Trump: Review Before You Leap

by Robert E. Hunter

At the start of the Kennedy administration, the new secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, called for a root-and-branch review of just about everything the Pentagon was doing. It became known as the “76 trombones.” It was mostly about “how” but also a bit about “what.” McNamara, who had previously headed Ford Motor Company, brought in a group of talented people to do the work, the so-called Whiz Kids.

Fast forward to 1977. Jimmy Carter ordered a root-and-branch review of all aspects of US foreign policy, where staff reporting to National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski did the key analytical and policy work. The review was mandated by documents called “Program Review Memoranda (PRMs),” which called forth inputs from throughout the national security bureaucracy. The results included some “how,” but mostly “what” and even “why.” I had responsibility for coordinating PRM-9, on Europe. It led to presidential decisions on NATO, the European Communities, and a raft of bilateral issues, including some that began the process of bringing the Cold War to an end a decade later.

Nothing like that has happened so far in the Trump administration. It needs to. That is especially true because the Kennedy and Carter efforts took place within the context of a strategic environment—the Cold War and superpower duopoly—that was relatively fixed. Now, so much is in flux that a root-and-branch review is needed now more than at any other time since the days just after Pearl Harbor, the start of the Cold War, and the early days after it ended.

Instead, the new administration is largely pursuing the “what and why” and to a considerable degree the “how” of foreign policy as linear extensions of its predecessor’s approaches, policies, and actions.

Middle East as Test Case

The Trump administration has already decided to pursue the Obama administration’s strategy toward the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), though with some ramping up of direct US military engagement. Ditto regarding the Syrian Civil War. It has decided to push Israeli-Palestinian peacekeeping to one side, though appointing Jared Kushner to lead in seeking a resolution. Israel has recognized this continuity by declaring yet another settlement bloc on the West Bank. The Pentagon is expanding the US military role in Yemen, and the White House has asked Congress for permission to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to Bahrain.

At the same time, President Trump has apparently and wisely backed off from his pledge to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which has foreclosed its military nuclear option for the foreseeable future. But Iran remains for Washington the evil of all evils, a perspective that dovetails with those of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and most of the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf. It is striking that seven former senior Obama officials have pleaded with Congress not to impose new sanctions on Iran, lest that lead to an unraveling of the JCPOA, Obama’s signal foreign policy achievement. But presumably to show that they are not “soft on Iran,” these same former officials repeat the “dealing with the devil” theme in hyperbolic terms. As with Russia in Europe, Iran has been ratified as the “other” that must be opposed, whatever the facts of threat might be.

Adoption of these Obama administration policies toward the Middle East puts the cart before the horse. What the new administration should be doing, before rushing to implement policies that will lock the United States into various courses of action that may or may not make long-term sense, is first to take a (symbolic) step backwards and take a deep breath. It must then engage people who do not have a vested interest in protecting the policies and decisions of the previous administration or the felt need just to implement the half-baked proposals of the 2016 presidential campaign. This review team should start by asking: “What is in America’s interests?

The most important US interest is to understand that the Middle East is not the be-all and end-all of what is important to the United States in the world. Two things now are truly uppermost. The first is the future of China. The second is doing something about climate change, something real, a task complicated by Trump administration officials who argue that there ain’t no such thing. Dealing with climate change, of course, is the sine qua non for everything else—repeat: everything—if there is even to be a “US foreign policy” by some time later in this century.

This understanding of geopolitics and geo-environment—as well as the structure of global society, which depends on functioning economies, a viable global financial system, and continued efforts to spread commitment to the rule of law—quickly puts the Middle East into better perspective. (The same is true of Russia, but that is for another article).

