The clang of the conflict between the figures surrounding US President Donald Trump hides behind it something more important, namely, the increasing cohesion of US foreign policy. At first glance, the Trump administration appears entirely scattered to the tune of the president’s undisciplined tweets and the chasm between the quasi-silent US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, key administration figure and US envoy to the UN, who has earned for herself the reputation of a hawk. But a deeper look reveals the features of emerging cohesive policies.
These policies are focused on: First, on the relationship with Russia, especially on issues where the two countries radically diverge such as Ukraine and Iran, with Syria being the primary arena for the latter’s containment. Second, on shoring up alliances, where it has become clear in the Middle East that the restored traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia is the cornerstone of the policies of the administration, ever convinced that Riyadh is a key partner in any effort to contain Sunni radicalism, and that Tehran is the source of Shia radicalism that helps fuels the Sunni iteration. Third: On considering China a delayed long-term challenge, while acknowledging the benefits of accord with Beijing on issues like North Korea, on which the US remains alert not least because of the personal nature of the confrontation between the two countries’ leaders. Fourth: On considering nations like Turkey to be also among delayed but medium-term priorities. Fifth: On using ‘soft power’ approaches when it comes to rival nations, non-state actors, and individuals who falsely believe they are not on the US radar, through sanctions, probes, and other unexpected measures. Sixth: Preserving the special alliance with Israel, given that Trump’s Evangelical base is staunchly pro-Israel. Seventh: Pressuring European allies especially in the context of agreeing on sanctions as an instrument of soft power, while threatening military options or abolition of agreements such as the nuclear deal with Iran if necessary. Eighth: Upturning strategies pursued by former President Barack Obama, including by letting Iran understand that whatever US-sanctioned contract had allowed Tehran to triumphantly seek hegemony in the region is now expired.
US National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster appears to be the leading shaper of US foreign policy alongside Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and CIA chief Mike Pompeo, who has been mentioned repeatedly as a possible replacement for Tillerson at the State Department. Tillerson has said he would remain in his post, and has suggested he was a sane voice in and a cornerstone of the Trump administration’s upcoming policies. He has to suffer Nikki Haley’s one-upmanship because she is close to the president. However, Tillerson realizes that the demise of Steve Bannon, Trump’s once close confidante, because of Michael Wolff’s expose in his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, will benefit her bearing in mind that there was no love lost between Haley and Bannon. Bannon, who had commanded huge influence over the White House, tried to salvage some of his power, but Trump has been able to contain him through his network of backers and contributors, even forcing him to apologize for not speaking out against the book and for insulting Trump’s son. Family comes first for Donald Trump and Bannon’s sin was unforgivable.
In the beginning, US Defense Secretary James Mattis was a star in the Trump administration, but his standing has declined amid the clash of personalities, the backtracking from pledges, and the reconsideration of certain positions such as those related to Iran. He was among those who saw the worth of Obama’s policies on Iran, but he was met with unexpected resistance to such views. His retreat from some of his previous attitudes was also seen as proof that he was a ‘closeted liberal’, but his own view has been that he was pursuing a sense of pragmatism to ensure the US does not get further involved militarily in any arena.
Nikki Haley brought with her to the UN headquarters a flurry of threats against those fail to stand with America. She said it explicitly: “The US will be taking name and will respond.” She made it clear that her top priority is Israel and the rehabilitation of the Jewish state, not as a UN member state, but as an exceptionally important state because of its ties to the US. She threatened and she delivered on Jerusalem, and she is determined to limit the influence of the international organization, by intimidating the General Secretariat and the member states. Yet Nikki Haley aspires to far more than her current post, and is building on Trump’s base to put herself forward as a presidential candidate later. Some praise her political fierceness, personal ambition, and early preparations, while others believe she is gambling by standing between the maestro and the orchestra, in that she is overexposing herself at Trump’s expense.
The Iranian issue is important for Haley, albeit less so than Israel. The US ambassador has used the UN platform to peddle the policies of her president aggressively without regard for international reactions, including by the allies and friends of the US. She is a ‘bulldozer’ proud of Trump’s America First slogan. She is not bothered by the fact that the secretary of state has divergent views. Haley sees herself as a member of the Trump administration just like Tillerson, and she has skillfully chosen her allies in the administration, focusing on the White Houser rather than the State Department – that is, Donald Trump himself and McMaster.
If Tillerson survives in his post, he will likely have to adapt to and abide by US foreign strategies steered by McMaster and Pompeo, and look beyond his oil and gas expertise. Otherwise, either Pompeo or Haley could replace him, most likely the former.
In region, the headline of the US strategy is the special alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with its Qatari and Iranian dimensions. The administration wants cohesion in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and, unlike Tillerson, believes that the burden is on Qatar in this context. Regarding Iran, the strategic decision is to rein in Iran’s regional ascendancy and expansion in the Arab geography.
Regarding Russia, a new decision by the administration is for the US to stay in Syria, in both its own bases and as part of an international coalition able to head off Russian-Iranian schemes in Syria. This decision stems from the administration’s belief that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is not interested in and not ready for working as a partner with the Trump White House to contain Iran’s expansion and consolidation in Syria. Putin, Washington has concluded, is not honest in his suggestions that the Russian-American bilateral relationship is a priority for him.
For this reason, the Trump administration has decided to head off the Russian march to reap the spoils of its investments in Syria. It has decided to block Moscow’s monopoly of the political process via the Sochi talks that the Russians want to replace the Geneva Process with. It has made it clear to Moscow that it will remain in Syria both militarily and politically, and that Russia’s plans for reconstruction, investments, the political process, and military bases will not go ahead as intended.
Moscow is furious. Tehran is also angry, because the new US policies have hindered its regional projects, and shown solidarity with the Iranian opposition and protests at home. Turkey is concerned because it will be shackled by the new policies of the Trump administration, after having thought it guaranteed its position through the Astana equation and the Russian-Iranian-Turkish triangle. Europe is worried because it is starting to feel the heat from across the Atlantic, and fears that any further policies of appeasement with Iran would not necessarily guarantee its narrow interests. Iraq is tense in an election year and because the current equation leaves it caught between the US rock and the Iranian hard place, with Tehran’s insistence on preserving the Popular Mobilization militias as a living exported embodiment of its Islamic revolutionary model. Syria is no longer reassured about its ability to declare victory soon. Lebanon is still burying its head in the hands, its leaders believing they are above accountability. Only the allies of the Trump administration feel reassured by the development of US strategic policies.