What a long, strange trip it has been. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, flew from the US to Jordan to Iraq to Egypt to the United Arab Emirates to Qatar to Saudi Arabia and finally to Oman.
It was intended to clarify the US position in the Middle East following President Trump’s surprise on December 19, when he tweeted a video announcing that he was pulling US forces out of Syria “now,” and to lay out the administration’s vision for the region.
But anyone hoping to hear the usual themes previous US leaders harped on about – the need to promote democracy and reform and human rights and resolving once and for all the Arab-Israeli conflict, must have been disappointed. Equally disappointed were those hoping that the US would press Saudi Arabia for clarity on who gave the order to murder and dismember The Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.
Secretary Pompeo said he raised the Khashoggi murder when he met Monday with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Riyadh.
“I think the Trump administration has made it clear that our expectation in all those involved in the murder of Khashoggi will be held accountable,” he told reporters after the meeting. “So we spent time talking about human rights issues, the Khashoggi case in particular.”
How much time they talked about that isn’t clear. Equally unclear is whether Pompeo raised the assessment of the Central Intelligence Agency that the Crown Prince ordered the murder of the Washington Post columnist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, despite the Saudi government’s denials that the Crown Prince was involved.
In any event, that wasn’t the point of the trip. In addition to reassuring US allies over Syria, Pompeo made clear at The American University in Cairo in an address optimistically entitled “A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East,” that the US has two main priorities in the region: finishing the job of defeating ISIS, and stepping up the effort to contain what Washington sees as Iran’s growing influence in the region.
And it’s the second of these two priorities that clearly ranks highest.
The two most senior foreign policy officials in the Trump administration – Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton – have long been hardliners on Iran. And remain so.
In 2016 Pompeo, then a congressman, wrote on Fox News’ website: “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” Bolton, also an Iran regime change advocate, wrote an editorial in The New York Times entitled “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that after pro-Iranian militias fired mortar shells on the diplomatic compound in Baghdad last September, and a similar incident several days later close to the US consulate in Basra, Bolton asked the Pentagon to provide options for a military strike on Iran.
Pompeo and Bolton insist that now, as members of the Trump administration, their job is to implement the policies of the President of the United States. For now, the policy toward Iran, as Pompeo laid it out in Cairo, is to use economic and political pressure “until Iran starts behaving like a normal country.”
Friend and foe alike might be excused if they are occasionally confused by the policy pursued by this administration. Earlier this month at a cabinet meeting President Trump declared Iranian leaders “can do what they want” in Syria after a US withdrawal. That went contrary to Bolton’s determination that US troops in Syria should remain “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.” The president clearly didn’t buy that.
But he has consistently resisted pressure to hold the young Saudi Crown Prince for Khashoggi’s murder. And one reason is that Washington hopes that Saudi Arabia will be a key member of the anti-Iran coalition the Trump administration is trying to cobble together. Thus, it can’t afford to alienate Riyadh. That, in addition to President Trump’s oft-repeated and oft-inflated figures on the value of Saudi arms purchases from the US.
As key as they might hope Saudi Arabia will be in this coalition-in-the-making, its track record as a military power is spotty at best. Despite its high-tech arsenal supplied by the United States, Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s richest countries – has become bogged down in a bloody, likely unwinnable war in Yemen – one of the world’s poorest countries.
Iran, meanwhile, has been able to ensure its allies in the region are not to be trifled with. In addition to the Houthis in Yemen, Iran has helped Hezbollah in Lebanon become what is perhaps the most formidable non-state military force in the region.
Hezbollah fighters are highly disciplined, well-trained, and ideologically committed. Throughout the 1990s Hezbollah waged a grinding, low-intensity guerrilla war against Israeli forces occupying a strip of territory in southern Lebanon, eventually compelling Israel to pull out, unconditionally, in May 2000. In the summer of 2006 Hezbollah was able to fight Israel to a virtual standstill, despite Israel’s overwhelming military advantage. Since then, by all accounts, the group has only gained in strength.
In Iraq, I embedded with Iranian-backed Shia paramilitaries in the battle to drive ISIS out of the city of Tikrit. While not as disciplined as Hezbollah fighters, they put up a fierce fight and played a major part in defeating ISIS.
And beyond the challenge Iran’s allies in the region pose, there is Iran itself. Unlike America’s foes in the Middle East over the last almost three decades, Iran is a regional heavyweight. US forces easily defeated Saddam’s Hussein’s army in 1991 and 2003, toppled (though they have yet to vanquish) the Taliban in 2003 and most recently ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Iran is a country of more than 80 million people, with massive oil reserves and a large and diversified economy, albeit one that has been hobbled by decades of international sanctions. Iran’s leaders have been adept at taking advantage of US blunders, most glaringly its success at asserting unprecedented influence in Iraq after the US toppled Saddam Hussein. It’s an old cliché that the Iranians, who invented the game of chess, are master strategists. Cliché or not, it’s true.
Perhaps the Obama administration, much maligned by Secretary Pompeo in his Cairo speech, came to the realization that it was wiser to engage than confront Iran, and thus reached, along with other major powers, the Iran nuclear deal.
President Donald Trump, in his enthusiasm to repudiate every aspect of his predecessor’s administration, bailed out of the Iranian nuclear deal and recruited some of the most virulent critics of Iran to staff its key foreign policy positions.
While much attention is now being paid to the messy and confusing effort to extract US forces from Syria after the war with ISIS, all signs point to the high probability that the US is stumbling into a far more dangerous conflict with a far more formidable foe.