Professor Michael Klare has penned a long piece arguing that Trump’s 2016 campaign speeches, though not explicitly mentioning the notion, nonetheless somehow lean towards the prospect of a world managed by the three major powers: the US, China and Russia – in some sort of jostling and elbowing way, but one short of war.
Klare notes that:
“the proof that Trump sought such an international system can be found in his 2016 campaign speeches and interviews. While he repeatedly denounced China for its unfair trade practices and complained about Russia’s nuclear-weapons buildup, he never described those countries as mortal enemies. They were rivals or competitors with whose leaders he could communicate; and, when advantageous, cooperate. On the other hand, he denounced NATO as a drain on America's prosperity and its ability to maneuver successfully in the world. Indeed, he saw that alliance as eminently dispensable if its members were unwilling to support his idea of how to promote America’s best interests in a highly competitive world.”
This argument has a certain plausibility, and a number of writers have developed this line into the notion that in 2016 Trump was loosely imagining a grand strategic bargain that would be the foundation for global peace.
Maybe he was – then. But I would suggest such a thesis has not been borne out well by events – since Trump’s Art of the Deal geo-strategy, as we now see, is predicated on US leverage and threat: forcing the capitulation of the counter-party. This tactic does not mesh with hopes for some sort of concert between three esteemed, peer powers. There is just no ‘esteem’ to Trump’s methodology – just a push, by any means possible, to secure US ascendency.
Or, possibly (and perhaps over-generously), Trump’s 2016 thinking simply was ahead of its time, and has need to be modified by the bruising encounter with the nature of US governance. In the latter case then, any genuine G3 partnership is unlikely to emerge before America undergoes some sort of deep catharsis. Since, as one US Senator has remarked, his constituents simply cannot (culturally) begin to entertain the notion of not being ‘first in the world’.
Professor Russell-Mead has echoed this observation, writing that Trump’s ‘8 May metamorphosis’ (the exit from JCPOA), constituted a step-change of direction: one that reflected “[Trump’s] instincts telling him that most Americans are anything but eager for a “post-American” world. Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t want long wars, “but neither are they amenable to a stoic acceptance of national decline”.
It is notable that Russell-Mead firmly links Trump’s qualitative shift very precisely to Trump’s ‘8 May metamorphosis’ – which is to say, to the moment when the US president definitively took the Israeli ‘line’: exiting from the Iranian nuclear accord, deciding to sanction and to lay siege to Iran’s economy, and when he endorsed the (old, never materialized) idea of a Sunni ‘Arab NATO’, led by Riyadh, that would confront Shi’a Iran.
With passing time, it is possible that Trump may reminisce and conclude that Russell-Mead had been right – that this particular decision, indeed, was pivotal in his Presidency; that this decision effectively foreclosed on any grand bargain, struck with Russia or China. And that, at that precise moment, he lost the option because of Netanyahu’s herding of the White House into confrontation with Iran. Of course, the sedition being hatched by the politicized intelligence services of the UK and the US attenuated Trump’s political room for manoeuver, but this was never a factor, per se, for Russia and China not to contemplate a grand bargain with Trump. Iran is, however.
Why? Prof Klare, paradoxically, spells out exactly why there will be no G3 new global order: It is because at the heart of the joint Russian and Chinese strategic partnership was, and continues to be, “a condemnation of global hegemony – the drive by any single nation to dominate world affairs – along with a call for the establishment of a multipolar international order.” It also espouses other key precepts, including unqualified respect for state sovereignty, non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states, and the pursuit of mutual economic advantage. [Emphasis added]
When Trump unreservedly took the Israeli (or, more accurately the Netanyahu) ‘line’, he assumed to himself all ‘the baggage’ that comes with it, too. The 1996 Clean Break document, prepared by a study group led by Richard Perle for Benjamin Netanyahu meshed the Israeli and US neocon camps into one. And they are still umbilically linked. ‘Team Trump’ now is filled neocons who are unreserved Iran-haters. And Sheldon Adelson (a major Trump donor, a patron of Netanyahu, and the instigator for the US embassy move to Jerusalem), consequently has been able to implant his ally, John Bolton (an arch neocon) – as Trump’s chief foreign policy advisor.
The Art of the Deal has effectively been neocon-ised into a tool for enlarging American power, rather than for adjusting the global economic order in any way acceptable to the Russia-China axis – and there is nothing of ‘mutual economic advantage’ to be heard of, or seen, these days.
With the Netanyahu ‘line’, Trump has adopted a policy of regime change for Iran (or, at least the behaviour change on the part of Iran that would amount to its leaders recanting the Iranian Revolution). And – with 'Israel first' – Trump must acquiesce too, to the necklace of US military bases infusing the Gulf (‘containing Iran’), and to arming the hoary old Arab NATO project. And, with Israel first, Trump (unsurprisingly) is finding obstacles to withdrawing US troops from Syria and Afghanistan (where the Iran as ‘malign actor to be contained’ argument hinders Trump’s campaign commitment to withdraw from the Middle East).
