It is rather easy to condemn U.S. foreign policy in the last three years as at best an exercise in incompetence or perhaps a complete failure, as anti-Trump commentators seem to prefer. Sometimes the complaints grow so strident one wonders what else is going on. The problem in countering these claims is particularly difficult, for they tend to be seeking a way to turn everything into a Cassandra-type catastrophe. In the end, the result is to make even reasonable observations lean toward the absurd.
There are many legitimate examples of seemingly wrong-headed U.S. foreign policy decisions. That can occur in any situation. Perhaps one of the easiest to condemn is the recently ballyhooed “deal of the century” aimed at creating a final solution to the long-running Israel-Palestine conflict. The “deal” itself contained concepts that only historical change could bring about. That was obvious. Yet it did establish a bare-bones framework that could be debated and altered rather than a strict structure to which all sides must agree. Of course, this was presented in a definitive manner as all such proposals seem to require. That’s how all negotiations begin in the Israel-Palestine context. To add to that, real negotiations only can proceed behind the scenes, often as a framework quite different than the publicity-seeking initial context.
There are some actions that are characterized as “foreign policy decisions” that have been forced on the parties by tangential actions of one side or another. An example of this was the removal of U.S. troops from Syria which was made to appear to be an abandonment of American long-term allies, the Syrian Kurds, to the mercy of expansionist Turkey and its ambitious leader Erdogan. The unfortunate truth was that U.S. forces in the region were inadequate to the task of defending the Kurds from both ISIS and the manipulative actions militarily and politically of the Turks. The latter treat our so-called alliance as if it was a bit of useful clothing to be put on and taken off, depending on the weather.
The reality is that Turkey has been playing “footsie” with both the Russians and ISIS for quite some time. The fact is that this year’s old bloody game of big and smaller power contests is traditional in the Middle East. After all, has everyone forgotten that Turkey supported the Nazis during World War II while still claiming neutrality during the period when Soviet Russia was the Allies’ powerful ally in the East? These events tend to be ignored as influential factors when assessing contemporary circumstances, as if historical relationships and convenient actions of the past can and should be overlooked. As one serious old veteran of Middle Eastern affairs has put it:
“In this part of the world, old chap, one must go with the flow. Swing around it or underneath it but avoid too obviously going against it.”[Donald Wise, London’s Daily Mirror]
Iran’s continuing effort to gain control of Iraq’s post-Saddam existence has become an overt ambition of the mullah-led regime. In past years, Washington treated Iran as a modern state working to become part of the accepted international community. The reality conveniently ignored until recently by the United States and others in the West has been that reestablishment of the old Persian Empire in modern form has been Tehran’s ambition – an ambition with which they had previously charged the deposed Shah. The question from a foreign policy standpoint is whether or not Washington is willing to close their eyes to this ambition or confront it? The carefully planned killing of General Soleimani, Iran’s terrorist coordinator, planner, and brain trust, was an essential step in countering the broader Iranian aims in the region. It had to be done. The Russians knew it and so did the rest of the Middle East players. The only question was whether the Americans would have the political courage to pull it off. That was Middle East foreign policy in action!
The operation against Soleimani was not merely a message to Iran and the Middle East region in general, but also against other ambitious dictators around the world that the United States may withdraw its presence from time to time, and may even seem disinterested, but the ability of the U.S. to project its power remains and is on alert.