JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 22, 2017
Donald Trump’s first rounds on the international putting green have not been a great success.
His firing of 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield after telling the Russians – and therefore the Syrians – what was about to happen had the flavour of a farcical diversionary tactic. Too much attention for comfort was being paid at home to the part Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his people played in Trump’s election campaign, and to Trump’s business links to Russia in general.
Trump said it was his outrage at the use of toxic gas against civilians by the Damascus government of President Bashar al-Assad that pushed him into attacking the airfield. But there is no basic difference between Assad’s occasional use of chemical weapons and his far more common use of barrel bombs – oil drums packed with shrapnel and explosives – against rebel civilians. Both are crimes against humanity, and it would be foolish to debate whether a child is better off being killed by poison gas or shrapnel.
That little episode reinforced the already solidifying judgement on Trump. He is a man without vision or strategic purpose for the United States. He lashes out in response to immediate events. His only interest is being the centre of attention and to ensure that he will say whatever outlandish thing comes into his head, whether or not it is true or makes sense.
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That verdict was strengthened a few days later as North Korea test fired long range missiles as the country prepared to mark the 105th anniversary of the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung. In an obvious response, the Trump regime dropped a 9,800 kg (9.6 tons) Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb – better known as MOAB or “Mother Of All Bombs” – on what was claimed to be an Islamic State group (ISG) hideout in tunnels in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Afghan authorities who inspected the site later say over 90 ISG fighters were killed.
The dropping of the MOAB came as Trump warned North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he would not be allowed to develop a serviceable nuclear weapon and a missile capable of launching it at the U.S.
But if Trump and the Pentagon wanted to suggest that the MOAB is the sort of weapon Washington has that can knock out Kim’s nuclear program, they were wrong. MOAB is not a high penetration bomb that could make its way into the underground and mountain caverns where Kim has his bombs and missiles hidden. Short of using nuclear weapons and turning North Korea into a parking lot, there is no simple military sanction, which is why Kim feels emboldened to carry on developing his nuclear weapons system. MOAB is an anti-personnel bomb pure and simple. It explodes well above ground level and kills people below either by incinerating them, or by suffocating them because the massive explosion sucks all the oxygen out of the air over a considerable area.
And again, Trump’s bluster became farce when it turned out that what he called a “very powerful” aircraft carrier battle group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, was not heading for North Korean waters as a warning to Kim as he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed. Instead it was weaving its way through the Indonesian archipelago en route to Australia.
Thus Trump and Tillerson’s bumptious bluster that in dealing with Pyongyang “the era of strategic patience is over” flopped like a deflated balloon. Instead of striking out on a new, manly and robust policy towards North Korea, Trump is adopting exactly the same “strategic patience” approach taken by Barrack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. That policy is based on the hope that at some point the Chinese regime in Beijing will get uncomfortable enough with Kim’s nuclear program to rein him in.
Trump is going to have to up his game if he wants to be taken seriously on the world stage and regarded as anything more than a gormless and dangerously unpredictable Vaudeville act.
His opportunity is looming as Iran, its nuclear development program and its involvement in Middle East conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, bubble to the top of the Trump agenda.
During the election campaign, Trump called “disastrous” the 2015 deal by which Tehran limited its nuclear development to electricity generation in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. He went on to pledge to “rip up” the deal, for which he blamed Obama.
But the 2015 deal was not a U.S.-Iran bilateral agreement. It was an agreement Washington reached with Tehran in partnership with China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany (representing the European Union). All six countries negotiated with Tehran on behalf of the United Nations, which approved the deal.
So Trump can pull the U.S. out of the agreement if he wants. However, that won’t change the fact that Iran and the international community have a pact by which Tehran agrees to have its nuclear program limited and monitored in return for being allowed back into the community of nations.