Aside from the material fact that Iran is a strategic ally of both China and Russia – occupying the pole position in both China’s BRI, and Russia’s ‘heartland strategy’ – the ‘Israel first’ strategy, runs a horse and carriage through all that, for which these two states stood, and still stand:
The unilateral US exit from an international agreement without cause; disregard for international law; the unilateral insistence to lay siege to the Iranian economy; disrespect for the sovereignty of another state; interference in the domestic affairs of another state (by fostering MEK dissidence inside Iran); the hegemonic bullying of other states (to enforce secondary sanctions on others), and disdain for mutual economic advantage. Trump has crossed every boundary. Why would they trust him? The ‘sea is always the sea’, and, it seems, America is always – well – America. It doesn’t change.
Is it the case that Trump had little choice; that the Iran policy was somehow forced on him? That Iran was the price that he needed to pay to have the neocons inside the WH ‘tent’, rather than outside, in order to somehow inoculate Trump against the John Brennan – Robert Mueller cabal? Or, that he needs the ‘big’ campaign contributions for 2020? And that only unreserved support for Israel can bring it in?
Or, was his alignment with Israel (and the concomitant ‘war’ on Iran), driven by his obsessive desire to ‘undo Obama’ in all ways possible? Or, was it never a strategic choice at all, but merely a visceral emanation: a reflection of ‘this long-held thing’ which Trump has against Iran – and for Israel?
History will be the judge; but here is the rub. The motives are beside the point, what matters is this: In the Middle East, his policies will fail. The Iranian people will never capitulate. Trump has painted himself into a tight corner, thanks to Bibi.
And the ‘deal of the century’ for Israel either will not gain the Arab leaders’ support, that initially seemed possible; or Trump will impose the plan in the face of no Palestinian support and no consent, in which case, it may prove, ultimately, to be Pyrrhic – in a way very damaging to the US.
It is now, a full year later, and still the Deal remains unpublished. The Arab mood is changing: MbZ and MbS have lost their celebrity status; the Palestinian ‘file’ has been yanked from MbS; and the war in Yemen is eating away Saudi Arabia’s regional potentia – the war in Yemen simply is corroding away Saudi’s power to impose anything at all.
Reports – credible reports – suggest that John Bolton “thinks that he has the Iranians right where he wants them. He believes that we [the US] could fight a maritime campaign in the Gulf with next to no losses; and that if necessary [the US] can bomb the Iranian people into unleashing their economic deprivation wrath against the mullahs. Pompeo agrees with him. He is trying to keep the president buttered up, while pursuing his shared goals with Bolton both cleverly and surreptitiously.”
“Iran is not Iraq”, Emile Nakhleh, the former CIA resident Middle East expert, has written – adding laconically: “Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by now should have been briefed about the differences between the two countries”… Iran is a credible military power with regional reach. Its geographic proximity to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other pro-American Gulf Cooperation Council countries make these countries exceedingly vulnerable to Iranian military retaliation in case of an American attack. It’s very difficult for Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, despite the American-provided Patriot anti-missile batteries, to protect their oil and water infrastructure.”
Perhaps Mike Pompeo has been briefed about the Shi’a too, and their history of extraordinary endurance in the face of a millennium of repression. Iran is the ‘mother ship’ for Shi’a everywhere. They constitute possibly 40% of the population of the Middle East (and not the 10%, as generally believed). They are masters at asymmetric warfare.
And if Trump does decide to engage militarily with Iran, then Nakhleh repeats the warning that he gave to US policy-makers before the Iraq war:
“A foreign ‘liberation’ of a country from its regime very quickly morphs into ‘occupation’ – no matter how much a foreign ‘liberator’ tries to sugar coat the ‘moral’ imperatives of its action. When I briefed a very senior [US] policymaker on the eve of the Iraq war about the possible reaction from the Iraqi people to the impending America-led war, he dismissively retorted, “You people [referring to Nakhleh’s agency – the CIA] must understand that we are liberators not occupiers. We are saving the Iraqi people from that tyrant.” I told him that the so-called liberation would be short-lived, and that the Islamic world would not support a US war against Iraq, viewing it as yet another “Christian Crusader” war against a Muslim country.”
Trump’s ‘8 May decision’ and the ‘metamorphosis’ of the President’s zeitgeist which it necessarily entailed, leaves the US President bereft of anything worthwhile now to offer Putin (except ‘best friends’ talk, and a little ‘here and there’ on Syria) – and he has nothing (not even mock-ups of Korean beachfront condos – as Trump tried with Jong Un), that might raise the slightest interest amongst the Iranians.
This will not change – until the US passes through some catharsis, be it financial or political, sufficient to purge this utopian vision of America’s unique mission to redeem the world – in its own image. Until then, we will continue in our global order of disorder – and in grave danger.