FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Is Trump Blundering Into the Next Middle East War?

The Washington elite is waking up to the increasingly real possibility that the Trump administration may be moving the country into yet another Middle East war. And much more quickly than anyone had anticipated. And through sheer incompetence and incoherence rather than by design.

At the moment, attention is focused on the situation in eastern Syrian, the details of which are spelled out well in a growing number of accounts such as Mohamad Bazzi’s piece in the Atlantic as well as a recent action alert by the National Iranian American Council. In addition, the New Republic’s Jeet Heer posted an excellent piece that quotes former key Obama policymakers (Colin Kahl and Ilan Goldenberg), as well as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who have been well ahead of other national-security analysts in warning about the gathering storm clouds.

Eastern Syria is indeed the focus of the moment, particularly since a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane in Syrian territory and Iran launched a mid-range missile attack on an Islamic State (ISIS or IS) target. Russia subsequently warned that it will target U.S.-led coalition aircraft flying in Syrian territory west of the Euphrates. Then, on June 20, an Iranian-made drone was shot down close to the border with Iraq and Jordan where the various rival proxy forces are all converging to fill the vacuum in anticipation of the IS collapse.

No doubt the Pentagon is gaming out the various scenarios in which a wider war could soon break out, but it certainly sees Iran and its allies in the area as the main post-ISIS threat to Washington’s interests in and around Syria. See, for example, this little memo published recently by a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Central Command and, remarkably, a visiting fellow at the staunchly pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (hat tip to Barbara Slavin). Or this helpful new contribution by WINEP’s long-time counselor and “Israel’s lawyer,” Dennis Ross.

Although the fireworks in eastern Syrian have rightfully captured our immediate concern, they shouldn’t distract too much from the highly volatile situation in the Persian Gulf following both the stunning ISIS terrorist attack in Tehran on June 7 — which senior Iranian officials blamed on Saudi Arabia — and the weeks-old crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain on the one hand and Qatar (backed by Turkey and Iran) on the other. Although Tehran justified its unprecedented missile strike by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in eastern Syria as retaliation for the terrorist attacks, it was also widely interpreted as a shot across the bow of the most anti-Iranian GCC states to remind them of their own vulnerability if war breaks out either in the Gulf or elsewhere.

In this context, the recent announcement by Riyadh that its navy had seized an explosives-laden boat and three members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) allegedly planning to blow up a Saudi offshore oil drilling rig does not bode well. According to The New York Times, the incident occurred when Iran’s state media reported that Saudi border guards fired on boats belonging to “simple fishermen,” killing one of the occupants. The Saudis reported some details of the incident over that weekend, but only on the following Monday did it come out with its new and far more sensational account.

That incident may of course be relegated to less than a footnote in the region’s history. But it nonetheless suggests that things are not moving in a favorable direction and that whatever behind-the-scenes attempts at defusing tensions — whether between Saudi Arabia and Iran or, for that matter, Qatar — are not bearing much fruit. Of course, charges by Bahrain and the Saudis that Iran is constantly shipping weapons and terrorists to Yemen and other Gulf Arab destinations are nothing new. But, in the current atmosphere, the risks of an incident escalating out of control seem higher than ever.

Moreover — and this is the main point — the possibilities for catastrophic miscalculation are skyrocketing. It’s not just the proximity of rival armed forces in both eastern Syria and the Gulf. It’s also the lack of direct communication among key parties and the lack of clarity as to their actual policies.

That applies in spades to what passes for the Trump “administration.”

The Blockade

Take, for example, the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, which came just two weeks after the president’s visit to Riyadh — and which Trump not only applauded but initially appeared to claim credit for in his tweets.

Clearly, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Bahrainis had come to believe that Trump — even if he had not explicitly greenlighted such a drastic action during or after Riyadh summit — would support them against Doha. How shocked they must have been when the Pentagon and the State Department immediately voiced their reservations (not to say, their opposition)!

