Now that the US election appears all over bar the shouting and litigation, of which there will be a lot considering who seems to be losing, we can look back on the sorry legacy of Donald Trump’s four years in office.
He undermined and undid the achievements of Barack Obama like a pharaoh erasing all images of a despised predecessor. He pulled the US out of a crucially important climate change accord, watered down Obama-era environmental safeguards at home, withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal aimed at countering China’s growing influence, undid agreements with Iran and Cuba, long-time adversaries that Obama had sought to bring in from the cold, and attempted to kneecap the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature health care expansion.
In one crucial respect, however, his term in office extended a course charted in the previous eight years: he rejected utterly the notion that the United States ought to serve as the world’s policeman.
The Iran case
The clearest indication of the changed direction came in the case of Iran, where Trump did everything possible to create warlike conditions, only to back down from a catastrophic clash when it appeared inevitable. In May 2018, he withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal), a seven-nation agreement that had forced Iran to open its nuclear facilities to international inspectors, cut stockpiles of enriched uranium to nearly zero, and reduce the number of gas centrifuges it operated. Subsequently, he announced a swingeing set of economic sanctions that included secondary sanctions threatening any private firm or government that maintained economic relations with Iran.
Iran’s economy, already overstretched thanks to its involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, began to totter as oil exports collapsed. The West Asian nation lashed out by damaging oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and drone-bombing a major Saudi oil installation, responsibility for the latter attack being claimed by its Yemeni Houthi allies.
In June 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down an American surveillance drone that they claimed had violated its airspace. In response to the downing of the $130 million unmanned aerial vehicle, the American military prepared to bomb Iran radar and missile batteries. Such an attack on Iranian territory would have brought the region close to all-out war that would have drawn in every country in the region.
Trump gave the go-ahead, but then changed his mind with American planes closing in on their targets. He explained later that the estimated 150 Iranian casualties that would result seemed an overreaction to the shooting of an unmanned drone.
A few weeks before the aborted operation, I had written a column in Scroll.in headlined, “Only one person stands between the world and a catastrophic war in Persian Gulf – Donald Trump.” As I explained, Trump was, “the person most responsible for leading us to the precipice”, but his instincts were isolationist. This set him apart from chicken-hawks like “Bush Junior, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservative draft dodgers who guided the US into the Iraq war”.
As Trump divested his most mature advisers and replaced them with crazies like John Bolton, I feared he would be dragged into a war he did not want. This appeared to be happening in January 2020, after Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s most popular leader, General Qasem Soleimani, the brains behind Iran’s military presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other international theatres. Iran responded by launching missiles at two airbases in Iraq where American personnel were stationed.
Further escalation on the Iranian side was curtailed by the country’s accidental shooting of a Ukrainian airliner with 176 people on board, a plurality of whom were Iranian. Anger within Iran turned to its own government’s incompetence, exacerbated by the mishandling of General Soleimani’s funeral during which a stampede killed 56 mourners and injured hundreds. Trump, meanwhile, chose not to respond militarily to the Iranian missile attack, pointing once again to the lack of American casualties as reason enough to hold back.
The Obama example
In September 2013, Barack Obama also turned back from a military confrontation with the Syrian government, at a greater political cost than Trump had to pay years later. Obama had said any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be crossing a red line and would invite a military response. The Assad regime appeared to employ the nerve agent sarin against rebels and civilians in a village called Ghouta in August 2013.
Worried about an assault without the backing of a broad coalition or firm legal basis, Obama opted to ask for military authorisation from Congress, which was controlled by Republicans at the time and unlikely to pass any request from him. The UK parliament, recoiling from Tony Blair’s backing of the war in Iraq, voted against joining any US military action in Syria. European governments also refused to participate in military strikes, fearing they would get sucked into another protracted war.
Rather than go it alone, Obama cut a deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to rid Syria of chemical weapons. He was derided by opponents for for backing down and rendering all future threats from American presidents less credible as a result.
Although Obama ensured US forces had the backing of UN resolutions, and partnerships with Muslim-majority countries as well as European allies in military engagements undertaken in Libya in 2011 and in the fight against ISIS, it earned him little credit with the American left. They labelled him a war monger, as did the Pakistani author Mohammad Hanif in a recent article in the Guardian.
“Barack Obama was one of the most loved president (sic) of recent times, the kind of man who you could actually imagine have a beer with. He left the killings to algorithms and drones, while his foreign policy left Libya annihilated,” Hanif wrote. There are many like Hanif who do not remember, or choose to forget, that Gaddafi was in the process of crushing a popular uprising in Libya, and that France rather than the United States led a NATO response that was limited to air strikes in support of anti-regime rebels. Blaming US foreign policy has become such a reflex that many commentators are incapable of seeing how Obama and Trump differed from previous US presidents in their attitude to military engagement.
World leaders did notice the difference, however, and today’s geopolitics is greatly shaped by 12 years of US reluctance to act as the world’s policeman. Although the reluctance is worth celebrating, since the country’s behaviour as a policeman resembled that of the officers who arrested George Floyd, it did not greatly curb military conflicts across the globe. Rather, it reduced the media’s spotlight on such conflicts even as authoritarian governments filled the vacuum left by American disengagement.
Saudi Arabia plunged alone into the Yemen war, after decades of leaning on the crutch of US troops to achieve its aims. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and interference in East Ukraine resulted in sanctions but no military escalation on the American side. An emboldened Vladimir Putin intervened directly in Syria on the side of the ruling regime, completely changing the direction of the war in a few weeks.
Last year, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan convinced Donald Trump to withdraw from north-eastern Syria, allowing Turkish forces to create a buffer zone inside Syrian territory. Erdoğan also backed the UN recognised government in Libya at a time when it was close to being overwhelmed by the army of a warlord named Khalifa Haftar. Turkish-manufactured Bayraktar drones changed the complexion of the battle for Tripoli in the spring of 2020, forcing Haftar to sue for peace. The same drones have helped Azerbaijan hold its own in the current war against Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, augmenting Erdoğan’s international prestige.
China has become increasingly belligerent over the past few years, using harsh military means, of which India bore the brunt in Ladakh a few months ago, as well as a self-consciously aggressive form of engagement with the world known as wolf warrior diplomacy. It seems ill-timed, given the anger across the world relating to the novel coronavirus which originated in China, but the communist party appears determined to stick with its new posture.
I suspect the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, with the promise of official friendly contacts with Oman and Saudi Arabia in the near future, has a lot to do with the recognition within authoritarian Sunni regimes that they can no longer trust the United States to play protector. Disillusioned with Obama’s support for democratisation during the Arab Spring and the agreement he signed with their implacable foe, the Shia theocracy in Iran, these countries found new hope with Donald Trump. Though he gave them much that they wanted, his evident reluctance to get drawn into military engagements induced them to open official channels with the one country that possesses a fearsome arsenal and would back them with weapons, intelligence and troops in any confrontation with Iran: Israel.