The American airstrike in Iraq on January 2, 2020 that killed Qassem Soleimani, a powerful Iranian general and a right-hand man of Ayatollah Khamenei, at the order of President Donald Trump is only the latest of a chaotic foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Soleimani was a leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, an extension of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is part of the Iranian military. In an unprecedented and controversial move, the Trump Administration had already designated IRGC and Quds Force as terrorist organizations in April 2019.
Quds Forces have firmly established themselves across Iraq and Syria alongside Shia militiamen in both countries. In recent months, Soleimani shuttled back and forth between Iraq and Iran, advising Iraqi security forces after the outbreak of the latest popular protests in that country in October 2019.
The assassination of Iran’s high-profile military figure significantly escalates the tensions between Washington and Tehran. But most problematically, it added to the lack of a coherent plan from the White House on what it will do next with Iran. Nor does it have a clear goal about what it wants to achieve from a potential war with Iran. Soleimani’s killing makes no strategic sense other than provoking Iran.
Furthermore, with weakened, sidelined, and disparaged U.S. diplomatic corps, military leaders, and intelligence agencies, President Trump may not be able to control the fallout from Soleimani’s assassination. In fact, the Trump administration did not consult the U.S. Congress and American allies, which were caught off guard by the killing.
With roots in Barack Obama’s presidency, unpredictability and confusion are a feature of the current administration, which is fraught with dangerous and unintended consequences.
With roots in Barack Obama’s presidency, unpredictability and confusion are a feature of the current administration, which is fraught with dangerous and unintended consequences. Indeed, ambivalence, indecisiveness, weakness, and contradictions have defined U.S. policy toward the MENA region over the past decade.
Both President Obama and President Trump took passive approaches toward the region as many of its countries endured massive turmoil. As a result, U.S. political power is now weaker than ever in MENA, and its credibility is widely questioned, although its force posture in the region has not diminished.
President Obama and his administration stayed mostly neutral as the Arab Spring raged on for months in early 2010s. The Obama administration’s policy of disengagement and neutrality was driven by the idea that the countries in MENA should sort out their problems themselves, all the while maintaining thousands of American troops in the region.
It took the Obama White House months before it made it clear that it stood with pro-democracy Arab street protesters and not the continued “stability” of their authoritarian governments. Its initial support and subsequent condemnation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime as protests persisted in the streets of Cairo, its lack of reaction to the Assad regime’s violent crackdown of protests, and its unexpected determination to remove the Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi from power all encapsulated the uncertain policy of the Obama administration toward MENA.
What the U.S. did and did not do during the Arab Spring mattered in shaping the events in MENA for the subsequent decade.
In the end, what the U.S. did and did not do during the Arab Spring mattered in shaping the events in MENA for the subsequent decade. The U.S.-led regime change in Libya resulted in the ongoing, seemingly interminable, civil war, while a “do nothing” approach gave a free hand to Bashar al-Assad to massacre Syrians with impunity and create one of the world’s worst humanitarian and refugee crises.
The Obama administration’s disregard of human rights abuses in Egypt and Bahrain strengthened the authoritarian regimes in these countries. The U.S. was also slow to condemn the repression of pro-democracy protesters in Yemen. It took an incremental approach in responding to the escalating crisis in that country, which is now in a brutal and murderous civil war, fueled by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
President Trump has largely continued the Obama administration’s policy of disengagement and inertia in MENA, only making it even more confusing and unpredictable. Elected partially on the platform of ending America’s “endless wars,” as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan entered their 16-year mark in 2017, President Trump’s unexpected decision to pull all U.S. troops from Syria last October was met with a mix of domestic praise and criticism: Praise over ending the U.S. involvement in Syria and criticism over the betrayal of its Kurdish allies in the face of an imminent Turkish invasion of northern Syria.
U.S. foreign policy experts expressed concern that a hasty decision to leave Syria would further weaken U.S. standing in the Middle East and strengthen the influence of its regional rivals – Russia, Iran, and China – which it did.
Although Russia’s power projection in MENA is far more limited compared to that of the U.S., the Trump administration’s isolationist policy has strengthened the Kremlin’s military and economic presence in the region in recent years. China, on the other hand, has been wielding political and economic influence in the region through partnership diplomacy and infrastructural investment.
“Iran now has an effective military advantage over the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East because of its ability to wage war using third parties such as Shia militias and insurgents.”
Finally, Iran has significantly increased its power in the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 by methodically building up its military presence across Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. According to a report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a military think tank, “Iran now has an effective military advantage over the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East because of its ability to wage war using third parties such as Shia militias and insurgents.”
The biggest change in U.S. policy toward MENA under President Trump has been his overt support of authoritarian rulers in the region. He praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last year, calling him a “great president,” even as al-Sisi received widespread condemnation for human rights abuses in Egypt from humanitarian organizations and several members of the U.S. Congress.
President Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “great ally,” openly admitting that he was “a big fan of the president” in November 2019 despite Turkey’s bloody invasion of northern Syria a few weeks earlier, which drew outrage from both parties in Washington. He even stated that President Erdogan had “a great relationship with the Kurds,” despite the systematic discrimination and periodic massacres of Kurds by the Turkish authorities since the birth of the Turkish state in the early 1920s.
President Trump also praised Libyan warlord and leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar last April for his alleged assistance in countering terrorism – a statement that reversed a U.S. position that denounced Haftar for his brutal military offensive in Tripoli.
The lack of consistency of U.S. policy in MENA has resulted in greater self-assertion by countries in the region.
The lack of consistency of U.S. policy in MENA has resulted in greater self-assertion by countries in the region. They have been trying to chart their own policies and rejecting the U.S. position on what is best for them, even though the U.S. still maintains nearly 60,000 troops across 13 countries in the region.
Striving to become regional leaders, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with Trump’s tacit acquiescence, have been trying to block further Iranian influence through proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, with disastrous results.
Unapologetic for its invasion of northern Syria and emboldened by President Trump’s warm embrace of President Erdogan, Turkey is asserting itself boldly in Syria and in regional affairs. Now fully under Russian influence, Syria wants all U.S. troops to leave the country.
Lastly, the recent attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and subsequent American airstrike angered the Iraqis, who are losing patience with the U.S. and want it out of Iraq’s affairs.
It may be tempting to conclude that U.S. foreign policy toward MENA is less focused because it has less interest in the region due to greater domestic energy independence, war fatigue, and a general lack of interest in being involved in intra-regional squabbles.
However, the U.S. continues to have strong geo-strategic interests in the region. Above all, defeating ISIS and other terrorist groups and ideologies that still pose threats to U.S. national security, global oil prices, regional stability, the refugee crisis, and assistance to war-torn countries in their reconstruction efforts.
At this juncture, the inability of the U.S. to articulate its interests and goals in MENA, while selectively throwing its weight around, endangers the stability of the entire region and the lives of thousands of American troops.