America failed against the Taliban in Afghanistan, has been unable to gain a foothold in Syria, and its plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace has no chance of success. Iran, where Donald Trump’s hard line can help get him reelected in 2020, is all that remains.
Iran’s economy is beginning to collapse under the weight of American sanctions. Donald Trump’s “radicalism” feeds public discontent that only increases along with the cost of living. But before he eventually achieves his goal, the regime’s collapse, the American president, encouraged by National Security Advisor John Bolton, is reinforcing Iranian “extremism” and, in particular, the influence of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the charismatic leader of the Al Quds Brigades, the elite body of the Guardians of the Revolution.
Keeping everything in proportion, this encouraging of the “radicals” – direct encouragement this time around – is evident in the unfailing support that Trump gives the majority in power in Israel, who have just emerged victorious from the recent elections. In the “peace plan” that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been working on for months, there does not even appear to be a reference to the two-state solution.
America Withdraws from the Middle East
The paradox is that Washington’s hardening with regard to Iran, just like its unconditional support for Benjamin Netanyahu, is happening within the larger context of U.S. withdrawal, both from the Middle East and the rest of the world.
To understand this apparent contradiction, there is an interesting parallel, if not a key, to interpreting the situation. In the late 1960s, America wanted to free itself from the mess it had gotten itself into in Vietnam more than anything. That required opening itself up to China and a temporary extension of the conflict in Cambodia. The direct effect of that extension was that the Khmer Rouge took power and a genocide took place in which close to a third of the population died. But the point, for Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, was to come out on top.
Asia in the 1970s is not the Middle East today. But we can wonder if American policy toward Iran, as well as Israel, does not come from the same desire to free itself from the Middle East by hiding, behind the appearance of escalating action, the reality of the upcoming withdrawal.
An Alibi for 2020
In Washington, where I was a few days ago, my interlocutors – close to the center of power – spoke frankly. America failed in Afghanistan, they told me. The Taliban is winning. America failed in Syria; Russia won. The plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, concocted by Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, has no chance of coming to fruition. It favors the Israelis far too much, but it constitutes a perfect alibi for a president running for reelection in 2020.
“Look at my record in the Middle East,” Trump could say. “I’ve tried everything to find a peace agreement between the two countries. Since I haven’t made it happen, I’m doing what constitutes your greatest wish. I’m distancing myself from a region that’s costing us far more than it is benefiting us. And I’m doing it with an excellent record: The Islamic State has been defeated and Iran cornered.”
The problem with such rhetoric is that it does not at all correspond to reality. The plan for peace is not really a plan for peace. The crumbling of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq does not signify the end of the terrorist organization, as the tragic events in Sri Lanka have recently shown. And the Taliban’s likely return to power in Kabul will have both a real and a symbolic impact, which will be beyond negative for America’s image in the world and in the United States: all those lives lost for nothing and millions squandered in vain. What does it matter? This rhetoric sounds good, and American voters have never made their decisions on the basis of foreign policy.
The End of a ‘Kissingerian’ Worldview
Beyond the Middle East, we might wonder if we are not witnessing the end of a certain “Kissingerian” worldview. At almost 96 years old, Kissinger is still disseminating his advice to major world figures. But Trump’s election and Xi Jinping’s position of power in China force the disciple of Niccolo Machiavelli and Otto von Bismarck to reconsider the principles that have guided his thinking and his diplomatic action.
Kissinger had a twofold ambition that can be summarized as follows: Europeanize American diplomacy, Westernize China. The first goal involved introducing more sophistication into American diplomacy, which is key to History with a big H. With Trump in power, this goal has never seemed so far off. Even for Kissinger, unpredictability and vulgarity have their limits.
The second goal, bringing Washington and Beijing closer together, is also farther off than ever. China, at the instigation of its “new emperor,” is no longer just an economic and strategic rival, but, at least in its own eyes, is an ideological alternative. Combining Confucius and Mao Zedong, Xi presents himself as the bearer of an alternative model, who, in light of the crisis currently running through Western-style democracy and capitalism, has the wind in his sails. Almost 50 years ago, Kissinger partially opened the world’s doors to China. Today, China seems eager to isolate America, if not take its place.
We frequently hear in Washington, mostly from Democrats, but not only them, that four more years of Trump would be catastrophic, not just for the United States, but for its relationship with the rest of the world. The remarks, no doubt accurate, are a bit reductive. First because “Trump began before Trump,” with Barack Obama’s refusal to enforce the “red line” in Syria. And beginning in 2020, it will be hard for his potential successor to “repair” America’s international situation. The damage has been done.