President Trump’s emerging foreign policy is a jumble of mixed messages and bad optics, raising questions about how well he can manage allies, let alone adversaries, writes ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.
By Alastair Crooke
One commentator recently noted that if one wants to work out Donald Trump’s foreign policy, it is not so hard: It’s simply that it is the converse of whatever Barack Obama did. Ok, it’s a quip. But like most good quips, there is a grain of truth to it, too.
President Obama – whether fairly or not – was heartily disliked in Israel and Saudi Arabia. So, we now have Trump proving that he is the true friend of both (sometimes simple motives do, also, at times underlie apparent grand strategy). Obama reached out to Iran; Trump just dumped on Iran. Obama talked multilateral grand strategy, Trump headlined his businessman “deal-making.”
Throwing out “red meat” to the assembled Sunni Emirs and monarchs – of a pilloried Iran held up as the malign fount of all terrorism – was, no doubt, intended to “somehow” balance President Trump’s mild reproof to the Sunni world for its tolerance of extremism. All this was intended to go down well in Israel, too, thus hoeing the ground for Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s ample ambition to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians (though when it came to it, the President had nothing to say in Israel. Indeed its whole import lay with that: what he did not say – and could not say).
So, it seems, this was the visit’s prime intent: to escape Washington, with its bruising headaches for a few days; to showcase the President in the light which he most favors: closing business deals, bringing jobs to the U.S.; and repairing old alliances, damaged by Obama.
At least, the intent was clear. Except it didn’t work. Trump’s visit architect (reportedly Jared Kushner), and the speechwriter for this visit (reportedly Stephen Miller), messed up. The optics were terrible: the Saudi lavish, gilded welcome, may have seemed a welcome antidote to D.C.’s dark, foreboding, political “weather”; but that is not how it will be understood in the Middle East. The President’s credibility will be impaired for a long time to come, as a result of poor advice. The images will come to haunt him.
A Message in Splendor
Did his staff not understand? Did they not grasp the tell-tale that the very splendor of Trump’s reception, the mounting of such a lustrous spectacle, before a summoned, and arrayed Sunni leadership: the high flattery, the acceptance of an honor, the lavishing of gifts, and finally, the acceptance of “a caravan” of money, was contrived intentionally to transmit a clear meaning?
By this means, Saudi Arabia has signaled to the attendant Sunni leaders, Trump’s implicit acknowledgement of King Salman as leader of Arabia and of Islam. To put it bluntly, this is precisely how vassalage, how submission to political leadership, and of concomitant obligation that stems from it, is signaled in the Middle East. It will be understood so, across the globe.
Didn’t Trump’s speechwriter too, understand that when he was instructed to throw into the Presidential speech some “red meat” of Iranian demonization for “balance” that there are “boundaries” – albeit invisible boundaries – beyond which it is unadvisable to trespass? Was Trump not aware of the incongruity (if not to say the blatant inversion) when painting the Shi’a as unqualified “terrorists” from a platform in Saudi Arabia?
It was not at all well-crafted. The so-called balance could have been better handled. Is the author aware, for example, that it is the hundreds of thousands displaced Iraqi Shi’a, who have had their lands and villages seized, their homes razed, and their men butchered by ISIS, are now the backbone of the Iraqi PMU militia – the militia now labeled by Trump, as terrorist? Even in the Israeli press, many commentators found Trump’s characterization of Iran as the ultimate bogeyman over-ripe (though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently, was ecstatic). Ordinary Israelis do have a grasp of the region and its realities.
The Sword Dance
And let us pass over the other poor “optics” to the trip: the embarrassing sword dance; the Trump ladies’ lavish praise for Saudi Arabia’s “advancement” of women; and First Lady Melania and Fight Daughter Ivanka’s wearing of black and “veils” (as is customary) at the Vatican, while pointedly defying custom in the Muslim world. Saudis will have taken note.
So, was there a deeper intent in this wooing of the Gulf leadership? And if so, has it been impaired by its poor conception and implementation? Trump’s ultimate objective has not been helped; rather, the tenor of his visit undoubtedly has complicated it.
Trump’s need – for the rest of the year – is to have an “achievement.” The fall of the ISIS-held cities of Raqa’a and Mosul would allow the President reasonably to claim that he has defeated ISIS. Any stabilizing of Syria and tamping down the conflict, would be a welcome cherry on the cake, as well.
