Not-so-Splendid Isolation: U.S. Foreign Policy Runs Aground

By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | February 20-27, 2019

Donald Trump
Photo: Gage Skidmore


Three international conferences that took place virtually simultaneously – in Warsaw, Munich, and Sochi – revealed the evolving international agenda, including on Middle East issues. The conferences exposed the isolation of the U.S. and the weakness of President Trump’s unilateral foreign policy that was broadly criticized (including Senators and House Representatives from both parties in Munich).


The Warsaw Conference – Contrary to its original mission of mobilizing the international community to increase the pressure on Iran, the conference highlighted the different positions of the U.S. and Europe. Vice President Pence’s harsh attack on the European decision to create a mechanism for bypassing American sanctions against Iran underscored the Transatlantic gaps. European countries’ “cold shoulder” led the U.S. to reframe the conference as a gathering for strengthening Middle East stability. Nevertheless, at the end, they sent low-level representatives and embarrassed the U.S., represented by both Vice President Pence and Secretary Pompeo.


More positively, the European representatives were subjected to uniform messages from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Israel on the multiple dimensions of Iran’s threat to the Middle East, including aspects that not always attain media attention, such as arms smuggling to Shiite groups in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.


The Munich Conference surfaced publicly and unprecedently the Transatlantic rift vis-à-vis a menacing Russia and an empowered China. Deliberations exposed the uncertainty regarding future U.S.-European relations. The German Chancellor that had maintained restraint in her public statements regarding the U.S. delivered a scathing address. Chancellor Merkel warned that the global order the U.S. built has "collapsed into many tiny parts". She called on Europe to take charge of its destiny, slammed President Trump for retreating from Syria, strengthening Iran and Russia, and criticized the U.S. for raising tariffs on German carmakers (that President Trump alleges pose a threat to U.S. national security).


The Sochi Conference convened the outliers of the Warsaw Conference – the presidents of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The three leaders failed to resolve the disagreements over the fate of Idlib. Russia seeks to forcefully dislodge the last standing enclave that is not under Assad’s control, while Turkey is concerned that an onslaught on Idlib will create a humanitarian crisis and a new wave of refugees. Turkey’s priority is to create a buffer zone in the North that would remove the Kurds – a move to which Russia opposes.


Against this backdrop, the concluding statement in Sochi focused on the three countries’ lowest common denominator – calling on the U.S. to implement its decision to withdraw from Syria as a condition for strengthening the country’s stability and security. The three countries that have all deployed forces on the ground will continue to shape Syria’s future, while the U.S. continues to zigzag on the question of its military presence there. For now (?), the Trump administration has decided to leave a small force of several hundred troops in Syria, including the Al-Tanf garrison.



What does this mean for the Middle East and Israel?

Israel is between a rock and a hard place. As the U.S. is in a fierce great-power competition with Russia and China on one hand, and in a Transatlantic rift, on the other, Israel will have to act prudently to stay out of the eye of storm…


Iran – The depth of the U.S.-European rift that goes well beyond the level of disagreement over Iran, might persuade Teheran that if it tests the boundaries of the JCPOA or even breaches it, Europe will not rush to join American sanctions. As previously noted here [Flashing Yellow Lights: Rafah and Teheran], there is an ongoing debate in Iran on future policy vis-à-vis the nuclear agreement that could be also related to the commotion around Foreign Minister Zarif's resignation.


The Palestinian Arena – There is a glaring discrepancy between the U.S. administration’s stated determination to unveil the “deal of the Century” and the absence of partners – in the region and around the world – that are willing to support the initiative. Facing heavy American and Israeli pressures, the Palestinians are warning of a possible “eruption”. The Palestinians boycotted the Warsaw Conference and chose to advance their agenda at the EU-Arab summit meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh, during which they raised support against the American initiative and were backed in the closing statement that adopted their preferred framework for a peace agreement.


U.S. relations with the Arab countries, whose support is crucial for the “deal of the Century” are facing troubled times. Notably, the Arab countries showed up in Warsaw mainly because of their anti-Iranian position. Saudi Arabia stands out in this respect – it fails to differentiate between the positions of the administration and the Congress and is angered over the legislation to stop U.S. involvement in Yemen, the continued dealing with the Khashoggi affair, and the Congress’ investigation regarding the sales of nuclear reactors to the kingdom.


Against this background, the Asia visit of the Saudi’s crown prince MBS is perceived as a signal to Washington. In China, Saudi’s largest trade partner, MBS posed with President Xi and signed a series of agreements and deals. In Pakistan, MBS received the royal treatment and confirmed the Palestinian right for an independent state in accordance with the Saudi peace initiative. Simultaneously, and on the eve of U.S. envoys Kushner and Greenblatt visit to the region, Jordan reaffirmed its support of President Abbas’s position and undertook a destabilizing measure on the Temple Mount – approving the expansion of the Waqf council.


North Korea – the lack of support of powerful actors – mainly China – and the uncompromising positions of Chairman Kim that considers nuclear weapons critical to regime's survival, complicates President Trump’s mission in Hanoi. The outcomes of the summit will probably have wide-ranging implications for the Middle East and Iran – something to assess in next week’s edition.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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