Recent expressions of US foreign policy, particularly but not only in the Middle East, show the impact of populism, exemplified in the Trump presidency, and the consequent strengthening global tendencies of every man for himself, unpredictability, chaos and open divisions within the ruling class.
Three recent examples of Trump’s phone calls and tweets illustrate the issue: in a phone call to President Erdogan of Turkey in mid-December on the US withdrawal from Syria, Trump reportedly told him “You know what? It’s yours. I’m leaving” (Christian Science Monitor, 16.1.19). Then in a tweet on January 12, Trump said that he “would devastate Turkey economically if they hit the Kurds” (CNN, 14.1.19). Two days later, in a January 16 phone call to Erdogan, Trump reaffirmed the Syrian pull-out and offered Erdogan a 32 kilometre “safe” zone along the Syrian border (Middle East Eye, 17.1.19) along with an increase in Turkish/US trade. Ambivalence, mixed-messages, incoherence and confusion reign in Washington and beyond, and the Kurdish question remains unresolved, a running sore between Washington and Ankara. Secretary of State Pompeo, whose statements have also been contradictory depending on what country he is in, said that Kurdish forces must be protected while Iranian forces must be expelled from Syria. A further factor here is that any major gain of Turkey over Kurdish-held territory would be against the interests of Tehran and Damascus, demonstrating that war can only come from war, particularly in any vacuum left in the Middle East.
Trump’s approach to US foreign policy is at odds with most of a US military establishment that tends to take a more global perspective of the Pax Americana, including a greater concern for its allies rather than the contempt shown to them by the President. Trump’s obsession with Iran is becoming more dangerous and divisive and Secretary of Defence Bolton’s war-like comments against Iran on his aborted trip to Turkey earlier in the month were reportedly denounced through US embassies around the world. The Khashoggi killing has exposed the “deal-maker’s” relationship with Saudi Arabia and that of the latter with Israel, where Trump has also encouraged the most belligerent elements, giving Netanyahu the green light to ramp up the pressure on Hezbollah and bomb Iranian targets in Syria. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is another sop to its right wing which can only further increase the region’s tensions, while the great peace “master-plan” for Israel and Palestine of Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has yet to see the light of day; and all the while the Gaza Strip becomes more and more uninhabitable as a result of a seemingly unending siege by both Israel and Egypt.
Divisions between Trump and the US military establishment
President Trump’s demagogic foreign policy of “retreat behind walls” and “America First” are aimed at his electoral base and beyond, where workers are not keen on endless foreign wars, showing the persistence of the “Vietnam Syndrome” which Trump is using for his own advantage. Following the disasters of US imperialism in the Middle East (and Afghanistan), a realignment of US forces has some support among the military and wider layers of the US bourgeoisie, but not necessarily using the same methods as Trump. This president personifies the global dynamic in the phase of the decomposition of capitalism which has deepened since the break-up of the blocs in 1989: the development of the centrifugal tendencies of “each for themselves”, unpredictability, the fortress mentality, the sudden abrogation of international treaties and protocols, etc. Within this irrationality, there’s a certain “logic” to Trump’s actions which responds to the failures of its wars and the overall weakening of the US in the Middle East and elsewhere. Giving up on Syria and a rapprochement with Erdogan - the latter a sort of mirror-image of Trump - fits into this logic. But the implementation of this policy has been typical Trump: ill-thought out, inconsistent, contradictory and individualist. Regarding the Syrian pull-out, Brett McGurk, Washington envoy to the US anti-Isis coalition, said after resigning and after four US Special Forces were killed in an Isis attack in Manbij mid-January: “we have to get out” but “there is not a plan for what’s coming next” (New York Post, 20.1.19). McGurk also played down the idea of a Turkish “replacement” saying this was not “a viable plan”. The resignation of Defence Secretary James Mattis at the end of last year, also in protest against the President’s decisions, further shows the profound divisions within the administration.
The Syrian withdrawal, already begun before the New Year, is a logistical nightmare and potentially very dangerous for US lives. Trump’s announcement of “victory” over Isis was precipitous to say the least and it has virtually invited attacks on US and coalition forces by Isis. Isis is far from beaten and while its territory has been greatly reduced it still holds large fortified tracts from which it can launch what it does best - terrorist attacks and guerrilla warfare. Apart from Isis, the ex-al-Qaida forces of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) have strengthened considerably in Idlib, making them another significant factor in the game.
The deep divisions between Trump and the US military have been exposed by the resignations of Mattis and McGurk, amongst others, and the great disquiet of other elements of the US state who want to maintain pressure on Russia and China; and these divisions exist both within the US administration and between the US and its allies in the west. The latter were shocked by Trump’s announcement on the Syrian withdrawal - a point he has put forward before he was even elected - leaving their position, which also supports Kurdish forces, exposed, vulnerable and weakened.
It’s not just in relation to the Middle East that there are divisions within the US administration and worries among its allies. They extend further, with various factions and states suspecting that the US is dropping its guard against Russia. This is combined with great uncertainties around the future of NATO and growing concerns about “what’s coming next?” as US disengagement from the Middle East seems to be becoming a geopolitical reality. One thing that certainly seems to be coming next from Trump is a new US space-based missile system that he is insisting must be paid for as part of a “fair burden-sharing with our allies... all of these wealthy countries” (The Hill, 17.1.19). This retreat, and the policy of walking away from existing missile and nuclear treaties, seems to be symbolic of “America First” - echoed in its own way by Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey - and a withdrawal behind the walls of “Fortress America” in order to avoid the growing international breakdown and chaos, much of which has been generated by US imperialism in the first place. It’s a long time since, in the representative form of President George Bush, the USA declared on 11.9.90, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that we were moving into “... peace. An era in which the nations of the world... can prosper and live in harmony”. Instead of which we find ourselves in a world that’s sinking deeper into economic crisis, spreading warfare, irrationality and instability of which the Trump presidency is hugely symbolic. The stakes for the working class couldn’t be greater. Baboon, 23.1.19
. Israel wants to stop Iran’s project for a “Shia Crescent” through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. Trump attacks the former with sanctions and Israel, increasingly and openly, with bombs and missiles onto its forces and bases around Damascus. There’s not a clear division of labour here and confusion and contradictions exist with Trump saying that Iran could “do what it likes in Syria” (The Times, 22.1.19). The Israeli bombings are however a major escalation and unintended, uncontrollable consequences are also features of decomposing capitalism.