On one hand, Russia is acting in Syria as the high-wire circus walker, carrying – seated, at one end of the balancing pole, Iran – with Turkey being the countervailing ballast, at the other extreme. Both, clearly, are necessary for Russia to maintain balance while walking the wire. Iran carries weight in Damascus, and Turkey is quartermaster to the armed insurgent forces. This represents one unit of the “management of allies” (an old Kissingeresque concept of balancing the region).
America is coordinating with Russia – and unlike the last Administration – is actively endorsing the Russian-led process, insisting that the armed “moderate” rebel movements cooperate, while disabusing them of any thoughts that the U.S. is about to militarily plunge in, decisively, in their favor, to overthrow the Syrian state.
At present, the U.S. is waiting on progress by Russia in implementing the de-escalation zones, and in managing an erratic Turkey, on the one hand, and Iran and its allies, on the other. The US wants Hizbullah and Iran “reined in” in Syria. The demonization of Iran in Trump’s speech in Riyadh and Israel, therefore, may have been intended by Trump (also) to strengthen Russia’s hand in managing, (i.e. “disciplining”) its allies. Russia, Iran and Turkey (threatened with the arming of the Syrian Kurds) are, in the Administration’s view, “on test.”
‘Managing’ the Gulf States
The complement to Russia’s management of its allies, of course, is America’s “management” of its own allies: the Gulf States. This is perhaps what was at the back of President Trump’s mind for the Saudi trip (even as closing “deals” and jobs back home, were at the front of his mind). Trump does not want Saudi to upend his hoped for victories in Raqa’a and Mosul.
That is to say, the full conceptualization is that Russia was to bring, and manage its allies, and America would try to bring the Sunni world too – were the Astana Process to gain some traction.
Is this prospect now finished? Well, as indicated above, the Saudis may have a reading of the meaning of Trump’s Riyadh visit other than that held by the White House.
Trump has uttered some incautious words on Iran, and the Saudis and Israel are likely to hold the U.S. President to their literal implementation – and will expect Trump to honor his obligations, within the meaning and the manner of his reception in Riyadh, and as born witness by virtually the full Sunni world.
Rex Tillerson in Riyadh was much more nuanced: saying that he fully expected to be talking with Iran – when the moment was ripe. Equally, Pentagon officials, at last week’s press briefing, went out of their way to signal, in wake of the al-Tanf incident when again U.S. forces bombed Syrian army soldiers, that the U.S. is not targeting Iranians in Syria – or Syrian forces. They suggested that the attack on Syrian forces was an error by a ground commander, and would not be repeated.
The central question – after Trump’s badly choreographed Saudi trip – is: will the Russians lose confidence in any meaningful U.S. participation in the Astana initiative?
The consequence of this would inevitably impinge on prospects for wider U.S.-Russian détente. Russia cannot afford to let the Astana initiative slip entirely: the defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda is a prime Russian national interest. Russia will likely conclude however, that Washington will have little prospect of “bringing in” Saudi Arabia to help actively with Astana (Israeli commentators in any event, are highly skeptical about the viability of the concept of a regional (Sunni-Israeli) alliance working, given Netanyahu’s political fragility).
Cost of Invective
And, Trump’s Iran invective will likely heighten Sunni objections to any role being given to Iran in the monitoring of the de-escalation zones, and any wider role in Syria. This will complicate matters considerably for Russia, and could ultimately unpick the Astana initiative.
If Trump cannot now “deliver” on the Sunnis, we might expect Moscow to be more assertive. Russia may concede perhaps the “Golan” de-escalation “triangle” to U.S. monitoring, but Russia is supporting Damascus’ forces and allies in restoring Syrian government control of southeast Syria, and the Syrian-Iraqi border. No buffer zone between Iraq and Syria – as the U.S. and Israel hoped – is what this means.
The following statement, perhaps, represents the first fallout from Trump’s anti-Shi’a positioning: Southfront reports that “the Iraqi government has officially confirmed a cooperation with Syria, Iran and Russia to secure the Syrian-Iraqi border. According to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, there is a cooperation between the four countries on this issue. The Iraqi media also [quoted] Iraqi officials [saying] that Iraq and its allies will not allow establishing of any ‘buffer zone’ between the two countries.”
Already, it is the Iraqi PMU militia who are participating actively in the military operation, alongside Hizbullah and the Syrian army, inside Syria, to retake southeast Syria. While at the same time, Iraqi PMU militia are sealing the border, and severing the ISIS’ Euphrates valley supply line, from the Iraqi side. This is important.
