Trump’s Foreign Policy: A Quest for Legitimacy?
Sanctions on Iran, America’s relations with the Middle-East, and increasing militarization
Trump’s foreign policy so far is an attempt to increase his legitimacy and is a continuation of foreign policies, mostly failed, of the Bush and the early Obama administration.
Regarding Iran’s most recent ballistic missile test, John McCain said, “If you look at the world and you look at the Iranians and you look at what they’ve done, there has to be a response.”
President Trump's decision Friday to quickly slap new sanctions on Iran after it conducted a ballistic missile test…thehill.com
Yes, let’s look at the world (the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq; Israel’s expansionism in Palestine; Egypt’s massacre of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood protestors after Sisi came to power and its increasing military spending; Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen, killing thousands of civilians in hopes of re-installing a justifiably ousted leader, and its increasing military spending; and finally the US support for at best questionable (the claimed use of civilian shields and chemical weapons) insurgents in Syria). When we look at the world Iran appears quieter than most and more sensible. It helped Iraqis resist — unsuccessfully — an illegal invasion of their country — to the great anger of Secretaries of State, Powell, Rice, and Clinton. Also, it is currently assisting Iraq in fighting IS and according to reports has met with some success.
True, it is also assisting Assad in Syria — but that particular situation is tangled by foreign interference.
[Today, 2/7/17 — five days after posting this piece — it is reported that Amnesty International has claimed there have been 5-13,000 opposition members hanged in Syria. This claim, supported by a number of witnesses, modifies my argument. This probable fact permanently deligitimizes Syria’s approach in the conflict and almost certainly Assad himself; however, Iran and Russia should not be considered accomplices in this protracted process, but it should by rights weaken their relationship to Assad. The full extent of his regime’s abuses are yet to be known. And it is likely that after the war his regime’s excesses will meet with some level of prosecution. Also, anyone supporting the Assad regime in light of these reports, which go well beyond propaganda, should be held accountable. The entire affair has been a horrific sequence of mistakes: Clinton’s and Obama’s material and tactical support of insurgents, Assad’s excessive response, and Iran’s and Russia’s involvement. As a matter of opinion, I believe that Syria’s response would not have been so extreme if Clinton had not — quite cynically — involved the US on behalf of Israel. However, that does not in any way excuse Assad’s crimes.]
Civilian casualties today are an unfortunate fact of war — there seem to be no exceptions to this fact. Let’s not forget that Lancet reported in 2006 that Iraq had sustained hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties on foot of US involvement:
“31% (186,318) of those were attributed to the US-led Coalition, 24% (144,246) to others, and 46% (276,472) unknown. The causes of violent deaths were gunshot (56% or 336,575.”
In other words, the US is not shy when it comes to civilian casualties — and torture. In fact, it does seem to have set something of a standard in these areas. Global thinking seems to be: If the US can do it, so can we.
The stakes in Syria for the US and Israel appeared high as this leaked 2011 H. Clinton email shows:
The best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad. Negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program will not solve Israel’s security dilemma. Nor will they stop Iran from improving the crucial part of any nuclear weapons program — the capability to enrich uranium. At best, the talks between the world’s major powers and Iran that began in Istanbul this April and will continue in Baghdad in May will enable Israel to postpone by a few months a decision whether to launch an attack on Iran that could provoke a major Mideast war. Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war may seem unconnected, but they are [connected]. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked Iranian nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. What Israeli military leaders really worry about — but cannot talk about — is losing their nuclear monopoly [they cannot talk about it because they’re not supposed to have nuclear weapons].
So the US here is promoting a war against Syria (through the back door of the “rebels”) in order to stop Iran from continuing its nuclear program — which on the face of it was never designed for military purposes anyway; thereby, preventing WW III in the form of an Israeli attack on Iran — because Israel wants a regional nuclear monopoly. That’s almost completely non-sensical. I’ll say it again: That’s almost completely non-sensical.
The above email text reduced to a very simple outline is this: A superpower is trying to prevent the bully of the region (Israel) from starting a major war, by starting another war in an unrelated country. Then what? Would that side-war cause Iran to end nuclear research? Why would it? **
And this is, by way of Clinton, Israel’s strategic reasoning:
The result [Iran gaining nuclear weapons] would be a precarious nuclear balance in which Israel could not respond to provocations with conventional military strikes on Syria and Lebanon, as it can today.
[I have to hit pause here to address the last sentence. This is a concocted fallacy — invented to justify the removal of Assad. No nuclear arsenal possessed by Iran would constrain Israel from attacking Syria or Hezbollah. What is the war-game model here? Israel’s retaliation on Syria must invariably lead to Iran’s launching nuclear weapons? Not a realistic scenario at all.]