Farce again slipped into the Trump regime’s international affairs discourse this week when, on Tuesday April 18, Tillerson and his department published a regular update on the Iran deal and “certified” that Tehran was keeping to its part of the bargain. It quickly occurred to Tillerson that that was not what he was meant to say. On Wednesday he strode out with an approved bellicose statement that the deal “only delays (Tehran’s) goal of becoming a nuclear state,” and does not address Iran’s “alarming ongoing provocations” in the Middle East.
Yet, with elections coming in Iran on May 19 and persistent reporting that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ailing fast, it is going to take far more dexterity that the Trump administration appears to possess to manage a functional Iran policy.
Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elected office for their religious and general moral worthiness, has picked six men from over 1,200 people who applied to run for president in next month’s election. At the moment, the favourite is incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who is reputed to be a moderate, but in the context of Iran’s theocracy that is a relative term.
And assuming for the moment that Rouhani is re-elected, that will have only marginal affect on the issues around Iran’s involvement in the wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Iran’s President and his administration run foreign policy only in name. The real power in Iran’s foreign policy is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei through his control over the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and especially the Quds Force, the foreign expeditionary arm of the IRGC. The Quds Force is led by Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who is devoutly loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei and who has been described as the most powerful single figure in the Middle East today.
At this moment, Soleimani is conducting three wars. He is overseeing his proxy Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon as they work with Russia to confront Syrian rebels and keep Assad in power. In Yemen he is backing Shia Houthi rebels, who now control most of the country and are battling a coalition led by Tehran’s arch rival, Saudi Arabia. And in Iraq, where Soleimani has great influence because of his affinity with the majority Shia Muslim sect, he is aiding in the battle against the ISG terrorists, who still control large areas of north-western Iraq and across into eastern Syria.
U.S. forces are also operating against the ISG in this part of Iraq. Some kind of arrangements have been made to ensure that U.S. forces and Soleimani’s Quds Force keep a safe distance from one another. It may be the same kind of soldier-to-soldier arrangement the U.S. forces have with the Russian military in Syria.
Washington has understood for a long time Soleimani’s importance as a political influence, and consummate military commander and strategist. After the September 2001 al Qaida attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. officials made contact with Soleimani and tried to make some sort of pact with him as a Shia leader against Osama bin Laden and his followers, who belonged to the Sunni sect. There are credible reports that Soleimani gave some assistance to the U.S. forces in identifying al Qaida targets in Afghanistan. But any chance of the relationship developing further came to a screaming halt in January 2002 when President Bush said in a speech that Iran was part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea.
If Trump and Tillerson really want to confront Tehran they are going to have to work out a strategy for pushing back against Soleimani, the Quds Force and the Revolutionary Guards Corps.
As Trump has already made clear, he doesn’t do strategy. It smacks of long-term planning and vision, and that’s not his shtick. Even so, there are some suggestions floating around Washington about how to attempt to rein in Tehran’s operations in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. One element is to declare the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, and subject them to sanctions, which could blunt their activities. Coupled with that could be using the U.S. Navy to board ships taking arms and equipment to Iran’s client fighters, and impound the cargoes.
That would almost inevitably lead to conflict. The Iranians have shown themselves very adept at countering the U.S. Navy and they would quickly devise tactics that would embarrass and enrage Trump.
Another option for Washington is to copy Tehran’s tactic of using proxies to do the fighting. This would mean giving more military assistance to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States both for the war in Yemen and to support rebels in Syria. This seems to be the favourite tack at the moment. Defense Secretary James Mattis was in the Riyadh this week and promised Washington will not desert the Saudi Arabian government and its allies. Mattis told Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who is also the Defence Minister, he and Trump recognize the importance of co-operating and boosting Saudi security in order to “reinforce Saudi Arabia’s resistance to Iran’s mischief.”
A hundred days into Trump’s presidency, what is emerging is that he is getting pulled day-by-day into the swamp of Middle Eastern politics and wars, something as a candidate he vowed to avoid and which he said was none of Washington’s business.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017
Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: This article was changed April 22 to correct a typo in the date of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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