09 Jan 2020
What the US must do next to avoid war with Iran
A previous boss of mine used to say ‘Without a plan, any road will get you there’.
Unfortunately, that is what President Trump’s Middle East policy and decision making looks like.
He came to office promising to end America’s wars. Aside from the statement about withdrawing from Syria which had such immediate disastrous results for the US’s Kurdish allies, he has not done so. His changeable and unclear actions and statements have disturbed his allies and partners more than America’s adversaries – with Syria being the most obvious example until now.
His failure to respond to Iran’s attack on Saudi oil production and an Iranian shootdown of a US drone last year undermined confidence in US will to deter aggression and conflict in the Middle East.
Withdrawal from the flawed JCPOA, which was at least slowing Iran’s nuclear program, would have made sense if he had a replacement strategy for dealing with Iran to put in its place. And if he had brought European and other major partners along with it – he didn’t and he still hasn’t.
The bigger backdrop to Trump policy in the Middle East is his unilateral decision making across the globe – whether by denigrating NATO partners and creating doubts about US commitments to European security, or in capricious concessions to Kim Jong-un like unilaterally suspending ROK-US military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.
This all adds up to a US that, under this president, is a less reliable security partner than the US has been under previous administrations, since at least the 1970s. And that’s bad for global and regional security wherever you live – whether in the Middle East, the US or Australia.
Back to the Middle East. Killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, the leader of Islamic State, a dangerous and extreme terrorist organisation that had caused widespread death and damage and was intent on doing more, made sense as part of a continuing international counterterrorist campaign.
Unfortunately, this US achievement may have created the idea that this use of US power was applicable to other problems – like that of Iraq and Iran’s sponsorship and control of non-state groups including Lebanon-based Hezbollah or its Palestinian sibling Hamas. Which brings us to the assassination of the Iranian Republican Guard leader, general Qassem Soleimani, by a US strike on Baghdad airport. That has set off a trail of consequences that are hard to predict and probably even harder to control.
What’s happening now can be grouped into two big buckets. The first is Iranian military strikes retaliating against US and coalition personnel in Iraq and perhaps the broader Middle East. We have already seen multiple Iranian missile attacks on bases in Iraq with US and coalition troops. There will be more. That means we’ll probably see more US strikes against Iranian targets in response. Escalation like this is hard to control.
And the broader reaction in the Middle East to the US killing is to begin to unify a bunch of disparate people and interests – whether in Lebanon, Iraq or elsewhere – against the US and behind their leaders, right at a time when popular protests were moving against Hezbollah leadership in Lebanon and against Iranian-influenced leaders in Iraq. That’s something several regional leaders and US leaders have wanted to see for decades. But Trump has reversed this popular momentum in a way that is empowering US adversaries and damaging partner state interests like Israel and Jordan’s.
If, in retaliation for Iran’s retaliation, President Trump now follows through on his idea that Iranian cultural sites are fair targets for the US military, he might achieve a very elusive outcome for any global leader – unification action across the Middle East around a single objective. Unfortunately, that objective wouldn’t be peace, it would be ejecting the US from the region. This might be spun to be a cunning US end game, but that would be untrue. It’s an Iranian end game. The strategic importance of Middle Eastern energy supplies and the continuing centrality of the Middle East as the source of globally-motivated terrorist groups means the US needs to maintain influence and presence in this vital part of the world. Trump is making that job harder.
What’s needed now is focus beyond demonstration of ‘resolve’ by a single person. Instead, we need that old-fashioned thing – a plan. A plan that says what US interests are in the Middle East and starts to say how they will be advanced. A plan that engages key US partners and allies – including Israel and the European powers, and has at its centre the interests and aspirations of the peoples and states in the Middle East.
Then US allies and partners, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, can engage with the US and each other to work out the best way of containing Iranian aggression and ensuring that our combined actions work towards peace and security in the Middle East.
Without this, other actors, like Iran’s Supreme Leader and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are likely to take opportunistic advantage of the circumstances.
What we’re likely to see, however, is a chaotic swirl of action and counter action that results in death and suffering and which leaves the Middle East for the next US president to deal with looking like that real estate agent’s cliche: a renovator’s dream.
The Indo Pacific, despite the growing strategic contest between the US and Xi’s China, looks attractive right now.