Almost as shocked as Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson and National Security Adviser McMaster must have been when they first heard about Trump’s tweets. Here’s what the State Department spokesperson — to the extent you believe she speaks for the “administration” — said about Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s action:

Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf States have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

At this point we are left with one simple question: were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long, simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?

(Oh, snap.)

Assuming the State Department really speaks for the US government, this rather stunning statement begs a host of rather critical questions. How exactly did the Saudis and their allies come to think that Washington would support them? Who exactly gave them that impression and under what circumstances? Or are Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and UAE Crown Prince (and apparent MbS mentor) Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan (MbZ) so deluded or hubristic that they just assumed that Washington, including the Pentagon, was on board with this?

And, if so, how prone to miscalculation are they in this moment of sky-high regional tensions?

After all, MbS has risen in influence in Saudi Arabia largely because of his pet foreign policy project, the war in Yemen, which, according to the latest reports, hasn’t been going particularly well (unless his original idea was to completely destroy the Arab world’s poorest country). He now finds himself in a very difficult spot.

Moreover, the Saudi king just elevated the hyper-ambitious MbS to crown prince overnight, placing him next in line in the royal succession. Like Trump, the 31-year-old is falling upward more through sheer audacity than palpable successes. Unless in his new exalted position he can somehow still impose his will on Qatar — an increasingly doubtful prospect in the absence of U.S. and Western diplomatic support — MbS looks ever more like a two-time loser (in Trumpspeak), and an extremely reckless one at that. And that perception makes him even more dangerous under the circumstances.

Meanwhile in Iran

How is all this perceived in Tehran, where various competing factions may also be prone to miscalculation? What do they think U.S. policy is?

They know the Trump “administration” is united in its conviction that the Islamic Republic is irredeemably hostile to the U.S., but they also know there are degrees of difference among senior officials. Some White House officials reportedly favor “regime change” via covert action, and it was just a few days before the ISIS attack in Iran that it was disclosed that the CIA had picked Michael D’Andrea (aka The Dark Prince or Ayatollah Mike), a particularly aggressive covert operator, to run the agency’s Iran program.

Tehran was also deeply offended by Trump’s shocking reaction to the June 7 terrorist attack and further taken aback by Tillerson’s statement of support for a “peaceful transition” of government in Iran one week later. These statements no doubt served to strengthen hardliners in Tehran who already believe the worst about U.S. intentions as well as those of its regional allies.

At the same time, Tehran knows that top officials — notably Mattis (who appears to have been granted virtually unprecedented discretion in military decision-making) and McMaster — are keenly aware of the risks of getting dragged into a war with Iran (or becoming bogged down in Syria) even as they believe Washington should “push back” against Tehran’s “malign” behavior in the region.

And then there’s the commander-in-chief’s own impulsiveness, ignorance, and macho pose. At a moment of crisis a half a world away, Trump may actually welcome some serious fireworks as a useful diversion from his deepening political and legal problems at home. After all, those missiles strikes in Syria back in April gave him something of a reprieve, at least for a few days.

Given the latest head-spinning twist in Washington’s reaction to the KSA/UAE-led Qatar quarantine, it seems quite reasonable to ask how key Iranian policymakers will know who’s running policy in the White House when it’s faced with an incident that escalates quickly, and the Saudis, Emiratis, and Sheldon Adelson are on the phone insisting that Trump’s manhood is on the line? The likelihood of miscalculation by one or more of the major players is virtually certain.

It’s a very scary — but increasingly imaginable — prospect.

Originally published in Lobelog.

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement. Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio is a rising senior at Williams College in Massachusetts. She has written and worked for the human rights NGO Cultural Survival in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is currently an intern for LobeLog at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
Robby Sherwin
Here’s an Idea
Susan Block
Cucks, Cuckolding and Campaign Management
Louis Proyect
The Mafia and the Class Struggle (Part Two)
David Yearsley
Smoke on the Water: Jazz in San Francisco
Elliot Sperber
All of Those Bezos
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail