapons and subjected it to unscheduled inspections by experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the first 60 such inspections carried out, the inspectors reported that Iran was complying with the provisions of the agreement.

The major weakness in the agreement was the possibility that Iran could continue its nuclear programme at undeclared locations and a report from the agency last November suggested that this was being done. But this was more than two years after the US withdrew from the agreement and reimposed sanctions against Iran, virtually eliminating the incentives for Iran's compliance.

Although the agreement is technically still in place, since it involves the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council as well as the European Union, the US withdrawal has robbed it of much of its force. In effect, Iran is again on the loose in terms of its nuclear programme. Its withdrawal has also deprived the US of the direct channels of communication with Iran that might have been available to avert escalation of the conflict following the killing of Soleimani.

Where does Trump go next?

Israel, notwithstanding its opposition to the nuclear deal, is mindful of the implications of an unfettered Iran, and Benjamin Netanyahu is not shy in military aggression if he detects the slightest threat to the security of Israel. What will Trump now do if armed conflict erupts between Iran and Israel?

Trump's belief that tightening sanctions will bring Iran to its knees or to his negotiating table is misplaced. The lessons of Cuba over more than 60 years of crippling US sanctions have been lost on him. The Soleimani episode has dramatically changed the political calculus in Iran. The popular protests against the Government that intensified throughout last year have given way to solidarity and anger directed at the US, not unlike the situation that existed after the Islamic revolution in 1979 when the Shah was deposed.

Iraq also finds itself in a quagmire, concerned about both Iranian infiltration and US presence which, together, constitute a molotov cocktail waiting to be ignited. The Soleimani strike near Baghdad airport without prior consultation or even notification has incensed vast numbers of Iraqis who feel that they are mere pawns in America's chess game. The Iraq Parliament voted overwhelmingly last Sunday for the withdrawal of the remaining US troops even though they, themselves, must be worried about their future without American support. The “American way” has lost credibility.

Traditional US allies look on askance. They are no longer allowed any significant role in determining how the Middle East situation should be dealt with. They were not even consulted prior to the Soleimani strike, as normal protocol demands. The importance of their support and active involvement in this and similar situations in securing international endorsement, if not consensus, is something that Trump does not understand.

International law

It is one thing to celebrate the killing of bin Laden and al-Baghdadi. It is a different thing to assassinate the military leader of a sovereign country. That is tantamount to a declaration of war, and actions taken in such circumstances are subject to the Law of Armed Conflict and the provisions of the Geneva Convention.

Actions such as the killing of Soleimani are permissible under international law, only on the grounds of self-defence against an imminent attack where the need to respond is “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”. The Trump Administration has failed to provide evidence of such a justification. Two Republican senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee said as much following a closed-door briefing by the secretary of state and secretary of defence last Wednesday, with Lee describing it as the worst briefing on a military issue he had witnessed in his nine years as a senator.

Soleimani, from all accounts, directed operations in several countries that resulted in the deaths of large numbers of people, including US citizens and servicemen. US officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations, however, had concluded that Soleimani may be more dangerous dead and martyred than alive and plotting against Americans.

General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the Joint Special Operations in the Middle East, disclosed last year that in 2007 his forces had an opportunity to eliminate Soleimani as he travelled in a convoy from Iran to northern Iraq. He contemplated a deadly strike but decided not to proceed because of the consequences that were likely to follow. Those consequences are even more likely now than they were then, and they will not necessarily unfold in the next few days or weeks while the US is on high alert. It is Trump's successor not he who will have to put the wild stallion back in the barn. How many lives of soldiers and civilians, including women and children, will be lost before that is done?

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