Sun Tzu vs. Donald Trump on the Middle East

by James Spencer

“If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles,” wrote Sun Tzu, the fourth century BC Chinese general and military theorist in his seminal Art of War. He would probably be perplexed by the recent American-Arab Summit in Riyadh, less by the pomp and ceremony and more by the glaring dissonance and wilful ignorance between what was said and what is true.

In his Riyadh speech, President Donald Trump started well, stating that “America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts. We will discard those strategies that have not worked—and will apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment.” Yet the campaign plan against Iran seems to be more of the same sanctions and “operations other than war,” rather than trying anything new such as working to bolster a new Green Movement or helping greed and corruption bring down the Islamic Republic.

Trump continued: “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.” This is partly correct (if somewhat exaggerated). However, it fails to identify why this should be, and how the Persians are thus able to gain traction among the Arabs or how terrorists are able to gain traction among citizens. The answer is usually that it is due to the chronic abuse of human rights by ruling elites in the Middle East. Although making the moral case is legitimate, there is a far better reason for encouraging human rights: it has been widely shown that the genuine presence of human rights greatly reduce the opportunity for malign influences. It is not a matter of “defeat terrorism, then push for human rights,” as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opined, but rather of addressing “those human rights issues and women’s rights issues” in order to defeat terrorism and dislocate Iran.

Taking his cue from King Salman’s speech, Trump continued to go awry: “For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” Just after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Iran tried to export its Shi’a Islamist revolution, but it failed in the face of Sunni rejection. This effort soon coalesced into a traditional Persian hegemonic pretension that exploited oppressed groups, some of whom were Shi’a but others like the Sunni Islamist Hamas were not.

Sun Tzu would sagely applaud Trump’s assertion that the counter-terror work “means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.” However, Sun Tzu would raise an eyebrow at The Washington Post report that Saudi Arabia “has helped block a Trump administration proposal to impose sanctions against a Saudi branch of the terrorist group”. Similarly, the fuelling of sectarianism did occur, but actually had another origin. As a reaction to the fall of the Shah of Iran, the Saudis stepped up their existing propagation and funding of sectarianism, which they had begun in reaction to the threat of Nasserite republicanism.

Sun Tzu would doubtless equally approve of Trump’s statement about disrupting enemy logistics when he congratulated “the Gulf Cooperation Council for blocking funders from using their countries as a financial base for terror.” However, General Sun would surely note that, although keen to crack down on Islamist terrorism within their countries, several Gulf States have been major supporters and exporters of Islamist extremists in the Middle East, the subcontinent, Africa and Europe. Although some of this support comes from private individuals (including some Muslims in the West), there is credible evidence of government involvement. Nor is this merely pre-9/11 behaviour: in August 2014, a former Secretary of State, writing privately to a trusted colleague, wrote of “the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

Perhaps the most profound misunderstanding was the president’s comment that “We are adopting a Principled Realism, rooted in common values and shared interests.” It is to be hoped that the elected President of the United States has few values in common with absolute monarchs whose main aim is to keep their clique in power and the people down. Indeed, the Sunni Arab monarchs have more in common with the mullahs of Iran, who similarly wish to maintain the privileged status quo of the regime.

Further, while the regimes on both sides of the Gulf managed to suppress, repress, or placate their populations away from full-scale revolution before and during the Arab Spring, none of the factors that led to these protests—or the similar Green Movement—has disappeared. Nor, indeed, have they anywhere else in the Middle East. Rather, the youth bulge continues to expand, as do youth expectation of freedoms and human rights. The United States and the world at large have an interest in making sure that these tensions are released steadily and not explosively. The best way to do so is by “promoting the aspirations and dreams of all citizens who seek a better life” as the president so truly said. Yet even if all the limited aspirations of Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s “revolutionaryVision 2030 come to pass, they are likely to fall short of the modest dreams of all citizens. President Trump would do well to heed his own words and push all the states of the Middle East to evolve—or risk further revolution.

The full quotation from Sun Tzu runs:

If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.

It’s not looking good.

James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.

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