Donald Trump’s iconoclastic presidency has many critics, both at home and across the world, yet there are signs that his approach is beginning to pay dividends in the Middle East. His often bullish and forthright way of doing things seems to offer a way through the political niceties that so often obstruct progress and change in the region.
The two agents of Trump’s strategy in the Middle East are Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. These key lieutenants embody a frank, clear and pragmatic approach to the conflicts and tensions in Syria and Iraq, and the question of how to tackle Iran’s aggression.
Pompeo and Bolton are both articulating the new Trump doctrine of ‘America First’ and his unapologetic aim to promote America’s self-interest. Initially, many commentators saw this as the beginning of a new era of US isolationism. However, this has not proved to be the case. ‘America First,’ has been shown to be a candid policy of promoting US power across the world in ways that serve American interests, even if the policy cuts across old alliances.
A signal manifestation of this new approach has been the attitude of Pompeo to Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is seen as a major strategic ally of US interests and so the crisis of the Khashoggi case will not be allowed to affect cooperation between the countries. After his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Pompeo was asked about the state of US Saudi relations; ‘No change’ he replied.
Pompeo has been similarly forthright about US strategy towards Iran. He says that US policy is to curtail Iran’s ‘wave of regional destruction and global campaign of terror.’ Next month in Poland, to the outrage of Iran, Pompeo will again call for an international alliance to act against Iranian aggression. He has also vowed to ‘expel every last Iranian boot’ from Syria.
To much Turkish chagrin John Bolton stated that US withdrawal from Syria would be conditional on protecting its Kurdish allies. When the Turkish government complained Trump put a shot across their bows by announcing that he could wreak ‘economic devastation’ on Turkey. In his recent unannounced visit to Iraq Pompeo urged Prime Minister Mahdi to turn to US energy providers and away from reliance on Iran.
Everywhere Pompeo is articulating the new, bold US strategy. This is an avowed intention to contain Iran and denude the Shia state of its ability to project power. Sanctions are, at the moment, the main ‘soft’ aspect of US intentions. There are signs that both general and targeted sanctions are eating right into the ability of the Iranian state to function. Yet sanctions need to be backed up with hard power.
This is where the hawkish Bolton comes in to the picture. As long ago as 2016 Bolton wrote ‘Congress must act to change Iranian behaviour and, ultimately the Iranian regime.’ In the same year he wrote an editorial in the New York Times stating that ‘to stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.’ Accordingly, various news sites reported that Bolton asked the Pentagon for strike options against Iran. The Pentagon, as a matter of strategy, runs wargames against perceived foes, but Bolton’s request sends a bold message that sanctions may be the preferred tool, for now, but the US is ultimately prepared to use its overwhelming firepower to curb Iran’s missile and nuclear programmes, and its military opportunism.
In many ways the Trump administration is unlike any other presidency. Detractors point to its coarseness and wrecking quality. Yet, in Bolton and Pompeo the world can see that a plainspoken US strategy for the Middle East is emerging. And this strategy has the Mullah Regime firmly in its sights.