US foreign policy in the post-Second World War world was founded on a number of principles, mainly the defense of West European allies and other democracies against the growing menace of a communist bloc. The Middle East emerged as one of the hot spots in the Cold War face-off and the region was later considered an extension of US geopolitical domination. In the process we had the Ronald Reagan Doctrine, aimed at bankrupting the Soviet Union, and many decades later the George W. Bush Doctrine backed by the neocons that sought to wage pre-emptive wars, especially in the Middle East.
But now, in a major departure from that policy, President Donald Trump has presented what one might call the Trump Doctrine on the Middle East and the rest of the world. Basically, it echoes late 19th and early 20th century proclamations of deliberate US isolationism. But Trump’s declaration, presented through a series of tweets on his decision to swiftly withdraw US troops from northern Syria, was not the outcome of high-level deliberations with defense and national security experts. At best it was and remains a whimsical decision — followed by an even more daring resolution to start a troop drawdown from Afghanistan — which has stunned Washington and most world capitals.
So dangerous is Trump’s unilateral initiative that it prompted his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, to resign in protest, although not without delivering a rebuke of the president’s decision. Other officials, including the man responsible for managing the war against Daesh, Brett McGurk, also quit. Trump’s decision was lambasted by leading politicans in Congress, from both sides of the aisle, in a rare bipartisan reprimand that has shaken Trump but failed to dissuade him.
Trump’s approach to the complex issue of the US military presence in Syria and Afghanistan was not prompted by geopolitical considerations, and he has clearly failed to appreciate the huge impact that his decision will leave on the region, his western and Arab allies, Russia, Israel, Iran, Daesh, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, to name a few. Trump viewed the move from a purely financial angle; tweeting that the US spends trillions of dollars and gets nothing in return.
Furthermore, the Trump Doctrine, if it may be called so, undermines a steady US policy on the Middle East that was followed by both Republican and Democratic presidents for decades. Trump tweeted that the US is not the policeman of the Middle East; a daring statement that challenges fundamental views of the region and its complex issues as well as long-standing US national interests, especially in the Gulf region.
Trump’s declaration, presented through a series of tweets on his decision to swiftly withdraw US troops from northern Syria, was not the outcome of high-level deliberations with defense and national security experts.
Since 9/11 and the US military intervention in the region we have seen a domino effect, starting with the emergence of Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, as failing and corrupt states that eventually provided an incubator for extremist religious movements. One can argue that America’s military adventures in the region had triggered unintended consequences; Daesh being a case in point. And yes it had cost America trillions of dollars and failed to deliver the declared objective of nation building.
Afghanistan had become America’s longest war and until Trump’s decision to withdraw half of his troops, hopes for a political solution were dim at best while the Taliban, as well as Daesh, had shown no signs of imminent defeat.
In Syria the US had no clear long-term strategy. It was there not to disrupt the Assad regime, it said, but to defeat Daesh. That objective was not achieved despite Trump’s declaration that the US had won. America’s withdrawal may give the terrorist entity a lifeline as it regroups in eastern Syria and along the borders with Iraq. Trump believes Turkey can complete the mission, but Ankara’s agenda in Syria is multifaceted.
One resounding message that Trump’s decision delivers to both allies and enemies is that the US has become an unreliable ally, as French President Emmanuel Macron stated. The move comes at a critical moment for Russia, Iran and Israel. Tel Aviv sees the US withdrawal as a reward for Iran in Syria, leaving Israel on its own to deal with a growing Iranian military presence close to its borders.
The move is a hard blow to Syrian Kurds, who had fought Daesh and were hoping to be rewarded for their sacrifice by gaining political rights in a future Syria. It is a gift to Russia which now has full political ownership of what happens next in Syria and beyond. And the decision will upset America’s allies elsewhere, from South Korea and Japan to Poland and the Baltic states.
In a globalized world it is difficult to imagine the US entrenching and hiding behind the much touted Trump wall. There is no right and wrong in complex geopolitical matters; there are only consequences, intended and unintended, and the world must now deal with Trump’s non-doctrine Doctrine.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator in Amman. Twitter: @plato010