Anastasia is a third year International Relations student with an interest in conflict and security issues.
In late October 2019, Trump congratulated US troops on their achievements in Syria, and stated that it that it was time for the United States to ‘let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand’. This to a great degree summarised the administration’s broader policy towards the Middle East and did little to quell the anxieties of US allies in the region in the wake of Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria earlier that month. This decision seems less rogue when we look at the trajectory of US foreign policy over the past few decades or so, as well as the track-record of the Trump administration thus far. Recent events in the Middle East coupled with Trump’s trade war against China appears to signal the long-awaited American pivot towards Asia and rebalancing of priorities away from costly Middle Eastern wars. The central question, however, is how America will manage such a strategy without threatening its own security, interests, and alliances. In order to assess future risks of a grand strategy reorientation, we must look not only at the present, but also at the past. Without a retrospective analysis of policy and events, the decisions of the Trump administration are predicted to drag US priorities through a full 360-pivot back to the Middle East in the years to come.
Grand strategy – to some – may seem an outdated term. With the contemporary threat landscape containing a multitude of constantly evolving and interacting challenges, it may appear impossible to clearly prioritise national interests and establish a set of pre-agreed plans for their advancement. This critique, however, obscures the true value of grand strategy. It is not that governments have to be rigid with their plans, thus rendering them unable to adapt to a constantly shifting environmental dynamic. Instead, grand strategy should lead to the adoption of policies through a framework still allowing for rapid response to unforeseen events yet allowing states to navigate the complexity of the modern world through setting clear priorities for resource allocation. Recent developments regarding US relations with both the Middle East and East Asia can be analysed and critiqued with the basic principles of grand strategy in mind.
Regardless of whether overtly announced, both the Obama and Trump administrations have displayed an awareness of the need to prioritise foreign policy objectives. Despite popular opinion, these administrations are not polar opposites in nature. Both administrations acknowledged that US intervention in financially draining wars has aggravated anti-American sentiment and further destabilised the Middle East. A further point of agreement has been that of the challenges brought about by China, which has in recent years adopted a more aggressive position on Taiwan and issues regarding the South China Sea. Where the administrations have differed however, is in the speed and nature of the desired withdrawal from the Middle East and their approach to the Asian question. Obama favoured the method of strengthening ties with allies in South East Asia such as Japan and South Korea, as well as opening up dialogue with China to find common ground. Trump, however, has rejected the idea of an Asian pivot in the sense of maintaining and strengthening alliances, instead adopting a relatively isolationist stance when reconsidering foreign policy commitments. Instead of an Asian pivot, the Trump administration is characterised by a pivot inward to America. This has been put into action by the US engaging in a mutually damaging trade war with China as well as withdrawing from multilateral agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). With regards to the Middle East, Obama attempted a gradual outsourcing of responsibility to local institutions and regional partners. In the case of Iraq and Syria, however, Obama failed to predict the long-term consequences of a not-so-strategic rebalancing. Trump, meanwhile, has strengthened ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel, whilst provoking tensions with Iran through the US withdrawal from the P5+1 agreement brokered during the Obama administration. More recently, the Trump administration has taken rash and destabilising measures to realise the objective of the removal of active troops in Syria. It is this ill-thought out foreign policy decision that will be analysed in its consequences for the future of US-Middle East relations, and indeed for the national security of the US itself.
The withdrawal of US troops from Syria has been labelled by some as having triggered the ‘worst seven days for US foreign policy since the invasion of Iraq’. The short-term consequences of this have hardly proved inconsequential; Turkey saw fit to launch an offensive into Syria to neutralize its rivals, the Kurds (a substantial component within the Syrian Democratic Forces), who had previously been allied with the United States. The long-term consequences of such an action have the potential to become increasingly severe. Iraqi President, Barham Salih, noted in an interview that not only has this threatened the overall ‘dependability’ of the United States in the eyes of its allies in the region, but has had immense practical implications for the future of regional stability. Indeed, the Pentagon has reported clear potential for the future resurgence of ISIS, which leads to questions regarding the appropriateness of US military disengagement. Under a backdrop of broader geopolitical forces led by Russia, Iran and Turkey, attention seems to be drifting from ISIS to the achievement of individual strategic objectives. One can therefore assert that the risks posed by the premature reorientation of US attention are multifaceted in nature, with the opportunity for emboldening hostile state and non-state actors and alienating allies. This, however, should be old news.
With the arrival of a new administration, the temptation is to start afresh. However, when relevant, attention must be devoted to the triumphs and failures of one’s predecessors. Obama’s legacy in Iraq provides a clear warning against the premature removal of troops from a chronically unstable region. One can understand why the Obama administration sought to leave the memories of Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq in the past. Just as American military overextension in Iraq was of its own creation, so are many of its demons. Obama’s military disengagement from Iraq and lackluster commitment to human rights after the crossing of the chemical ‘red line’ by Assad’s regime in Syria, highlighted the disconnect between US rhetoric and action. Through the escalation of events, the conditions for an incredibly brutal terrorist organisation and proto-state were provided. It is critical to recognise that both the overextension and underextension of a state’s foreign policy has the potential to produce the next generation of crises and conflicts. It is through a combination of the former, in the Bush era, and the latter, in the Obama era, that ISIS was born. Thus, an important lesson appears to have gone unlearnt in Trump’s announcement of withdrawal; it is a reality that full military disengagement will be impossible without endangering national interests. When history is ignored, it runs the risk of repeating itself.
To conclude, the grand strategies of Obama and Trump have largely been influenced by similar considerations and concerns, most notably the refocusing of US attention and resources from the Middle East. This, however, has been so far impossible due to complex conflicts in which the United States has either has passively allowed to fester or to some degree created through military intervention. Although the Obama and Trump administrations have differed in methods of disengagement from the Middle East, as well as their approach in dealing with a rising China, they exhibit similarities in mistakes made. The Trump administration should learn from history and be mindful of the long-term consequences of a hasty removal of troops in the Middle East, which may emerge to threaten the national security and credibility of the United States. In order to safeguard future reputation and interests, the United States should make good of the responsibilities it has assumed in the battle against ISIS in the Middle East, whilst taking steps to encourage compromise between warring parties in and around Syria. It is only through the stabilisation of the region of Syria and Iraq that organisations such as ISIS will permanently lose territory and support. Without such measures, future challenges may in turn force the US to make a 360 ‘pivot’ back to the Middle East in the years to come.
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 Brands. “Barack Obama and the dilemmas of American grand strategy”, p.102.