Since Donald Trump’s surprising electoral college win, allied governments and rivals alike have been on edge, not sure what to expect from his presidency. This is largely because he’s offered so many contradictory statements over time, especially in terms of foreign policy.
Although they seemed to have lost much of their influence due to Trump’s victory over their preferred candidate Hillary Clinton, the ‘Exceptionalists,’ whether liberal interventionist or neo-conservative in terms of party loyalty, are not going to stop trying to influence and cajole the new president. At the top of their wish list is a new Cold War with Russia, a cash cow for the defense contractors who fund their think tanks and journals.
Now that violence has flared up again in Ukraine, a hurdle has been thrown in the way of the President’s proposed detente with Russia. This should be seen for what it is: a provocation on the part of Kiev and its Western allies that endangers the lives of civilians in the east of the country and has already left at least 33 dead. In the town of Avdiivka, tens of thousands of people have been left without electricity or running water in sub-zero winter cold.
In their eagerness to force a confrontation with the Kremlin, U.S. hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are playing a dangerous game, even more so considering that the Trump Administration has already “put Iran on notice” and is engaged in dangerous saber-rattling with China.
There are many in the Trump Administration itself who don’t share the President’s stated enthusiasm for increased cooperation with President Putin’s government. Current UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, a Trump appointee, seemed to be channeling the hysterical theatrics of her predecessor, Samantha Power, in assigning all of the blame for the renewed fighting to Russia.
While Russia’s government has authoritarian tendencies, its leader, Vladimir Putin, and its top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, are rational actors who can be negotiated with. We saw this with the Iran nuclear agreement and the deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.
While the media has conveniently forgotten it, early in the Obama presidency, the U.S. and Russia managed to reduce nuclear armaments by a third. Unfortunately, in the current environment, there’s talk of renewing this arms race in both countries.
Unlike the multi-sided conflict in Syria, in eastern Ukraine the principal actors seem to have the ability to control their proxies and return to the ceasefire mandated by the 2015 Minsk agreement. This should be the ultimate goal of all the interested parties, along with further talks toward ending the tensions.
This isn’t to say that the Ukraine, especially the west of the country, doesn’t have historical grievances against its larger neighbor, the two have a shared and often fraught history, beginning in the 9th century when what would become Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine were born in what was then called Kievan Rus.
In more modern times, an interesting comparison can be made between these countries’ relations and those of the UK and Ireland, with the Northern Irish Unionists playing the role of the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. An imperfect comparison to be sure, but more nuanced than the neocon bleating about Nazi Germany in 1938. Both the Ukraine and Ireland were among the first victims of the European colonialism that would eventually conquer most of the world..
However, the present mix of oligarchs and neo-Nazi Banderites holding power in Kiev give the kleptocrats in the Kremlin a run for their money in terms of corruption and shouldn’t be so easily embraced by NATO countries. These powers should be leveraging their influence over these forces to promote an end to hostilities rather than echoing their belligerence in international forums.
Persia in the crosshairs
One thing that Trump and the majority of his national security appointees and advisors agree with the neocons and their militarist liberal counterparts on is that Iran, at best a 2nd rate regional power, is somehow an existential threat to Israel, the United States and Europe. The White House managed to conflate two very different things as proof of this after less than a week in office.
First was the test of a medium range ballistic missile by the Islamic Republic, part of an ongoing series of launches that are legal under the agreement negotiated by the P5+1 powers, which included the U.S.
As Iran’s defense minister Hossin Dehghen told the Tasnin news agency, “The recent test was in line with our plans and we will not allow foreigners to interfere in our defense affairs. The test did not violate the nuclear deal or (UN) Resolution 2231.”
Second, and quite absurdly, was the conflation of this missile test with Houthi forces in Yemen firing on Saudi warships that have blockaded the country for months, putting the net food importer at risk of widespread famine. According to UNICEF, by December of last year 462,000 Yemeni children were suffering from “severe acute malnutrition” while almost 2 million more suffered from “moderate acute malnutrition.”
These humanitarian concerns should be at the forefront of the debate about the bombardment and blockade by the Saudis and their Gulf State allies of the Middle East’s poorest nation, rather than the questionable connections between Iran and the Houthis.
Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer even claimed that Iran itself had fired on an American ship, a blatant falsehood that will now be accepted as a fact by many people because, to paraphrase a quote often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, “A lie travels around the world before the truth has time to get its boots on.”
One can say many bad things about the puritans who sit at the top of Iran’s theocratic Republic but they are not stupid and are highly unlikely to attack Israel, which actually has nukes and a stated willingness to use them, not to mention powerful allies pledged to their defense. However, the Mullahs have also watched as Iraq and Libya were practically destroyed by foreign powers in part because they had no deterrent.
The double standard at work here should be as obvious as it is old.
Iran’s intentions, even when mostly defensive, are always bad, the result of a particularly Persian strain of evil that infects some 75 million people, while actual bombs dropped by powerful countries like the U.S., the UK and France killing tens of thousands are mistakes based on good intentions. Simple logic and common sense were long ago replaced by what one of the Godfathers of their movement called the ‘Noble Lie’ before the current era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative truths.’
Like all countries, Iran’s politics do not produce complete unity among the population. The current President, though hamstrung by religious authorities, is a recognized reformer. On the other hand, one dangerous group close to power is the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a hardline faction of the military that’s also in charge the country’s missile program.
They are likely to answer any threats from President Trump and Mike Flynn with equal bellicosity, but they should not be seen as the norm in their country any more than the President and his perpetually angry National Security Advisor are representative of most Americans.
Most Iranians, like a clear majority of U.S. citizens, just want peace.
“Iran is my home no matter who the rulers are. Look at Syrians who left their country because of the war. They are being humiliated… I do not what to be like them,” Samira Azamzadeh a hairdresser in the city of Rasht in northern Iran recently told Reuters, “I don’t have money to go abroad. I am a single mother of two teenage girls.”
If many in the Iranian government are going to respond negatively to this bullying, China is even more likely to dig in its heels in the face of threats emanating from the White House. American policymakers may have forgotten the country’s history of humiliation at the hands of Western powers and Japan but the leadership in Beijing has not.
This is one area where the hardcore nationalists around Trump have staked a claim not generally seen from America’s interventionists in the recent past, even with the much touted ‘pivot to Asia’ under the last administration. This was probably because even they understand the risks of a confrontation with a linchpin of the global economy more vital than Russia and Iran put together.
Although China’s building of islands in the South China Sea over the often legitimate objections of neighboring countries with competing claims is troubling and will have to be adjudicated by international bodies and through diplomacy in the years ahead, the hostile tone taken by the newly installed Secretary of State, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, including threats of blockades, is likely to harden rather than soften the stance of the leadership in Beijing.
A possible explanation for Tillerson’s combative tone is that his former employer is trying to develop energy resources off the coast of one of China’s rivals, Vietnam, including in areas claimed by the People’s Republic.
The strange way that the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is shaping up in terms of war and peace is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that one of the few voices of reason over the last few weeks has been the new Secretary of Defense, a man whose nick-name is ‘Mad Dog.’
With traditional interventionists like Elliot Abrams filling key posts in the administration and people like Trump’s ‘Chief Strategist’ Steve Bannon calling for a civilizational war between Christians and Muslims, the current President seems ready to repeat the worst mistakes of the past while at the same time steering the United States in dangerous new directions.