There is a fundamental tenet that President Trump does not understand regarding life in general and politics in particular; actions have consequences. When it comes to foreign policy, the consequences are frequently beyond his control. Trump has no clearly articulated policy in the Middle East. He has no formulated goals and intentions, so he does not accept the fact that after launching an aerial attack on an Iranian militia in Baghdad in which 24 were killed, there is a huge response from the Iraqis. He appears to be indignant that the Iraqis are storming the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. compound trying to burn it down.
The Trump Administration is rightfully concerned about protecting U.S. military and civilian personnel in Iraq and throughout the region. When a U.S. military contractor is killed and other U.S. and Iraqi military personnel are wounded, the American Government should be provoked. The problem is that the U.S. has no clearly enunciated policy regarding Iran or Iraq. President Trump’s response is to launch an attack against the Iranian perpetrators.
This is largely a function of a President who does not think or want to consider how policy is made but rather views decision-making as being strictly reactive. President Trump makes policy based on personal relationships and instincts. In an age where there is an abundance of diplomatic, strategic, and military information available, President Trump relies solely on his own personal judgments.
Most strategists are seriously concerned by Trump’s persistent wallowing about in on-going regional rivalries with no comprehension of their history. There is a detailed background to the political and military interplay and rivalry in the region between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Now, Russia has assumed a new role of both advocate and troublemaker. Trump makes decisions as to what is good for the United States based only on personal political instincts; whatever is the most self-serving for his own perceived agenda and self-aggrandizement.
President Trump’s reported red line means nothing except as a reflection of his own petulance. He refuses to recognize the intimate and thoroughly engaged role that Russia is playing. Russia has helped President Assad maintain power; but President Putin has extracted a very deep and integral role in Syria’s regional behavior.
Similarly, Iran persists in seeking to maintain a regional reach over the northern arc from Iran to Lebanon. In regard to the Saudis, who had been following the U.S.-Israeli interpretation of the Iranian and Russian moves, they have begun to perceive a growing boredom by the Trump Administration with the Saudis; especially as America’s oil dependency continues to decline.
President Trump perceives as one of his major regional accomplishments America’s exiting from the Iranian nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama Administration in the P5+1 Iranian Agreement. For Trump his re-imposing economic sanctions against Iran is a positive development; meanwhile he dismisses the aggressive moves by Iran to upgrade and expand its Iranian nuclear program.
Trump has placated Israel by virtue of his three political–non-policy–driven moves. He applauds his symbolic actions and statements which have no strategic, military, diplomatic, or economic consequences. By moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and legally justifying Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the U.S. has only undermined any possible U.S. leadership role in any future negotiating of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile Israel is justifiably concerned about the Iranian presence on the Golan Heights or the possible threat posed by Iranian action in Lebanon and Syria.
For President Trump there are really no strategic red lines. He is prepared to act without any contextual understanding of the impact of his actions. Attacking Iranian targets in Iraq or in Syria for whatever justification the Administration may offer are insincere and inconsequential. They are not part of a policy or a strategic vision. Trump enjoys being a bully and believes that as leader of the strongest global power no one will confront him directly.
What Trump does not recognize that after three years many global powers have learned how to play Trump on the regional and global stage. The immediate fallout—as appears to now be developing in Iraq–is that Trump’s non-existent policies in the region are coming home to roost. It is not a great beginning for 2020.