When I was in Iraq this month, I witnessed the mobilization and energization of the Iraqi “Shi’a nation.” This not something instigated by Iran — it is an awakening directly related to the spreading war with ISIS in northern Iraq, and portends a shift of the center of political gravity within Iraq.
If Trump’s embrace of the Sunni narrative against Iran and the Shi’a militia works to embolden Saudi Arabia in Syria and Yemen, then his ‘red meat’ comments on Iran and the Shi’a will further energize the ordinary Shi’a Iraqi “nation,” despite its internal divisions.
The deeper question facing Moscow, however, is the significance of the continuing war of innuendo prosecuted by the U.S. “deep state” that is directed at President Trump, even in his absence overseas. There has been no letup in this campaign, but rather a doubling down. It seems its object is to zombify Trump’s Administration, rather than to impeach the President.
There may a financial crisis later this year as the U.S. debt ceiling impacts at the beginning of October. The Federal Reserve is quietly warning investors that asset values may not be secure. All in all then, America is facing heightened uncertainties, and a contentious, possibly even violent, summer and autumn.
Bill Clinton when threatened by impeachment, went to war. A cornered Trump might too, go to war, or he could defy the “deep state,” and make peace. Moscow must – and no doubt will – assess the probabilities carefully. Trump might even do both (launch war against North Korea and seek détente with Moscow).
Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.
I admire your writing
I would be thankful if you send me On my email
You seem to be ignoring the Elephant in the living room: the Belt and Road Initiative is now the Coming World Economic and Strategic Order. This will shape all the games in the Middle East. This is what the Deep State of the British Empire profoundly fears that Trump may join. This may over-ride all the Saudi vs. Shia geopolitical games. Putin, and Lyndon LaRouche understand this, and say it. Why not you?
Trump and Tillerson on Iran – Good Cop (Tillerson) / Bad Cop (Trump). So obvious the approach.
Israelis think they need a lot more land than they possess now, but is it US which is preventing them even from expanding to the river Jordan?
It must be US, i think? But why? Cause US needs Israel to remain tiny!!!!!!?
Donald J. Trump is American. Why did he not wear a MAGA hat when at the wall of the next Trump Temple?
HA HA HA HA !!!! I get your frustration. Him wearing the beanie was subservient looking. Wished he had openly wore a cricifix when at the Vatican.
For all of Mr. Crooke’s lucidity, he’s still an ex-spook with the underlying assumption that it is the Empire’s right and duty to sort out Syria. The other side no longer sees things that way, and for all their flaws they’re forging ahead towards a solution involving the parties who actually have legitimacy there.
Exactly. Great point.
Crooke’s excellent analysis falters on one utterly essential point: Trump is far too ignorant and stupid to comprehend and navigate all the intriguing geopolitical, sectarian and ideological complexities discussed here, and no-one around him can teach him otherwise. Trump simply has no interest in (international, or any) complex politics per se, and certainly has no interest whatsoever in all the reading, listening and learning it would take every single day just to keep up with unfolding developments in the world beyond America’s shores. (To say that those around Trump however do, and that that’s sufficient, is utterly disproved by this administration’s all too obvious incompetence, uncontrolled leaking, infighting, uncompleted staffing, etc). Crooke is attributing rationally discernible intentions and actions to a dumpster fire outfit, which is as oblivious as that crew itself.
Good point. We have a fool for president. He was elected by fools, and represents them perfectly. If anyone imagines this guy has some deep thoughts, they will have to provide that material in their own musings, because Trump is an empty headed idiot.
George Bush was plainly stupid, Trump does not strike me that way at all. The issue is that he is a mobster who does not care about the carnage he creates.
Will – “Trump simply has no interest in (international, or any) complex politics per se…” No, and he didn’t get elected to deal with international politics either (other than to get the U.S. out of war).
If the neocons were gone, if Israel was told to sit down and shut up, if Saudi Arabia was told to pound sand, then Trump wouldn’t need to deal with international politics, would he? Because it’s the U.S. and Israel (along with their little puppet NATO countries) who are causing all the sh*t disturbing in the world.
Trump is interested in domestic policy, helping families, getting them back working, bringing jobs home, securing the borders. This is what matters to the people who elected him. Internationally, Trump wants to cooperate, make fair trade agreements, and do business.
Stay out of other people’s business, provide your country with a strong defense, close up the bases and bring the boys home.
