White House must prove its com­mit­ment to Arab al­lies

Arab News - - Opinion -

Ihear cyn­ics in Cairo and across the Arab world claim­ing that US Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo’s Egypt speech was no more than a cheap at­tempt to please his boss by sys­tem­at­i­cally at­tack­ing the cen­tral tenets of Barack Obama’s Mid­dle East poli­cies. Pom­peo even de­liv­ered his speech from the same cap­i­tal where Obama set out his own re­gional as­pi­ra­tions at the out­set of his pres­i­dency. Ad­vis­ers for both fig­ures ap­par­ently be­lieved that, by trash­ing pre­vi­ous US poli­cies and telling the Arabs ev­ery­thing they wanted to hear, they could cheaply win over thou­sands of hearts and minds across the re­gion.

Yet the Arabs are a more skep­ti­cal and dis­cern­ing au­di­ence than Wash­ing­ton gives them credit for. Arabs are al­ready scratch­ing their heads at daily Amer­i­can pol­icy cart­wheels over its with­drawal from Syria. Are they leav­ing and, if so, when? It has reached the far­ci­cal ex­tent where it doesn’t even mat­ter, be­cause Wash­ing­ton has lost so much cred­i­bil­ity that the Kurds, Turks, Ira­ni­ans and oth­ers are al­ready mak­ing their own cal­cu­la­tions as if US troops had al­ready left. John Bolton was last week sent home in dis­grace from Ankara after yet an­other pol­icy re­ver­sal prior to his ar­rival. Yet, with Bolton as­sert­ing that US forces were stay­ing to erad­i­cate Daesh, it was then of­fi­cially an­nounced that the for­mal with­drawal was al­ready un­der way.

This ad­min­is­tra­tion has mas­tered the art of the to­ken ges­ture. Tak­ing credit for com­pre­hen­sive sanc­tions against Tehran, then walk­ing away and for­get­ting all about the Ira­nian threat, with so many sanc­tions ex­cep­tions that oil prices have plunged amid Asian mar­kets be­ing awash with cheap Ira­nian oil. Like­wise, with North Ko­rea, Don­ald Trump gained ku­dos for his bel­li­cose rhetoric, be­fore an­nounc­ing Kim Jong Un to be his best friend at a cur­sory meet­ing, then lurch­ing on to other ob­ses­sions, leav­ing Py­ongyang to en­large its nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties un­hin­dered.

Trump and Pom­peo have had two years to de­lin­eate an ef­fec­tive Mid­dle East­ern strat­egy. Yet it is im­pos­si­ble to iden­tify co­her­ence and con­sis­tency in this ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tiv­i­ties to­ward any part of the re­gion. In­sid­ers are pri­vately pre­dict­ing that Jared Kush­ner’s vaunted Is­rael-Pales­tine peace plan may never see the light of day. Al­though Pom­peo un­for­giv­ably ig­nored the Pales­tine is­sue in his speech, he en­joyed the ap­plause for promis­ing to “ex­pel ev­ery last Ira­nian boot” from Syria. Fine words, but how will this be achieved by a US ad­min­is­tra­tion that found even the puny pres­ence of 2,000 troops across the en­tirety of east­ern Syria to be un­sus­tain­able?

The US diplo­matic corps, mean­while, has been so thor­oughly gut­ted that the White House of­ten can­not find am­bas­sadors for key posts. So let’s not kid our­selves that this ad­min­is­tra­tion pos­sesses the ca­pac­ity or willpower to im­ple­ment a far-reach­ing strat­egy of con­tain­ing Iran. Even if its com­man­der-in-chief wasn’t in­clined to wake in the morn­ing and de­rail months of con­sci­en­tious pol­icy-mak­ing with a sin­gle tweet. Even if this wasn’t an ad­min­is­tra­tion that sim­ply aban­dons its Arab, Kur­dish and Euro­pean al­lies on a whim.

While Pom­peo was speak­ing, an Iran-made drone at­tacked a Ye­meni mil­i­tary pa­rade, caus­ing mul­ti­ple fa­tal­i­ties, in an at­tempt to de­rail peace ef­forts. Ye­men is cen­tral to Iran’s ex­pan­sion­ary strat­egy, yet Con­gress con­tin­u­ally flip-flops over its stance to­ward this con­flict. Ira­nian prox­ies are block­ing ef­forts to form gov­ern­ments in Beirut and Bagh­dad. In Iraq, they are de­mand­ing the re­ten­tion of con­trol of the In­te­rior Min­istry, en­sur­ing Ira­nian dom­i­nance over the in­ter­nal se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus. The lead­ing US of­fi­cial seek­ing to cur­tail Tehran’s in­ter­fer­ence in Iraq,

Brett McGurk, re­signed over Trump’s Syria with­drawal an­nounce­ment.

Pom­peo should not mis­take luke­warm re­sponses from re­gional lead­er­ships as a whole­hearted Arab buy-in to Trump’s agenda. I have seen se­nior Arab of­fi­cials pri­vately shift­ing from ela­tion at the tough new ap­proach to­ward Tehran to frus­tra­tion at its in­con­sis­tent im­ple­men­ta­tion and even fury at the com­plete dis­ar­ray of Amer­ica’s Syria and Iraq poli­cies, which amount to an open in­vi­ta­tion to the con­sol­i­da­tion of Ira­nian re­gional oc­cu­pa­tion.

When Pom­peo tri­umphantly de­clared that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has “re­built” Amer­ica’s re­la­tion­ship with the Arab world, he omit­ted to men­tion that the only tan­gi­ble out­comes have been the sur­ren­der of Jerusalem to Is­rael, the clo­sure of Pales­tine’s diplo­matic rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the halt­ing of fund­ing. In a saner past era, such mea­sures would have mo­bi­lized the en­tire Arab world against Amer­ica.

“That this ad­min­is­tra­tion feels the need, nearly a decade later, to take pot­shots at an ef­fort to iden­tify com­mon ground be­tween the Arab world and the West speaks not only to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pet­ti­ness but also to its lack of a strate­gic vi­sion for Amer­ica’s role in the re­gion,” a group of for­mer US of­fi­cials de­clared in a state­ment. Yes, Obama’s re­gional poli­cies were a dis­as­ter, with zero progress on Pales­tine and an em­bold­ened Iran — yet there is noth­ing yet to in­di­cate that the new or­der will be any more suc­cess­ful.

Pom­peo’s an­nounce­ment of a Mid­dle East con­fer­ence ma­jor­ing on Iran next month — in Poland of all places — seems like a lame at­tempt to con­vey a sense of mo­men­tum, but may sim­ply serve to high­light the fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tions in views be­tween Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans con­cern­ing Iran. If Pom­peo was se­ri­ous about the prom­ises in his speech, he would find a co­hort of will­ing Arab part­ners, par­tic­u­larly with re­gard to curb­ing Ira­nian ag­gres­sion. Yet re­gional lead­ers are baf­fled by the an­tics of an ad­min­is­tra­tion that knows and cares lit­tle about the facts on the ground.

The Arab world wants to work with you, Mr. Pom­peo and Mr. Trump, but for such a gen­uine part­ner­ship to be fea­si­ble you will have to do bet­ter than rhetor­i­cal flour­ishes aimed at black­en­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of your pre­de­ces­sors. Above all, your ad­min­is­tra­tion must prove that it is com­mit­ted to ac­tively and con­sis­tently stand­ing by its re­gional al­lies through good times and bad.

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