If Iran were to reach the threshold of a nuclear weapons state, Tehran would find it much easier to call on its allies in Syria and Hezbollah to strike Israel, knowing that its nuclear weapons would serve as a deterrent to Israel responding against Iran itself.
So it seems we promoted war in Syria to allow Israel to continue to respond to “provocations.” But the reasoning above is poor. It argues that Israel would have no conventional military options once Iran developed nuclear weapons. The reasoning is contradicted by history — especially that long episode known as the Cold War. (No one embarks on nuclear annihilation just because their proxy is a subject of reprisal.) I also point out the tactical skirmishing between India and Pakistan (nuclear powers) over disputed territory. Quite simply, the fact of a nuclear armed Iran is no deterrent to Israel retaliating against Syria. There is no military logic to that. And if Tehran called on its allies as Clinton puts it Israel would — thanks to an extremely robust military — crush them mercilessly. No one with any knowledge of the comparative forces here would think otherwise. Further, there is a fantasy element here that views Iran as some regional puppet master who can simply command an attack on Israel and be obeyed. Highly unlikely then and now. Take away the highly dubious premise that a nuclear-armed Iran would call on Syria to attack Israel and that Syria et al. would suicidally follow through, then none of Clinton’s strategy makes sense. But even if Iran did call for an attack, Israel would demolish Syria and Hezbollah, and might pursue a conventional war against Iran. Or it might not. Either way, Clinton’s strategy seems to have been to promote a war in Syria to defend Israel from Iran. US involvement in Syria was for the benefit of Israel.
Also, assuming that Israel would be afraid to engage in conventional warfare with Iran involves a principle that should apply to Syria. Why would Syria attack a nuclear armed state if the axiom here is that states don’t attack nuclear armed states. It’s contradictory reasoning. (The symmetry of the situation is being violated by Clinton’s reasoning.) Unfortunately, military and nuclear strategy was not one of Ms. Clinton’s strengths. (I’m not claiming it’s my strength — but the reasoning above is even to a marginally intelligent layman astonishingly flawed.)
It’s quite clear that the possession of nuclear weapons does not deter conventional military attacks — even unconventional ones as in the case of 9/11. Conventional military attacks are generally met with conventional military attacks , even among nuclear-armed states (on the principle of mutually-assured-destruction)— unless of course highly irrational actors are involved.
Further, all of the above assumes that Iran did in fact want nuclear weapons. However, no indication of that intention has yet to surface.
All that seems like the past now, but Clinton’s specious reasoning is still at the base of sanctions on Iran and the war in Syria.
Iran is being sanctioned to maintain Israel’s nuclear monopoly. War in Syria (with its masses of refugees) was promoted by the US to maintain Israel’s nuclear monopoly. [As an aside, in light of the above, one reason state secrets are so secret is because they are often so stupid — stupid in their own right but also in terms of their horrendous consequences (Syria’s six year war).]
And it is this legacy that Trump has inherited and hopes to use to bolster his credentials. I don’t think he understands it, but he will exploit it (and anything else) if it means a political advantage.
Why sanction Iran?
New sanctions on Iran only send a message to Israel that the US is willing to harm Iran in order to allow Israel’s military dominance in the region. This almost certainly is a green light for Israel to accelerate its divestment of the Palestinian people of their property. And that result will only increase Jihadism and unconventional reprisals — against Israel and the supporters of Israel. Exactly what the next 9/11 will be is anyone’s guess, but Trump’s policies so far indicate that we have moved some distance toward that eventuality.
Iran’s recent missile test is simply a sign that it too has capabilities. In a sense, it is free speech in the idiom of militarism, an idiom the US is cultivating in that region at a great loss for the American taxpayer and for great gain within the US military-industrial complex.
More immediately, the missile test is a direct response to being included in Trump’s immigration ban. Regardless of the general absurdity of the ban, including Iran was an openly hostile act since Iranians have never been involved in the types of attacks the ban was meant to address. There have been no para-military attacks on civilians involving Iranians.
Trump, Flynn, and various Congress members have called Iran’s missile test a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231: “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”
But under these terms, the new sanctions are not legal because we don’t know what type of ballistic missile was fired. Was it designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons? I have looked for some specificity about Iran’s missile test, but there is none. On the surface, it is unclear why a country without nuclear capability would design a nuclear-capable missile. Many ballistic missiles are general purpose; the payload can be for example 1000 kg of explosives or chemical or biological weapons. Not very nice, but that is the fact of the matter.
Clearly, Flynn in particular has decided for Iran that this recent missile has been designed to deliver nuclear weapons.
This dishonesty augurs only bad things. Once again, the US appears willing to lie its way into another conflict. Lying on this level combined with the sanctions is equivalent to a declaration of war. And this new footing, it is my guess, Trump hopes to use to prop up his presidency.
