Last month Lukman Faily, the former ambassador of Iraq to the USA, gave an address to our guests at Riverside on Iraq-US relations in the Trump era. Since then events have moved dramatically in Syria, Iraq’s troubled neighbour. So, what could the future hold?
It is said that astrology was only developed to make economic forecasting seem respectable; trying to forecast anything in the Middle East and ‘on the hill’ is equally fraught. However, one more opinion and some thought provoking may not go amiss.
The title implies that there may be dramatic change in US policy. This would be consistent with the campaign rhetoric of 2016, but reality has often blown many an electioneering ‘promise’ out of the water, and realpolitik is usually more consistent than the domestic voting constituency. However, there does seem to be a change from the apparently cautious, and seemingly reluctant policy of the Obama administration towards a more overt willingness to become engaged, with minimum boots on the ground.
Whether the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired as much towards North Korea as into Syria is a moot point. However, the opportunity that presented itself was seized by the US and allowed it to engage 2 birds with one set of missiles. It also allowed the new Commander in Chief to gain some credentials for decisive action. Cynics will also buy shares in Raytheon as each missile will cost $1.8 million to replace. That is certainly putting the US military-industrial base first!
In the longer term the aims of past and present presidents have been broadly similar: a stable Middle East and progress to some form of resolution of the Palestinian issue. Here the US is somewhat out of step with Europe in its seemingly unconditional support for Israel – yet here also Trump has actually moved to discourage settlement building in the West Bank, a move that was not anticipated during his election campaign.
Back in Iraq the US is pursuing two lines of effort: enabling the Iraqi forces to defeat Da’esh in the field, and strengthening the government of Iraq and its democratic institutions. This brings both the State department and the Pentagon to working in Iraq in almost equal measure. This time these workings are less public than they were in the days of the CPA, but one must wonder as to whether the hawks and the doves are working well together. That said, the Iraqi forces are succeeding and the government of Hayder al Abadi does not appear to be as vulnerable as it did only a year ago. So, something must be going right somewhere.
Whither Donald Trump in the Middle East then? Though to many he is held up as some sort of bogeyman, his policy goals appear to be relatively unchanged from previous regimes. His methods however, may be more direct if recent events are anything to go by. However, forecasting is fraught – so watch this space!