While US troops will remain on tenterhooks globally, Trump has provided ammunition to his Democratic opponents for a very interesting election campaign at home
2020 is an election year in the USA. President Donald Trump is trying for a second term. The American public will definitely review his performance before giving him a second chance. As far as foreign policy is concerned, Trump’s record has been a mixed bag. While many term it as a “term of controversies,” the cornerstone of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy has been “principled realism” or more popular “America First.” After all, what else is the purpose of any country’s foreign policy except to put its own interests first? Trump’s foreign policy vision smacked of sabre rattling rather than reconciliation. He was not only distrustful of US allies, scornful of international institutions and indifferent to the liberal international order that the US had sustained for nearly eight decades but also displayed inconsistency by blowing hot and cold on many occasions.
Trump is bound to tout his record on foreign policy as a resounding success. While he hasn’t built a wall and expensed it to Mexico, he has followed through on pledges to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord, to renegotiate NAFTA and to aggressively press China on trade. He has delivered on many of his campaign promises, whether the rest of the US supports them or not. In doing so he has earned the title of “international bully,” annoying many allies and friendly nations, undermining international institutions, dishonouring treaties and accords and creating flashpoints. Conventional wisdom says that foreign policy does not win polls. But Trump seems to be faced with a challenge that may break this.
The majoritarian view in the US still favours engagement and shared leadership in global affairs, as well as US participation in alliances and pacts, while Trump continues to move in the opposite direction. As per a survey, 57 per cent Americans disapprove his foreign policy performance. The latest episode in the Middle East will definitely add to his woes and the democratic hopefuls will exploit these vulnerabilities during campaigning. This time, foreign policy might be a major theme for the election and just might tip the balance.
The tension in the Middle East has been building for quite some time and Trump did display restraint. Iran, no doubt, was testing Trump’s patience by repeated misadventures like the shooting down of a US surveillance drone, mining the Strait of Hormuz and an assault on Saudi oil facilities in response to sanctions. Trump all the while avoided retaliating militarily, preferring to tighten the noose with additional sanctions. The brain behind Iran’s defiance was the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, Major General Qasem Soleimani.
Soleimani had been in the bad books of the US ever since he emerged as the mastermind of Iranian use of proxies to target US and Western assets and servicemen, promoting terrorism and conducting destabilising activities in countries hostile to Iran. He was credited with conducting proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. He controlled much of Lebanon through the Hezbollah. He was also the mastermind behind the survival of the Assad regime in Syria. The Americans hated him for being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of soldiers in Iraq at the hands of Shia militias after US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though, later he cooperated with the US in fighting the ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
But once Trump called off the nuclear treaty with Iran and imposed sanctions, he once again became a sworn enemy of the US. He crossed the red line by attacking an US military base in Iraq that resulted in the death of a US contractor and injured several servicemen. That Trump would not tolerate any loss to American lives was clear by the way he ordered air strikes against five targets in Iraq and Syria associated with Iran-backed Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah that was believed to be responsible for the attack on the US base near Kirkuk. Justifiably, the Pentagon termed these strikes as “defensive” since they were in retaliation to attacks on US servicemen and civilians in Iraq. But Trump surprised the world by using US military power to kill Soleimani through a rocket attack. Pentagon once again termed it as “defensive” since Trump was convinced that Soleimani was visiting Iraq to intensify attacks against US bases in Iraq. The US strike also killed a top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani and a dozen of militia men, evoking a quick and angry response from both Iran and Iraq. While Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran, to whom Soleimani reported directly, vowed revenge, the Iraqi Prime Minister termed it as a violation of a deal for keeping US troops in his country.
Is it really a defensive act or a provocative one? Has Trump overreacted? The chances of an all-out war may not be very high but it would lead to escalation in the low-level conflict between the US and Iran with global consequences. Violent retaliations will be there. Considering that the Americans are thin on the ground and widely dispersed in foreign lands, a chain of reprisals is going to hit them unless the US is willing to escalate to a full blown war. This may prove costly as far as American casualties are concerned. Under such circumstances, would Trump be able to sustain his doctrine of military retaliation whenever an American life is lost, is a million dollar question. That, too, in an election year. Additional deployment of 3,000 troops in Kuwait to ward off the Iranian threat and failure to reduce the jackboot strength in Afghanistan may also prove costly for Trump. What is surprising is why Trump decided to strike now when he is also facing an impeachment? Trump was possibly irked by ransacking of the US Embassy 104 acre Green Zone compound in Baghdad. Yet, killing the Iranian General on Iraqi soil will remain a questionable strategic decision. Continuation of American troops in Iraq will come under pressure in view of the response of the Iraqi Prime Minister.
Apart from usual attack on US military commanders and soldiers or launching operations to destroy its bases and assets, Iran may also resort to cyber-attacks considering the over dependence of Americans on the internet. In a worst case scenario, Iran may try to enlist Chinese and Russian support and combined with their cyber forces launch a propaganda cum perception operation against Trump, which may mar his campaign. Americans should prepare for the unexpected. There has been fair amount of criticism from the Democratic opponents of the President.
The situation in the Middle East will be highly tense, with Israel and Saudi Arabia at the receiving end. Shia terror groups in Pakistan may also become active against US targets as well as troops in Afghanistan. Soaring oil prices and tumbling share markets will be the immediate global consequences. Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden has termed it “a highly escalatory move in a highly dangerous region.” The possibility of it turning into a Shia versus Sunni conflict may disturb peace in many countries in the region.
Former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao has criticised Trump’s decision, “US military personnel are in Iraq supposedly on an anti-IS mission. Under the Trump administration, there appears to have been mission creep, in Iraq as well as Syria, in which somehow confronting Iran has become part of a new mission. That mission has never been justified.”
India cannot remain unaffected by the events in the Middle East since it remains one of the largest oil importers of the world. Soaring oil prices apart from hitting the pockets of the common man are also going to add to India’s economic woes when it is struggling to revive a sluggish economy. Tensions in the region may also affect the smooth oil supply. Strategically, it would have an adverse impact on India’s bid to develop Chabahar Port and develop an alternative rail, road axis to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan and the open trade route to landlocked Central Asian Republics.
Majority across the globe term it as an “unnecessary provocation.” Surprisingly, a usually hyper Trump has chosen to remain quiet. He will be in a dilemma since he ran his campaign and continues to do so ahead of 2020 election- on the promise of an end to Middle East wars. Does he have that choice now?
While US troops will remain on tenterhooks, Trump has provided enough ammunition to his Democratic opponents for a very interesting election campaign at home. While the target will not be questioned, timing will definitely be the contentious issue.
(Writer: Anil Gupta; Courtesy: The Pioneer)