And all of a sudden he fell down on these great thick blubbery rugs
and a piteous sound came from Jonah.
He said, “Lord! Lord! Can you dig me in this here fish?”
And The Lord said, “I got you covered, Jonah.”
And Jonah said, “Man, the Lord’s sure got a crazy sense of humor!”
Say, “Maybe that’s the reason I dig the cat so much! Tells me he got me covered. The cat got me surrounded!”
And The Great Lord said, “Jonah! Reach in your water-tight pocketbook
and take from there some of the cigarettes you got from the great tree. And courage will return to you!”
And Jonah did.
And we see Johan inside this giant whale. Smoking this strange cigarette. Watching the pistons pound, driving and POOM, pushing on the great valve, Oooooowwwhhh ooooooh ‘spanding and eeeeeeeeh ouuuooow expanding.
And finally the Whale say, “Uuuuhhhh, Jonah?”
And Jonah say, [inhaling deeply] “What is it, Fish?”
Whale say, ” ‘What is it, ‘Fish’?”
He said, “That’s what I said: ‘What is it Fish?’ F-I-S-H- Fish!”
Say, “You got a new captain on this here mass mess now, Mr. Fish.”
He say, “I’m on the outside no more. I’m inside now!”
“On the secular level all we can see is one piston, hopefully moving. One little movement, against all that massive complex of information, destroyed over and over with each power stroke.” The Crying of Lot 49
Car Wash operation keeps getting bigger thanks to the press. We’ll manage. Don’t shoot the piano player who is doing his best or beat on the beat reporters, even though they may be the worse for better or worse.
Max – Your stuff belongs on the Daffy Duck Trolley Car. In spite of all odds, people are trying to be serious here.
This writer needs to get past the optics and look at the outcomes of Trumps foreign policy
There is no difference between what Trump is doing and USA policy for the past 30 years and more
He is just very crude about presenting this. He doesn’t dress it up in language about values and democracy it’s all about money
1. NATO – is still an anti Russian alliance that was made clear at the latest meeting. Trump spouted the same old Russia is a threat rhetoric. He may not believe this but he had been neutered by the deep state there will be no detente
2. It is Israel first just as it has always been under Clinton, bush and Obama
3. Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the USA and has been since Roosevelt.
Obama supported their war in Yemen and Trump continues this travesty
4.the war Afghanistan is going to be escalated same policy under bush obama and trump
5. War in Syria is being fought by SAA and Iran Russia and hezbollah
They are not including the USA in their plans. It is clear that there is no trust of the USA who are allied with the funders and supporters of terrorists
6. Astana process is aimed at sorting the wheat from the chaff
It works to isolate the jihadis and those intent on continuing the war backed by outside forces
We are here on Earth to create a culture based on Love. If we fail to do this we will all die. This will be a just judgment on us all. Deeply defective and evil species pollute the Universe, and make it difficult for Loving cultures to evolve. It is our challenge and responsibility to make a world based on Love. To fail in this is to perish as a failed experiment.
The real rulers of our world are very evil people. If we cannot change this, then we deserve to die.
“It’s simply that it is the converse of whatever Barack Obama did.”
Not really. Yes, superficially it looks like Trump and Obama are on opposite sides but when you put rhetoric and photo ops aside, their policies (now that Trump has been neutered by the deep state) are essentially the same. They only differ in the degree to which each would defer to the neocon and deep state dictates.
Yes, Obama was not as confrontational with Iran but he was also much more confrontational with Russia by using the CIA and NED to overthrow the Ukrainian government and close ally of Russia. While there was mutual dislike between Obama and Netanyahoo, Obama was as obedient to the Israeli lobby as Trump is now. The claimed differences between Trump and Obama and between the Democrats and Republicans is all theatrics to continue the fallacy of a two party system.
Crooke usually knows of which he speaks, however, I am more inclined to agree with you on this one. Obama occasionally had episodes of lucidity and independence, but his overall drift was to carry out the confrontational policies of the Deep State no matter how self-destructive. The naive Trump got elected thinking that he’d actually have the authority to call the shots on foreign policy. He’s currently immersed in a re-training program, the results of which will determine whether he is retained in the position or let go by the real bosses. As Bibi probably advised him: “Constitution, constischmution! I’ll let you know how things go down.”
“The claimed differences between Trump and Obama and between the Democrats and Republicans is all theatrics to continue the fallacy of a two party system.” Yep.