This dishonesty further has the effect of increasing tensions in the region in that it displays the US penchant for unfairness in dealing with Middle-Eastern states. Israel has at least twice in the last decade committed acts of war against Syria without censure from the US. In 2007 it destroyed a suspected nuclear reactor (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Orchard) and this year it attacked a Syrian airport (http://www.timesofisrael.com/syria-calls-on-un-to-punish-israel-over-airport-attack/). These were not tests. They were acts of war under any definition. And yet no outcry from the US.
And Saudi Arabia has launched thousands of airstrikes of one sort or another into Yemen — the difference here being that these ballistics have actually killed people. Again, not tests, and no outcry from the US.
The Middle-East is a more dangerous place today and mostly because it has become over-militarized through US military aid (Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, and now Syria (the “insurgents”) and increased weapons purchases (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, among others). ***
McCain’s comments and Trump’s new sanctions, Flynn’s tough talk on Iran, and Bannon’s on China seem destined to militarize our planet even more — to the great benefit of US “defense” industry contractors. Global arms sales rose 10% in 2015.
It has for some years been noted that America has lost some of its super-power status — but only in relative terms. Russia’s and China’s presence and willingness to exert or display force implicitly question US superpower status. In other words, America’s sense of a global military prerogative has been contested.
Despite Obama’s back alley entry into Syria, the US had for the last eight years allowed more latitude among other world powers. There was always pressure from the hawks, but Obama showed restraint — with Russia, China, and in connection with the hard work of the agreement with Iran, the latter excoriated by a Republican Congress. Obama seemed committed to do as little militarily as possible (apart from the sporadic regional engagement with Al Qaida, the Taliban, and then IS). But those years of relative moderation seem to be ending.
It seems Trump, McCain, Flynn, and Bannon have a vision of America as a revamped superpower whose jurisdiction permits no other nation to exert its military without first checking with Washington. Saudi Arabia’s aggression in Yemen, for example, is approved aggression; and Israel is free to do as it pleases (expropriation of Palestinian land and resources, flagrant acts of war in Syria) with only occasional warnings that are mollified by a counter-intuitive increase in military aid ($30 B over the next ten years, most of which I believe must be by law committed to American defense contractors — a subsidy in effect for the US military-industrial complex). In short, a new doctrine seems to be taking shape. But it only seems new now. It is in the mould of Reagan’s massive increase in military investment and Bush 2’s post-9/11 search and destroy administration.
More Iran sanctions signify an increase in US authority over Middle-East affairs. Yet this claim to authority seems likely to promote conflict. The sanctions appear unfair — i.e., they contradict the U.N. resolution; therefore, any claim to authority here sounds arbitrary.
Trump, Instability, and Legitimacy
With the threats against China, and now the sanctions on Iran, Trump has created enormous instability where there was once manageable and sustainable instability. The world was not stable. It never has been. But Trump’s agenda has in one month increased instability more than at any time since the Bush invasion of Iraq. This is dangerous for the world, and it is dangerous for America.
But there may be a political method in this madness — as the saying goes, every fool has his reason. By increasing the military stakes, Trump may be exploiting the war-footing advantage that every president has. It worked for Bush in 2008. The military gambits now evolving also create an enormous distraction for Congress. Conflict — which seems to be the general agenda — gives Congress something else to talk about as the nation’s business other than health care, Trump’s legitimacy, economic policy, and deregulation. It presents numerous rather large red herrings in our political waters and at the same time muddies them. It is possible that through the distraction of conflict Trump believes he can survive and actually gain legitimacy. To open old wounds and generate conflict may be for Trump the formula to create cohesion and loyalty in Congress.
After all, in a time of war, I ask cynically, wouldn’t it be unpatriotic to question the legitimacy of the president?
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- **Couldn’t the Obama administration and Congress simply have cut off all military funding for Israel as a means of constraint? No. Congress would have vetoed that order by creating a new law contradicting it because of the powerful Israel lobby and because the majority of Congress shares Clinton’s view that an Israeli nuclear monopoly keeps the region stable. And wouldn’t Hezbollah stop its sporadic and generally ineffectual rocket attacks on Israel if Israel treated Palestinians better and removed itself from its annexed buffer zone along Lebanon’s border? Possibly, but to indulge in some necessary circular reasoning, the US has done nothing material to inhibit Israel’s illegal behavior, and so Israel is not incentivized to change. The Israel-can-do-no-wrong stance in DC has the same symbolic significance as the Washington Monument.
- *** In this piece I discuss in more detail the war economy of the Middle-East in relation to a different topic: https://medium.com/i-m-h-o/us-military-aid-and-the-modus-vivendi-c6837e76dc16#.mwo8kiw