The Warsaw Conference and the Isolated Superpower

Mike Pence with Polish President Andrzej Duda at the Warsaw conference (State Department via Flickr)

by Paul R. Pillar

The Trump administration tried to make this week’s Middle East conference in Warsaw what the administration had intended it to be all along: an Iran-bashing exercise that would get Europeans to join in more of the bashing. But the conference instead became what most European governments—whose attendance at the gathering was spotty and often low-level—warned it would be: a demonstration not of U.S.-European unity on policy toward Iran but instead of disunity. That the conference’s final statement makes no mention of Iran has to be a major disappointment for the administration.

In its obsessive campaign of stoking maximum hostility toward Iran, the Trump administration is isolated except for partnering with Iran’s regional rivals, which means Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These regimes have their own reasons for keeping Iran a pariah—reasons that are distinct from U.S. interests and distinct from any fondness for peace and stability in the Middle East. These three states are responsible for much of the uninvited extraterritorial use of military force —apart from Saddam Hussein’s two offensive wars, the U.S. offensive war in Iraq and other interventions, and Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria—as well as more irregular methods of destabilizing other countries in the Middle East over the past 40 years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be considered a winner at Warsaw for using the conference to show that he can rub elbows with Arab leaders. It was after a side meeting with the Omani foreign minister that Netanyahu commented in a Hebrew-language interview about Israel and Arab states sharing a “common interest of war with Iran.” Netanyahu’s office later altered its English translation to suggest that he intended only a metaphorical meaning of “war.” Regardless of the translation issue, Netanyahu’s government has escalated its already intense anti-Iran rhetoric, as it did in recently acknowledging for the first time its repeated airstrikes in Syria.

Netanyahu’s government highly values any overt dealings with Arab governments as demonstrating that it does not need to end the occupation of Palestinian territory to conduct worthwhile business with regional neighbors. The Trump administration is pointing to such dealings in claiming a success at Warsaw. Deflecting international pressure to end the occupation pervades almost all Israeli diplomacy and includes an East European dimension. Offsetting West European opposition to the occupation is the main reason for Netanyahu cozying up to the Hungarian regime of Viktor Orban, notwithstanding Orban’s authoritarianism and habit of blaming George Soros for anything bad in Hungary.

The Warsaw conference leaves the world with the same old stuff regarding the campaign of maximum hostility toward Iran and the Trump administration’s lining up behind a few regional rivals of Iran even when this means lining up against the rest of the world. But despite this relative isolation and the small ball the administration is playing on this issue, it still speaks as if the United States can dictate what the rest of the world should do. This tone pervaded Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the conference, in which his complaints about European governments not being “cooperative” with U.S. sanctions sounded like a schoolmarm scolding pupils for evading discipline. Unstated in the speech is that the United States—not the Europeans and not Iran—is in blatant violation not only of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) but of the unanimously enacted United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which is the international community’s endorsement of the JCPOA. Pence was calling on European governments to violate their own obligations and to show as much contempt for the Security Council as the Trump administration does.

Pence also had harsh words about the recently established “special purpose vehicle,” a kind of barter clearing house that the Europeans hope will enable at least humanitarian goods to be sold to Iran while staying outside the formal banking system and beyond the reach of U.S. sanctions. The new mechanism probably will have for now only marginal effect on commerce with Iran, but it has larger significance for long-term U.S. interests.  It is one more indication of how a world increasingly fed up with how the United States pursues narrow political objectives by exploiting its economic advantages—with the U.S. dollar being the principal reserve currency and New York being at the center of international finance—is looking for ways to overcome or negate those advantages. If the isolated superpower keeps trying to do the sort of things it is doing on Iran, it will see its super powers diminish more rapidly and, in the future, will become less able to impose its will on many issues that have nothing to do with Iran.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Is this more about criticizing the US, or is this all about criticizing the Ayatollahs?

    The way it is written, it comes across as praising Ayatollahs. Is that a good thing?

    How about helping Iranians as opposed to Ayatollahs. The Ayatollahs are benefiting from any derogatory comments against their enemies.

  2. Good report.
    Mention could have been made of the withdrawal of a final communique, which the co-sponsors hoped would be signed by all attending governments (as reported in the Washington Post).
    I would also have liked to see mention of another happening during the Warsaw conference — the expose by Sanger and Broad of the apparently extensive and at least partly successful covert program against Iran’s rocket/missile program. The ‘war with Iran’ that Netanyahu is pushing for is in fact underway; he wants to add ‘boots on the ground’ to what is already going on.

  3. Perhaps a better title for this conference would have been:

    The main reasons for this conference were not publicly mentioned at all! The reasons were:
    1. The US administration kissing up to Nothin-Ya-Who even more than in the past on a deeper scale
    2. Benefiting the USMIC based on more lies to sell more arms to the states on the shores of the Persian Gulf
    In short, it isn’t going to work! Shame on you Pompeo.

  4. A must read, honest and well done editorial by the Strategic Culture site on this failed US circus show in Warsaw. A Shame on this US state department.

    “It should be noted that while the US tried to rally the conference in Warsaw – and so evidently failed – the leaderships of Russia, Turkey and Iran were gathered in Sochi to continue diplomatic efforts at resolving the war in Syria. Nothing could highlight more the irrelevance and moral bankruptcy of Washington. Its conference in Warsaw aimed at increasing tensions with Iran was largely ignored, meanwhile Russia and others were continuing earnest diplomatic efforts to actually bring about a peace settlement in Syria – a country ravaged by eight years of war largely sponsored covertly by Washington.”

  5. They just want to show Sheldon Adelson that they’re doing something for his money, that’s all

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