Do US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson believe that the “Middle East is and will remain a region of strategic importance to the United States,” as Richard Fontaine and Michael Singh wrote in The National Interest?
Do they agree with US Central Command commander Gen. Joseph Votel, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the threats in the Middle East “continue to pose the most direct threat to the US homeland and the global economy... [and] Iran poses the greatest long-term threat to stability for this part of the world”? If they do agree, they need to begin to formulate a new vision of American engagement, or reengagement, that learns from the lessons of the past.
Rule 1: Remember that unilateral concessions in the Middle East are rarely reciprocated. Totalitarian Islamist and secular authoritarian regimes view unilateral concessions as weakness, an opportunity to gain influence and power. Just ask Israel.
Rule 2: Construct quid pro quo deals to make sure American interests aren’t shortchanged. For example, the Saudis want advanced tanks and precision guided missiles, a hard sell at Congress now. Tillerson could try tying Saudi arms sales to tangible steps to promote US-Israeli-Saudi open cooperation. It would be a stabilizing step, aligning American allies with shared American security interests, rebalancing versus the ascendancy of Iranian influence.
Rule 3: Warn American adversaries that they should expect consequences when they double-cross us.
Rule 4: Communicate to the American people that Iranian hegemony is the most dangerous threat to American national security for the foreseeable future.
Rule 5: Stabilize the region with humility, but with the confidence of a superpower.
Rule 6: Engage in the region with realistic expectations and have multiple fall-back strategies.
Rule 7: Realize that completely solving conflicts is usually not a realistic goal.
Rule 8: Do not rely on unsigned agreements. The most consequential American agreement of the 21st century, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Agreement) was never signed by the Iranians and its companion, UNSC 2231, is continually violated by the Iranian regime.
Tillerson should use the platform of the secretary of state to address the world with a coherent foreign policy for American reengagement in the Middle East that balances American realist security interests with American value-based foreign policy.
From 2009 to 2016, American foreign policy was one of deliberate retrenchment and apology for past sins, with the goal to reduce the world’s unipolar superpower to one among equals, hog-tied by international organizations whose goal was, more often than not, to humble the United States.
As John Bolton wrote in The Wall Street Journal, international organizations’ “unspoken objective is to constrain the US and to transfer authority from national governments to international bodies... submitting the United States to authorities that ignore, outvote or frustrate [our] priorities.”
Perhaps in some utopian world this makes sense, but certainly not in the real world of the Middle East.
The Trump administration is unlikely to be fooled into believing international organizations are going to stabilize the world order. The idea of a peaceful multi-polar world with a weakened America, was, is and for the foreseeable future will be a chimera that will endanger America and its allies.
Re-engagement 3.0 should reflect the realties of today, not resurrect the failed assumptions of the past.
So which actions would jump-start this new vision?
• America interests are the polar opposite of Iranian interests. Therefore the administration should recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
According to The Washington Post the “Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are now present along the 1967 cease-fire line with Israel in the Golan Heights, putting them directly opposite Israeli troops for the first time.”
Can you imagine the danger if the Iranians were on the shores of the Galilee, if Israel had listened to John Kerry and given up the Golan? American interests are aligned with Israel’s permanent control of the Golan, a bulwark against Iranian expansionism.
• Stabilize American allies Jordan and Egypt with loan guarantees, tax incentives and upgraded border security.
• Reevaluate and develop a new relationship with Turkey. The Islamization of Turkey, its precarious role as the eastern flank of NATO and its support of terrorist entities must be addressed. Waiting a generation for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pass from the scene will be too late.
• An independent Iraq not controlled by Iran is an important American interest. Additional economic support of Iraq should be tied to its distancing itself from Iran. America should leverage the Persian Shiite condescension towards Iraqi Arab Shiites to build a better US-Iraq relationship.
• American policy 3.0 should state unambiguously that when groups like Hezbollah or Hamas use civilian areas as staging groups to attack civilians or use human shields to create self-inflicted humanitarian propaganda, America makes clear to international organizations that the harm that comes to those civilians is the responsibility of the terrorist organizations themselves.
Re-engagement 3.0’s goal should be multilateral, but only if America is firmly in charge of its destiny. If multilateralism is used as a façade for a withdrawing, isolationist foreign policy, American interests will be at the mercy of others.
Israel does not enjoy any of the luxuries of a unipolar superpower or even a regional superpower. It is judged against a standard no other democratic nation in its position would be asked, or even rationally expected to adhere to. The new Trump administration should reiterate every time the UN and EU stigmatize and delegitimize Israel that America views Israel as a primary American security interest that won’t be abandoned.
But the real question is, can Trump overcome his isolationist instincts and look anew at the Middle East, not through the prism of the Iraq War? American security for the next decade depends on it.
The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.