I fully agree Chet. It’s only a matter of degrees and forms. I do not see any substantial difference. As for Obama’s alleged “multilateralism”, he treated the UN Charter ( which is the Constitution of the world community) as just a piece of paper, like all American presidents have done, including Trump. Obama’s West Point speech is proof of his contempt for international law, as was the destruction of Libya as a functioning state. Trump is just a magnified version of previous buffoons, such as Bush Jr. or Reagan.
The optics are so much worse under Trump than Obama, but the policies have not changed since the Bush administration. The aristocracy hate it when they a president who is not good at covering up their crimes, which Obama was so good at. A woman would have conflicted everyone with sexism accusations; “If you dont support Hilary’s war for oil and Israel, you are a misogynist!” Under Trump, our dirty laundry is glaring obvious for everyone to see. Anyone is now free to bash Trump as much as they want and it is very difficult to mount a counter spin, but ultimately, he is only doing the bankster/arm’s dealers bidding. They are being exposed and it is the only silver lining in all of this.
In actual fact, Obama prevented the PNAC agenda’s planned war with Syria by signing on to the deal with Putin to get rid of Assad’s chem/bio weapons. And they did actually accomplish that goal, even though it’s being played as if they didn’t.
And there’s no denying that Obama’s willingness to sign on to the deal with Iran has now empowered Russia and China to side with Iran as the agreement is honoured by Iran. This makes the US planned war with Iran difficult because of Russia and China’s will and their MAD deterrent which will be considered by the US before moving on Iran!
As I recall, Obama was ready to attack until the British Parliament put the brakes on the invasion, but I agree that he did react well to the changing winds.
The Iran deal may have been his best moment in foreign policy, but I am not optimistic it will have longevity.
It will have longevity, because whether we stick to it or not, the rest of the World, importantly Russia and China will never go along with sanctions or anything else again. The US is not the World.
Don G. – what I read is that Obama was pulled into the Iran deal. Putin, allied with Iran, quickly rushed in and convinced Iran to scrap its nuclear weapons program. Obama had to go along.
And when Obama started getting all uppity with Syria over the false flag chemical weapons disaster, Putin rushed in again and convinced Assad to turn over his chemical weapons to the U.S., leaving Obama with egg on his face. Obama was furious about this.
Correct me, someone, anyone, if I’m wrong, but that is what I read.
Thank you for the reminder backward. It’s hard to keep track amidst a propaganda barrage…
And Secretary of State Kerry had given an opening when answering a hypothetical question about Assad avoiding military attack. Putin exploited the opening, arranged the chemical weapons destruction, and possibly told Obama he knew what was up in Ghouta and that attacking Damascus could/would have consequences. Obama may also have been thinking of his own political skin being put on the line so he demurred to Congress (as should be the case anyway, the irony of following the Constitution for the wrong reasons). Public polling at the time suggested people hadn’t been sufficiently riled up about Assad to be gung-ho.
Gregory – thanks for filling in the rest of the story.
With a little luck it will be enough to destroy the creep. Or is it better to keep him and let him destroy US relations with the rest of the world completely. On the bright side, it would lessen the possibility of other country’s willingly following the US into their next war. Iran likely, which will cause very significant problems with Russia and China!
The Serfs tax dollars are paying for a Billion Dollar War Palace.
More info at link below:
I believe there are war criminals running loose, and it is NOT being reported in the Corporate Media.
See Article: “The War Gangs and War Criminals of NATO to Meet in Brussels”
The US treats every other country in the world as it’s colony, whether compliant to our rule or defiant. How would you expect that to work out? Exactly. The world is entering a state of dangerous chaos verging on all-out nuclear war, or extinction by a thousand cuts. And the US posture is, “Who me? It’s all their fault. We are the good guys of the world.” Really??
Here is a fascinating press conference held by Vladimir Putin where he explains his attitude toward America’s anti-Russian sentiment:
It is interesting to see that he has a very clear understanding of America’s increasingly self-destructive political reality.
Yes, they’re handling the situation very wisely and carefully and the Russian people are with Putin over 80%! But it’s woth speculating on Putin wishing the turmoil with Trump continues because it’s causing so much disruption on the effort to demonize Russia by both major political parties. The Repubs are obviously all for it but they have to protect their party’s president at least somewhat. While the Democrats are on a roll with using Trump’s foolish campaign promises to destroy him.
Now, everybody should know that Trump never did understand foreign policy and didn’t mean a word he said. Yet the Dems still use it to their advantage. LOL