The two men in the Trump administration in charge of setting America’s global priorities have been crisscrossing the Middle East this week, dividing up an already deeply divided region, trying desperately to separate fact from fiction and establish some sense of just where their nation’s priorities are going, how the United States might get there, and whose help they might need along the way.
Sadly, if Washington ever had a weltanschauung – a grand, consistent world view – it all began to fall apart before even the first of the two envoys tapped to deliver these messages had arrived.
There were challenges from the moment US ational Security Adviser John Bolton landed in Jerusalem on Sunday, especially as he headed onward to Ankara, while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began his eight-nation tour on Tuesday. After Bolton’s stop in Israel, he was suddenly uninvited to meet with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan – apparently a result of Bolton’s demand that Turkey not attack pro-US Kurdish fighters in Syria.
The central question is how a vast and consistent regional policy can even be attempted when multiple, at times quite disparate, voices are telling their interlocutors simply what they want to hear in the wake of their president spreading vastly different ideas.
Each audience has sharply different priorities, with US President Donald Trump appearing fully prepared to pander to each of them, leaving virtually everyone, quite dangerously, utterly bewildered – if at times sure to be privately delighted.
It’s worth taking a look at just where the Trump administration stands, the kinds of messages being conveyed at each of these stops, and how they might be received.
Bolton’s opening stop was in Israel, where he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exactly what the Israeli leader wanted to hear – Trump really won’t be engaging in the quick and immediate withdrawal of all US troops from Syria that he’d pledged last month.
The White House has no intention of giving up the war on Islamic State, nor abandoning valiant Kurdish forces, America’s long-standing allies, to Turkish troops poised to swoop in and annihilate these enemies of the Turkish regime. Netanyahu could only be delighted.
Israel’s nightmare is a unified Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, fortified by Turkey, eager to turn their collective attention on his Jewish state.
None of this was very well-received in Ankara, Bolton’s next stop. Indeed, not long after he’d touched down, Erdogan canceled his meeting with the American envoy, branding Bolton’s comments about preconditions for a US withdrawal “a serious mistake.” Erdogan was particularly irate over Bolton’s comment that US forces would not be leaving without some assurances of protection for the Kurds, whom Erdogan has branded as terrorists and threatened to snuff out.
In a telephone conversation with Trump last month, Erdogan had asked why the US president just didn’t withdraw American troops entirely and let Turkey finish the job in Syria where, he added, Islamic State had been eradicated. Turkey’s rock-ribbed position is almost utterly antithetical to anything the Israelis might want to hear.
Just as Bolton was being rebuffed in Ankara, Pompeo was touching down in Amman – another country anxious to see American troops remain in Syria for the long haul. Any rollback of Trump’s message of a precipitous withdrawal from Syria will be well-received if believed by Jordan’s astute leader, King Abdullah II, for whom Islamic State, the Syrian civil war and especially the 666,000 Syrian refugees who have poured across his border pose an existential threat to his country.
The United States has done little to help resolve this problem, though it has welcomed Jordanian participationin the Syrian conflict. Pompeo’s first message to the Jordanian foreign minister was one he is expected to echo across the region: Washington is committed to isolating and restraining Iranian expansion.
The next stop in Pompeo’s odyssey is critical to cement this coalition. Pompeo has chosen Cairo as the symbolic venue for a speech intended to repudiate the message in former US President Barack Obama’s landmark address to the Muslim world from the Egyptian capital when he first took office.
Obama pledged engagement with Iran and an understanding of the need for freedom and democracy that led to the Arab Spring revolutions. Pompeo intends to assert the Trump message that Iran is to be countered at all costs, while assuring that the United States remains deeply committed to the region despite the America First rhetoric emanating from the White House.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf
Pompeo’s last stops are in some respects the most complex and sensitive. His easy mission will be to persuade these nations that the Trump administration remains committed to neutralizing Iran. But in Saudi Arabia, he faces the thorny problem of dealing with global outrage against Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, accused of conspiring to murder a political enemy, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
In Qatar, Pompeo is likely to find a somewhat skeptical reception from a regime that has been under relentless attack from Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf allies for its willingness to defend Iran. Still, the United States desperately needs massive military bases it maintains in Qatar, the largest in the region with 10,000 US servicemen, and in Saudi allies Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait, also on Pompeo’s itinerary.
If these joint missions were designed for damage control, they appear, at least at their debut, to be only minimally reassuring. When Obama went to Cairo to deliver his pledge in 2009, he came with the full faith and confidence of his office behind him. His real failure was not following through in any clear fashion. For Trump and his minions to achieve more, they must provide some clarity of purpose, especially consistency at the outset. And there seems to be precious little of that to go around.