The Price of Unpredictability: Trump, Iran and US Decline
Chris Nineham: Trump's behaviour is a product of the US's relative decline and is likely to accelerate it
US foreign policy has become so erratic that some Trump loyalists are quoting favourably from Stanley Kubrick's surreal anti-war satire Dr Strangelove. Apparently, Trump’s impulsive behaviour makes war less likely because in Dr Strangelove’s words ‘deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy...the fear of aggression’.
Being unpredictable may have marginal benefits to an imperial power, but Trump's behaviour is both a product of the US's relative decline and is likely to accelerate it. As US soft power wanes, the worry is it makes unilateral, aggressive acts more likely.
It now appears that the drone assassination of Iranian General, Qassem Soleimani was at least in part motivated by pressure from Republican Senate hawks. According to both the New York Times and the Washington Post, it was calibrated to keep them onside over the impeachment hearings. Certainly, there was almost no warning given to US allies.
Apparently, Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu was the only leader consulted in advance. The fact that even he distanced Israel from the action shows how isolated the US is over their Iran policy.
The problem for the US's allies in the Middle East is that Trump's policy combines attempting to disengage and encourage proxies to step up on the one hand, with a tendency for sudden unexpected and often provocative acts on the other. So for example, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Gulf last summer he urged a more aggressive approach to Iran but refused to commit to full US military support if Iran attacked a major Gulf city. The lack of a US response to Iran's strikes on Saudi oil facilities in August also caused anger in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals.
As analyst and former US diplomat William Burns puts it, 'Trump's pattern of non-reaction followed by extreme overreaction has destroyed regional trust in him'.
The result is a real draining of US soft power in the region and a significant reconfiguration of power relations. Saudi Arabia’s leader Mohammed Bin Salman and UAE's Mohammed bin Zayed are actively stepping up contact with Russia and China. Neither Russia or China want to see a war in the region, and they are both regarded as more predictable than the US.
In Europe too there is an increasing inclination to strategise independently of the US. Germany's chancellor Merkel went on an emergency visit to Moscow this weekend to discuss the Middle East crisis with Vladimir Putin. The US is much more isolated over Iran than it was over the Iraq war in 2003. No European power fully backed the assassination of Soleimani.
Britain was the most sympathetic amongst the Europeans but there were calls for de-escalation coming even from London. In a recent interview with the Sunday Times, UK Defence Secretary Wallace said the prospect of the US stepping back from its international role “keeps me awake at night" and that the UK needed to diversify its assets and alliances. “I worry if the United States withdraws from its leadership around the world. That would be bad for the world and bad for us. We plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.
Trump's inconsistent behaviour isn't just a product of a disordered personality. The record of recent US-led wars has been dismal. Anti-war feeling in the US rules out further major ‘boots on the ground’ interventions barring a sea-change in the situation. Reluctance to intervene at that scale in turn weakens US soft power, meanwhile the rise of major global economic challengers further strains US hegemony.
Unfortunately, none of this makes the world a safer place. Despite Trump's desire to draw down troop presence where he can, the logic of a threatened empire pushes him in the opposite direction. If soft power is challenged, the temptation to use firepower grows. So, for all the talk of disengagement there are 14,000 more US troops in the Middle East than ten months ago, and Trump has just ordered the deployment of 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to Kuwait.
The Iran strategy may have increased the US's isolation, but this makes a successful outcome more rather than less important to Trump’s administration. Expect more confrontation, and more surprises.