On Dec. 16, the United States Senate voted by a large margin in favor of a resolution banning any American military aid to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Even if this vote is symbolic, it is the first time that the two houses of Congress affirmed their sovereign autonomy over war and peace under the War Powers Act (a 1973 federal law limiting the powers of the president to engage the armed forces in conflict without the consent of Congress). The Senate also passed a resolution blaming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and demanding accountability from the Saudi state.
These acts of defiance shine a light on the growing unrest in Washington over the erratic foreign policy of the executive branch and its implementation in the Middle East. Under Donald Trump, the United States has freed itself from international law and international governing bodies in the name of radical sovereignty and a Hobbesian conception of international relations, treated as a zero-sum game in which force takes priority over law. “A central continuity in history is the contest for power … and … the present time period is no different,” according to the most recent National Security Strategy, which the executive branch submits each year to Congress outlining its main positions on foreign policy and the country’s defense capability. Human rights have no place in this vision, nor do treaties or the fundamental idea of a universe of rules upon which cooperation is built.
An Exclusive and Perilous Relationship
The United States has therefore engaged in a general effort to weaken multilateral institutions, a commercial power struggle with China, strategic competition with China and Russia, and a policy of confrontation and coercion in the Middle East. In terms of design, the regional policy was highly personalized – determined by a handful of individuals (Jared Kushner, Benjamin Netanyahu, the crown prince and Mohammed bin Zayed) rather than through state institutions, blurring the lines between public and private interests. In substance, it has been reduced to the construction of an exclusive relationship between the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, with objectives ranging from simple to perilous: initiating a regime change in Iran through coercive economic diplomacy and potentially the use of armed force, and imposing an unequal solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by diktat, putting a de facto end to a two-state solution.
The unilateral decisions made by the White House to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (on Dec. 6, 2017), then pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal (on May 18, 2018), a patient and hard-fought negotiation under Barack Obama, are evidence of this. These choices reveal a sovereign disregard for the law and open the door to violence. In fact, a number of academic and institutional observers (former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson and others) believe that the Trump administration is actively seeking a confrontation with Iran. As for Palestine, the path proposed by Kushner’s peace plan and supported by the crown prince – a permanent abandonment of the Palestinians’ territorial and political claims – can only lead to violence.
Put into perspective, the actions of the current administration accentuate strategic American errors in the region since 1991. During the so-called Cold War (it wasn’t that in Europe), the America had multiple, sometimes contradictory, aims: to contain Soviet influence, to supplant declining European colonial states, to hinder local forces representing a real or potential threat to the American order, to prevent the emergence of powers with the ability to challenge the equilibrium, to assure the security of Israel, and, of course, to secure the flow of oil. For this, the U.S. relied on authoritarian states – not always docile, but dependent. Despite major setbacks – the 1979 Iranian revolution, notably – the U.S. has generally maintained these positions.
A Disintegrated Regional Order
The end of bipolarity was interpreted by Washington in the 1990s as a spectacular opportunity to rebuild an American-centered world order. However, none of the major outstanding regional issues – the Israeli-Palestinian matter, turbulence in the Gulf, issues of democratization and development – found viable solutions. Little by little, the regional order disintegrated, with the United States having less and less of a grip on events. In 2003, under George W. Bush, the U.S. made the daring and fateful decision to invade Iraq, and attempted to reshape the entire region, rechristened the “Greater Middle East.” Faced with Iran’s rising power, the fruit of their intervention, they tried to build a united front with Israel and the Sunni oil monarchies of the Gulf in 2006-2007.
In an attempt to mend the fractures and to restore American credibility, Obama sought a change. He initially tried, without success, to put an end to occupation and to re-initiate the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” long since moribund. He did, however, push through the very sensible Iran nuclear deal. His objectives, built on a realistic analysis shared by the major American agencies were to prevent a new war, contain regional nuclear proliferation and slightly distance the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia (a preoccupation of security institutions since 9/11). Then came the Arab Spring, the reaction and reconsolidation of authoritarianism, the war in Syria and Libya, the Islamic State … and the election of Trump.
Today, Trump clearly hopes to solve the outstanding problems with unilateral action, done deals and force. It’s no coincidence that we find figures from the Bush administration in key positions in the Trump administration (John Bolton, e.g.), who only encourage the mockery, and, in a highly amateurish way, the tendencies that were present under Bush. Since reality obviously doesn’t stand in the way of the president’s desire, dangers accumulate, and one must hope that internal institutional and political forces will be capable of constraining his actions.