Donald Trump’s newly announced national security strategy has prompted a Russian scramble to defend Russian interests, with the Kremlin announcing the White House’s endorsement of a “peace through strength” principle a confrontational bid that undermines hopes for a breakthrough in US-Russian relations. It has also triggered an Iranian escalation, with the first response coming in Yemen where the Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile into inhabited areas south of the Saudi capital Riyadh. The Trump administration also inflamed a third front omitted by the national security strategy, when the US president detonated a bombshell by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating and embarrassing Arab and Muslim friends and allies of the United States.
The US envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, took the crisis to the next level by deploying vetoing a Security Council draft resolution rejecting Washington’s Jerusalem move and calling for its withdrawal. The resolution was backed by all other 14 Security Council members, prompting Haley to vow that her country would remember this “insult”. When Arab and Muslim nations put forward a similar resolution at the General Assembly, Haley threatened that Washington was “taking names” and watching which countries would vote which way. In an unprecedented move in the history of the UN, the US President threatened to cut off aid from countries voting in favor of the resolution, saying: “Let them vote against us…We’ll save a lot. We don’t care. But this isn’t like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars”. Donald Trump’s statements meant to coerce American aid recipients to accept his dictates are humiliating. Furthermore, they have no value vis-a-vis the US’ strategic partners that do not need US aid, such as Saudi Arabia, whose king Salman bin Abdulaziz was meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the day of the vote to show Riyadh’s support for Palestinian rights. Indeed, how does the Trump administration intend to “punish” the Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian votes in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution, in light of the important strategic relations between these countries and Washington?
There are a lot of signs of immature policies in the conduct of the Trump administration at the UN, where every member state is fully entitled to vote in any way it suits it. This is a shaming, dictating, bullying, and coercing strategy that does not serve US long-term interests, not to mention that it violates the most basic principles of democracy and respect for different views. Worst of all, this strategy upends international legitimacy and the norms governing international relations, regardless of whether or not the scrutiny of a sovereign decision by way of a Security Council resolution was a political mistake or an affront against the US.
When Egypt, the only current Arab member of the Security Council, put forward a draft resolution calling on the US to withdraw its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the US embassy there, it wanted to reaffirm previous UN Security Council resolutions that demand no change in the status of Jerusalem except through negotiations between the two parties.
Trump’s measures that sought to completely alter this facet of US foreign policy therefore appear arbitrary, even in the context of US grand strategy and national security. The reason, according to one observer close to the Trump administration, is that Trump is picking and choosing from the demands of three rival camps in his administration fighting to shape his final decisions, and as a result, the implementation of many of these decisions is effectively on hold.
According to the same source, the first camp considers China to be the foremost long-term challenge for US interests, followed by Iran and Turkey in the near term. The proponents of this view want the administration to bolster Russia, even if this requires compromises such as on accepting Bashar al-Assad’s survival in power in Syria. For this camp, China’s challenge includes the North Korean challenge, yet both are of a long-term nature. Meanwhile, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Hezbollah are seen as challenges of a near-term nature. The mantra of this camp, dominated by alt-right voices such as Steve Bannon, is the necessity of eliminating radical Islamic terror, in both its Sunni and Shia iterations.
The second camp, led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser H. R. McMaster, accepts the first camp’s view regarding the need for a strategic alliance with Gulf countries against Islamic radicalism, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, through firm policies and reforms. This camp wants to preserve the cohesion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but insists that Qatar’s policies deviate from the Gulf line and threaten Gulf unity. This camp considers Iran a major problem in Iraq and Syria, while Lebanon for them has already fallen “militarily and politically,” as the source put it. Regarding Russia, this camp does not trust Putin and does not believe he would abandon Iran, and calls for further pressure on Russia, Iran, and Assad.
The third camp in the Trump administration favors the status quo. It sees in former President Barack Obama’s approach to Iran an example to be emulated, and therefore, does not see Iran as a threat. This camp is led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who sometimes gets support from Defense Secretary James Mattis, for example with regard to their view that North Korea’s threat to US interests should be prioritized. Tillerson does not see the value of a strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Which camp will prevail? The answer is with Donald Trump. On 21 January, it will be a year since he took office, and this date could be the time the fate of Tillerson in his post would be decided. Until then, Trump will continue to appease all camps, and the world will be stuck between embarrassment and vigilance for his next move.