Pay attention to what Donald Trump does, not what he tweets, former prime minister John Howard said in an interview last year. Look beyond the “media snow”, he counselled, and examine “the substance of the outcome of all the things he does”. That was good advice 10 months back, but it is even better advice now that we have a solid track record to examine.
But a column by the Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan on this page (“Great disrupter’s Mid-East missteps”, April 27) ignores Howard’s advice. Shanahan caricatures Trump as a leader “who prefers bravado over process”; as such, his major arguments evaporate under scrutiny.
Let’s take them one by one. First, Shanahan depicts Trump’s Middle East policies as disconnected from any strategy. Indeed, Trump’s approach is perfectly consistent with mainstream Republican thinking. Like almost all Republican candidates for president in 2016, Trump argued that Barack Obama empowered Iran at the expense of America’s traditional allies. From the moment he took office, Trump worked to contain Iran and to revitalise relations with Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
You can certainly argue against this approach but you can’t claim it’s incoherent.
Second, Shanahan faults Trump for the “moribund” Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Two years after Jared Kushner took over the portfolio, Shanahan writes, “there is still no sign of the US’s peace plan proposal”. This is misleading. Kushner has scheduled the unveiling for next month, after a new Israeli government will be seated and Ramadan ends. Of course, expectations of success are low. But a little perspective is in order. For the past 20 years, every American peace plan has failed. Attributing the absence of progress to Trump is churlish.
But this focus on peacemaking misses an essential fact: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less important than ever. Shanahan laments Trump’s decisions to cut Palestinian aid, move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan — steps, he argues, that poison the atmosphere. If so, then why have relations between the Gulf Arab states and Israel continuously improved in recent years?
Just listen to Anwar Gargash, the Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. The Arab world’s boycott of Israel was a “very, very wrong decision”, he said in a speech at the end of March, a week after Trump’s Golan announcement. A few days later, Israeli and Emirati pilots flew together in a joint military exercise in Greece.
This growing co-operation between the Gulf and Israel will do more to shape the future of the Middle East than any developments in the Palestinian-Israeli arena.
Third, Shanahan paints Trump’s decision to pull American troops from Syria as an act of whimsy, one that “cost Trump his defence secretary Jim Mattis”. The rift between Mattis and Trump had been brewing for the better part of a year. Mattis baulked at Trump’s intention to improve relations with Turkey by recalibrating American support for Syrian Kurdish forces. It’s too early to proclaim Trump’s Turkish gambit a success but the latest signs are positive. A bilateral working group is reportedly making progress on a “safe zone” that will serve as a buffer between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds.
At stake in this effort is nothing less than the pro-Western orientation of Turkey. Keeping Turkey anchored to the West is one of the most sober aspirations a US president could possibly entertain.
Fourth, Shanahan chastises Trump for abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran and for tying the US too closely to Saudi Arabia. This line of reasoning draws a facile equivalence between Riyadh and Tehran. Whatever their faults, the Saudis support the Western security system. Iran, by contrast, seeks to destroy it with the aid of its self-styled “resistance alliance”, which includes Syria, Hezbollah and a network of Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The organisation that holds this network together is the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, which is expanding its influence throughout the region.
Obama ceased all efforts to counter the Quds Force out of a misguided belief that recognition of an Iranian sphere of influence in Iraq and Syria would transform Tehran into an agent of stability. This miscalculation opened the door to an Iranian and Russian military escalation in Syria, which, in turn, led to the deaths of about a million Syrians and the displacement of more than 10 million more.
Without admitting it, Shanahan advocates a resurrection of Obama’s discredited policies, slyly depicting them as judicious correctives to Trump’s mercurial ways. Ironically, he dubs this a “values-based” approach. If empowering the Syrian-Iranian murder machine is part of a values-based strategy, then give me Trump’s heartless realism.