An unstable commander-in-chief takes on an unstable Middle East

Trump's unprecedented fall-out with his intelligence chiefs bodes ill for a region where US has long struggled to implement a coherent foreign policy

January 20, 2017 10:10

This is, more or less, where we are.

Donald Trump, the populist president-elect of the most powerful nation in the world, even before taking office, fell out with his intelligence service chiefs. 

This fall-out is so spectacular that he accused the 17 agencies on which the security of the country he is about to lead — and on whose analysis he is supposed to depend to make crucial decisions which will have massive consequences for hundreds of millions of people — of leaking information against him and thus behaving in a way that recalls “Nazi Germany”.

The immediate cause of this animosity was twofold.

There was the release of a dossier containing unsubstantiated, salacious allegations of sex acts in Moscow.

Then there were the public conclusions of US intelligence chiefs that it was indeed Russian hackers who obtained details from Democratic Party servers that were damaging to Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, and that this effort, possibly, was part of a bid to facilitate Mr Trump’s election.

The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper condemned the release of the sex dossier; nonetheless, these two factors have reinforced Mr Trump’s long-term suspicion of such US intelligence services and their output. He has dismissed the daily presidential briefing — the distillation of the thinking of 17 entire agencies on any given day — as unlikely to teach him anything he does not already know, and repeatedly implied that intelligence officials are part of a broader “elite” plot against him and ordinary people.

This thinking is in line both with the suspicion of intellectuals and experts that characterises populism everywhere, in the UK or Europe as in the US. But it also plays to a particular strand of conspiratorial right-wing US thinking that sees such security agencies as the arm of a repressive, invasive, expansionist predatory state which, in the imagination of some of the wilder exponents of this view, is run by liberals, financers, big business and, inevitably, Jews. Mr Trump may not share these views, but many of his supporters do, and his rhetoric resonates with this constituency.

What all experts agree on is that the alienation of a president-elect from the intelligence establishment is unprecedented. This breakdown comes at a critical moment. The Syrian war is at a turning point, Daesh is ebbing, but sectarian violence and competition, among actors big and small, is intensifying. Serious people talk of chaos from Yemen to the Maghreb, with Israel in the middle of it all.

Mr Trump has given little indication of what policies he intends to adopt. Key appointments — Mike Flynn as National Security Adviser, David Friedman as envoy to Jerusalem — suggest a more aggressive prosecution of a revamped “Global War on Terror” and a reinforced support for positions on Israel traditionally seen by the US foreign policy establishment as hardline.

But other picks, though they sound superficially bellicose, suggest there may be a restraining influence, though not necessarily one that was sought by the president-elect. James “Mad Dog” Mattis may have gone to the Department of Defence because Mr Trump likes his straight-talking “honest soldier” style, but the retired Marines general proved in Iraq that he was acutely aware of the limitations of military force and has a reputation as a rigorous intellectual.

Rex Tillerson, nominee as Secretary of State, said he would prioritise defeating Daesh, reinforcing the likelihood of the US aligning closer to Russia in Syria, and dropping calls for Bashar al-Assad to leave power, but was moderate in other regards. His statements on Iran, and the nuclear deal, were relatively uncontroversial.

Mike Pompeo, Mr Trump’s pick for CIA chief, surprised many by saying he would disobey orders to torture. However, if he is confirmed, it is Mr Pompeo, described by detractors as “a right-wing zealot with Islamophobe ties” who will now have the unenviable job of trying to reconcile angry and hurt security agencies with a president who has publicly compared their chiefs to Nazis. Can he do it? Does he want to do it? Nothing is less sure.

The key problem is that constructing a coherent, predictable, reliable, long-term foreign policy in the Middle East has always been extraordinarily difficult for the US. This is true everywhere of course, but especially this region. There are simply too many interests, views, actors, historical legacies and extraneous factors.

The frequent comparison of US foreign policy to a super-tanker, which can only incrementally alter course, is misleading, suggesting consensus and uniformity which simply does not exist. US foreign policy is a flotilla of ships of differing sizes and speeds, which a careful and clever leader can, with luck, navigate in a single, broad direction. This was true with Barack Obama, a cerebral former Harvard law professor, in the White House. It will be even more so with a maverick former TV presenter and real estate mogul.

One element encouraging coherence within this flotilla was the output of intelligence agencies. Theoretically unpoliticised, rigorous, based on empirical investigation and cautious assessment, buttressed by decades of expertise, language skills as well as sources and secret technology, this material, though it did not suggest policy, is circulated to all major actors and is influential. The role of the personal briefers, who physically communicate the intelligence to the president, should not be underestimated either.

This relationship appears to have broken down. The president-elect’s bitter row with his intelligence chiefs thus introduces a new destabilising factor in an already destabilised policy-making machine which is trying to manage an unstable region in an unstable world. We may know more or less where we are. But we have very little idea where we are going.

Jason Burke is a journalist and author of ‘The New Threat’


January 20, 2017 10:10

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