Elements of a New Approach

What the US really needs in the Middle East is:

  • A reduction of terrorism, especially that which can be projected outward in serious terms (not just media hyperventilation)
  • No more nuclear powers
  • No new wars and ending, if possible, current ones that could spread beyond borders
  • The free flow of hydrocarbons—not that they are threatened by anyone, and all the potential threats could come from countries that also depend on the “free flow of hydrocarbons”
  • Forestalling anyone’s hegemony over the region (other than our own, which is no longer possible
  • Support for Israel’s survival and security (but not its geopolitical ambitions that go beyond that requirement)
  • And beginning to deal with competition for regional resources between the West and rising nations, notably China.

Instrumental to getting right these basic American interests, the new administration needs to repatriate analysis and decision-making to the United States, away from the pleadings and influence of regional partners. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Sunni Arab states have their interests and ambitions. So do Turkey, Israel, Iran, Egypt, and others. The interests of these countries are not identical with ours and in some cases are antithetical.

With the US-led invasion in 2003, the US blew apart the structure of power in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was genuinely evil. What has emerged in his place may not be “evil,” but it is certainly dysfunctional and has produced enough “evil” of its own. In US ignorance and arrogance, we ended Sunni minority rule over the majority Shiites (and Kurds) in Iraq, and ever since then the Sunni states have been trying, with our help, to put that genie back in the bottle across the region.

This most fundamental dynamic in today’s Middle East turmoil has led the United States to support Saudi aggression in Yemen—which reflects decades’-old ambitions—and to support the Sunni minority’s continued repression of the Shia majority in Bahrain. It also includes active military efforts to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria in order to put Sunnis in charge, where they have a legitimate claim no longer to be dominated by the minority Alawites (a branch of Shiism).

To top it all, the United States has accepted the Israeli, Turkish, Sunni, and broader Arab view that practically anything that Iran does must be resisted at all costs. That has included a massive exaggeration of Iran’s military power, present and future, and the arming of regional Sunni states many times beyond what they could possibly ever need for their security (though it is good for the balance of payments of foreign arms-producing countries, notably the US and Britain). In the process, Washington repeats that Iran is the “world’s leading exporter of terrorism” so often that credulous people begin to believe it. Yet that title properly belongs to Saudi efforts to promote Wahhabism all over the region and its inspiration for the Islamic State. Yet because of oil and Israel’s temporary relationship with Saudi Arabia against Iran, the United States refuses to call Saudi Arabia to account, even though Americans die in battle as a result and Europeans dies in Wahhabi-inspired terrorist attacks, just as nineteen of the twenty 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.

Yes, Iran supports Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. But Hezbollah has had an existence outside of Iran’s support going back to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to try destroying Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization. Yes, Iran poses a threat to the region, as its neighbors define that threat. But it is not military but rather economic and cultural, given that Iran is the most modernizing country in the region with the exception of Israel and Turkey. That is terrifying for the Arab monarchies (save Westernizing Jordan). Their own domestic rule, oppressive as most of it is, could not stand up against the infection of a Westernized economic and cultural way of life along with a more equitable distribution of economic benefits and political power. This helps explain why those who most fear this challenge from Iran want to keep the Iranian clerics in power by forestalling the building of Iranian-Western relations that could hasten the end of the clerics’ rule.

None of this analysis leads automatically to recommendations for different US policies toward the Middle East. But it does counsel a first step on the way forward: to put “America first,” to think through what really matters to the United States in the region, and only then to decide on ways to achieve “what matters.” The current autopilot governing US policy, especially in the military realm and notably in Yemen, is not the way to go about it. After many years of failure—save for the JCPOA—a fundamental review is de rigueur and failure to conduct it would be folly.

Otherwise, the United States will find itself some years from now still mired in conflict. The potential collision course with Iran, if not open warfare, that the Trump administration is considering would not be in anyone’s interest, not even some of the region’s actors who (wrongly) believe that they would be able to pick up the pieces and themselves emerge more powerful as a result. And if the United States does remain mired in conflict in the Middle East, it will be less able to deal with other, more consequential matters in the world, notably China.

The process required is obvious. Whether US leadership will recognize that and do something about it is another matter.

Photo of Donald Trump courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.