This past week could go down as the worst for the US role in the world since the misbegotten 2003 invasion of Iraq, whose tragic consequences still bedevil us. In both cases, the damage has been almost entirely self-inflicted, the result of abysmal judgment at the top of the US government, plus the failure of other institutions—Congress, the media—to do their proper jobs. The Trump administration kicked off round two of a trade war with China. Concerns escalated about the role of Russia in US elections and possible links to President Donald Trump. The president sustained attacks on his efforts to deescalate tensions with Moscow. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson departed from Washington, which he called a “very mean-spirited town.”
Most dramatically, Trump this week chose John Bolton to be National Security Advisor. Bolton was, briefly, a couldn’t-get-confirmed-by-the-Senate ambassador to the United Nations. This puts in place at the top of the government the most rigid ideologue ever to hold that position, a consistent advocate of the hardest of hard-right positions (especially in the Middle East), and a promoter of war in various parts of the world.
This appointment is not just an insult to the entire US national security profession. It also reduces the number of people in government who can save the president from blundering into one or more disasters with consequences potentially rivaling those in Iraq. But even White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly and Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis share Bolton’s view of Iran as the key source of instability in the Middle East. Also, Senate willing, the Iran-as-Devil school will soon be strengthened by the current head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee to replace Tillerson at the State Department. Pompeo, yet another military man in the Trump cabinet, has publicly opposed the Iran nuclear deal that cut off Teheran’s path to the bomb and has consistently advocated hard-line positions elsewhere in the world.
These changes to the national security team mean that it’s now impossible for the United States to disentangle itself, even partially, from the mess in the Middle East, however much that could be in our national interest. Indeed, it looks as though the Trump administration will be expanding the mess. Trump has to decide by May 12 whether to recertify that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal, as all US allies are pleading with him to do (it is in compliance, by all objective and non-US accounts). Bolton and Pompeo will be pushing him to pull out of the agreement. And the person representing the United States in Geneva talks with allies who are desperate to deflect Trump from destroying the Iran nuclear deal is a junior official with no senior-level experience in foreign affairs and whom no one believes speaks authoritatively for the U.S. president.
This changing of the guard from a hawkish to a superhawkish direction was compounded this week by the U.S. visit of the Saudi Arabian crown prince and effective ruler, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). He came bearing major gifts in the form of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of arms purchases from the United States, promises of a massive investment relationship, and of course flattery for Trump himself. MbS has also wooed those who want to believe that Saudi Arabia is no longer the leading sponsor of terrorism throughout the Islamic world and beyond (which it continues to be) and that it’s prepared to cozy up to Israel, given that both see Iran as enemy number one and care naught for the Palestinian people.
However, some of Israel’s friends in the US are beginning to fear that counting on the friendship and support of Saudi Arabia can be a fool’s bargain. Thus this week, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a strong supporter of Israel, expressed doubtsabout nuclear cooperation agreements with countries—meaning Saudi Arabia—that don’t “contain restrictions on the enrichment and reprocessing necessary for a nuclear weapon.” And The Washington Post, an accurate mirror of Israeli opinion, reported that “…even in Jerusalem, [Bolton’s] return stirred some concern….Israel is likely to be at the sharp-end of any conflict with Iran, something Bolton has repeatedly floated.”
Until Mattis intervened personally on Capitol Hill, the Senate was prepared to pass legislation to stop US military aid to Saudi Arabia in its thinly disguised (“when in doubt, blame Iran”) aggression in Yemen. According to key United Nations agencies, “The conflict in Yemen has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, a crisis which has engulfed the entire country.” Given what is happening in Syria and elsewhere in the region, that is saying something! As part of his pushback against a possible congressional cutoff of US support for the Saudi war effort, Mattis publicly challenged the visiting Saudi crown prince to “accelerate the peace process in Yemen.” Meanwhile, however, US support for Saudi military actions continues.
Does all this mean war with Iran? Trump most likely would like to stop short of a direct military attack as opposed to all other forms of pressure he can muster. Even MbS and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, champion fire-breather on the subject, probably don’t want to go as far as a major conflict with Iran because their countries, too, would suffer. But in the Middle East, things have a habit of getting out of hand. Certainly, even without another war, the United States is moving further away from any attempt to reconcile divergent interests in the region in favor of abetting others as they throw more gasoline onto the fires.