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President Trump’s stance on conflict in the Middle East is a mixture of bellicose threats and demonisation of opponents combined with rather more cautious and carefully calculated action or inaction on the ground. Leaders in Baghdad, Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran face the same problem as those in Tokyo and London, uncertain where the rhetoric ends and the reality begins and unsure if Trump himself distinguishes much between the two.
The debate about Trump in the Middle East does differ from that in the rest of the world in one important respect: the need for an answer here is more urgent because of the greater likelihood of a crisis, which Trump might provoke or exacerbate.
When he was first elected, the urgency seemed very great but there has been no major new crisis that put him to the test. For all his denunciations of President Obama for his supposedly feeble defence of American interests, US strategy in Iraq and Syria has remained very much the same. The priority has continued to be the destruction of the caliphate and the elimination of Isis.
The continuity is because the strategy has been successful and surviving Isis fighters are being hunted down or are taking refuge in hideouts in the deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria. But victory over Isis brings with it the prospect of a new US set of priorities in the Middle East with a more confrontational approach to Iran topping the list.
In his jeremiad against Iran on 13 October, Trump justified his refusal to certify the Iran nuclear deal with gobbets of propaganda, one-sided history and straight lies. He proposed a new US policy towards Iran based “on a clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world”. The speech sounded like the opening volley in a new campaign against Iran, to be fought out on multiple fronts.
Some sort of collision between the US and Iran looks possible or even likely, a battle which will probably be carried out by proxies and will not be fought to a finish. This is because Trump’s approach to the outside world is a blend of American nationalism and isolationism. The former produces belligerent threats and the latter a wish to avoid getting entangled in any new Middle East war.
This could be bad news for the US because, if it cannot use its massive military superiority, it will become bogged down in the sort of part military, part political struggle in which the Iranians are past masters. “They have a PhD in this sort of warfare,” said an Iraqi friend with long experience of dealing with them.
It may not come to that: such is the intensity of political strife in the US that new foreign policy ventures do not look very feasible. But any sensible leader in the Middle East always looks at the worst case scenario first. The wars in Syria and Iraq are either coming to an end or their present phase is ending, but in both cases the situation is fragile. People in Baghdad are wary of good news after forty years of wars and emergencies and would not be too surprised if things turned sour again.
It would be a pity if this happened, because just for once the professional pessimists in Iraq are not having it all their own way. The central government is far stronger than it was three years ago when Isis was rampaging across the country. Its army, with great help from American airpower, defeated Isis in the nine-month siege of Mosul. The Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faced down the Kurdish leadership and won an almost bloodless success regaining Kirkuk.
It is doubtful if either the US or Iran would come out the winner in any new confrontation, but Iraqis would certainly come out the losers.
The best policy for the US in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere is to do nothing very new. But this may be difficult for Trump. It is not just him who has wrong-headed ideas about the Middle East. There has recently been a stronger than usual surge of apocalyptic commentary about how Iran is winning victory after victory over the US in the region.
Washington think-tankers, retired generals and journalists warn of Iran opening up “a land corridor” to the Mediterranean, as if the Iranians travel only by chariot and could spread their influence by no other means.
It could be that Trump’s menaces really are serious, in which case the Iranians are understandably going to react. But even if they are largely rhetorical, they might trigger an Iranian over-reaction.
“The Iranians are under the impression that others want to topple their regime,” an Iraqi politician told me. “The Iranians are very smart. They do not send their armies abroad. Once you do that you are lost. They fight by proxy on many fronts outside their borders, but this destabilises everybody else.” Once again Iraq would find itself in the front line.
Curiously, Iran owes much of its expanded influence not to its own machinations but to the US itself. It has been the collateral beneficiary of US-led regime change in two of its neighbours, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, both which had been viscerally anti-Iranian.
The sheer ignorance of Trump and his administration about the Middle East is dangerous. It is usual, particularly in liberal circles, to see people in the Middle East as passive victims of foreign intervention. This is largely true, but it masks the fact that at any one time there are several governments and opposition movements trying to lure the US into a war with its enemies by demonising them as a threat to the world.
The Iraqi opposition spent a long time in the 1990s trying to manipulate the US into going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and, thanks to 9/11, got its wish in 2003. The Syrian opposition backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey were hoping to do the same thing in Syria in 2011-13 and were much frustrated that Obama did not play along.
Trump may speak of confronting Iran, but there is no sign that he has a coherent plan to do so. Much of what is happening in the region is beyond his control and US influence is going down, but for reasons that have nothing to do with him. The US has never quite recovered from its failure to achieve its ends in Iraq after the invasion. The return of Russia to the region as a great power has also limited US influence. The US public does not want another war in the Middle East.
Obama accepted these limitations and Trump will probably have to do the same. But his sheer unpredictability already makes the region feel a more dangerous place, even when he is doing nothing.