The Trump presidency has set into motion the geostrategic and political-economic dynamics that have begun to morph the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) into Major Power Warfare— or what the US State Department euphemistically calls Great Power Competition.
Since the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations took out a blank check to engage in “counter-terrorism” operations in at least 80 different countries—at the cost of $6.4 trillion and rising. These US-led or US-backed military interventions have taken the form of a “whack-a-mole” doctrine of striking both “terrorist” organizations and “rogue” states—many of which had nothing to do with Al Qaeda.
And instead of quelling “terrorism,” these military interventions have directly or indirectly helped to spread GWOT from Afghanistan and Central Asia, to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Africa and the Sahel region, Central Africa, the Philippines, and increasingly to the US-backed Saudi-led war in Yemen, Somalia (al-Shabaab) and the Horn of Africa.
And these interventions have not succeeded in building even adequately sustainable states and societies. And this is not to overlook the fact that GWOT and Major Power Warfare are beginning to merge with the “War on Drugs” in Latin America.
Troop withdrawals and redeployments
President Trump has blamed his predecessors for the “forever wars” and has promised US troop withdrawals—or really redeployments—with respect to Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, as well as Germany.
In Afghanistan, a US troop withdrawal from 4,500 to 2,500 by January 2021 could result in a Taliban resurgence and eventual seizure of power—if peace talks mediated by Qatar fail. A full US withdrawal will most likely leave the regional powers in charge, so that India, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China will need to deal with a new Afghan leadership through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to the exclusion of the US, while the Taliban will continue to battle its rival Daesh (the so-called Islamic State).
With the Trump administration augmenting cruise missile strikes since 2017, the failed US military intervention in Somalia—with significant civilian causalities—has not halted the attacks of the pan-Islamist organization, Al-Shabaab. Trump has now opted to redeploy most US troops in Somalia to Kenya and Djibouti.
And in addition to the horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen versus the Huthi Ansar Allah movement seen as backed by Iran, the Tigray conflict with Ethiopia threatens an even wider regional war on the Horn of Africa—if a new concerted UN-backed Contact Group approach to Yemen and if a national/ international Ethiopian dialogue cannot soon be implemented.
In essence, in order to limit American causalities (only), Trump has generally preferred an even heavier use of cruise missile strikes and deployment of special forces against perceived “terrorist” threats than did presidents Bush and Obama—yet at considerable costs to the civilian populations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, among others.
Given the fact the Trump administration has not fully engaged in negotiating truly concerted diplomatic settlements with the states and anti-state movements most concerned, the withdrawal of US forces from these countries risks further exacerbating these conflicts.
A triple risk
In essence, Trump’s “global strategy” has sought to refocus on the major “threats” of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea while concurrently engaging in a new naval and aerial “offshore” strategy by limiting the exposure of US forces on land where possible.
There is nevertheless a triple risk involved in the effort to shift from GWOT to Major Power Warfare.
- Trump’s oxymoronic “Peace through Strength” approach has further destabilized ongoing regional conflicts and opened the door to military interventions by rival parties—much as has already proven the case with Russian, and then Turkish, military intervention in Syria.
- Trump’s policies appear to be provoking, not “deterring,” the real possibility of a full-scale Major Power War by pressing China, Russia, Iran and North Korea into a closer Eurasian Axis.
- Trump’s unilateralist (kleptocratic, nepotistic and narcissist) doctrine has not only alienated US rivals, but US allies as well—making it more difficult for Biden and future US administrations to implement a truly concerted and multilateral diplomacy intended to achieve global peace.
NATO and the Russian and Chinese backlash
NATO’s promises to expand its full membership to Ukraine and Georgia, combined with EU efforts to draw Kiev into a new political-economic and security partnership, have helped to provoke a nationalist backlash in Russia that resulted in Moscow’s preclusive annexation of Crimea and political-military interference in eastern Ukraine in 2014. In the aftermath of Russia’s military interventions in 2014, Washington has sought to reinforce the NATO alliance by demanding even greater Allied defense spending despite Trump’s disparaging remarks about the Alliance. With respect to Germany, Trump has attempted to force Berlin to spend a much greater amount than 1.3% of its GDP on defense. Trump has additionally threatened to redeploy US forces from Germany to Poland (to what was previously called “Fort Trump”) or elsewhere in eastern Europe. The risk here is that a permanent US or NATO troop relocation to eastern Europe could violate the 1997 NATO-Russia Foundation Act in which NATO promised not to deploy additional combat forces or nuclear weapons on the territories of new NATO members.
US efforts to boost NATO spending have further pressed Russia toward a closer defense relationship with China despite disputes over the Polar Silk Road and Chinese irredentist claims to Russian territories in the Far East, among others. The fear of possible Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) disaggregation has led Russia to further securitize controls over its allies—with Chinese backing despite (or because of) significant social protest in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus—even if Beijing appears indifferent as to whether the Lukashenko dictatorship remains in power. In effect, the fear of regime change caused by “democracy” or “independence” movements—seen as supported by the US and EU—has been driving Russia and China closer together. Concurrently, US efforts to boost quadrilateral Indian-Japanese-Australian military ties, plus US support for Japan and South Korea against North Korea, in what Obama had called the “pivot to Asia,” have also helped to press Russia and China into a closer defense relationship given the Pentagon’s build-up of forces in the Indo-Pacific.
Although both Russia and China still deny an intent to forge a military alliance, Moscow tends to back China’s position on North Korea, while Beijing has been building a new Eurasian Axis with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and China’s global “Belt and Road” initiative.
For its part, Beijing fears that a number of domestic socio-political movements are challenging Communist Party rule. Beijing believes that Trump is more strongly supporting Taiwan’s claims to “independence” than did previous US administrations while also supporting “independence” or “democracy” movements in Tibet, Xinjiang province, and Inner Mongolia, as well as in Hong Kong.
Washington sees the threats of China’s President-for-life Xi Jinping in January 2019 to unify with Taiwan by force if necessary— in an attempt to control the sea lines of communication from Japan to the Arab-Persian Gulf, if not provide blue water access for China’s nuclear submarines—as a potential casus belli.
As Trump’s defense policy morphs away from GWOT, significant powers such as Turkey and India represent wild cards that could flip toward either Russia and China or toward the US—as they begin to assert their regional interests and attempt to “balance” between these rival coalitions.
For its part, NATO-member Turkey—which is now engaged militarily in conflicts in northern Syria, the Caucasus in support of Azerbaijan, the eastern Mediterranean vs. Greece, and in Libya—appears to be shifting closer to Russia and China. Ankara finds itself confronted with a coalition of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, as well as France and EU-member Greece, with the US and other European states unable or unwilling to negotiate these disputes.
By contrast, although it is hesitant to alienate its close ties to Russia, India now appears to be shifting closer to the US, France, Japan and Australia after its Himalaya conflicts with China.
Alliance against Iran and Turkey
Perhaps most immediately, the Trump administration’s decision to drop out of the Iran nuclear accord, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), risks a wider conflict that could draw Israel and the US into a future regional war.
The Trump administration has promoted an “encircling” Israeli-Saudi-UAE-Egypt-Bahrain alliance against Iran’s significant regional influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen—and more indirectly to counter NATO-member Turkey’s expanding influence. While the Trump administration may welcome close ties between Israel and Gulf monarchies, that may not be the case for the general Arab/Islamic population in the wider Middle East. Failure to bring the Palestinians into the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and the Gulf states in what I have called a “confederal solution” (as a variant of the two-state solution) could prove fatal for regional peace.
One major risk is that a close Israel-Arab Gulf state connection will fuel the propaganda of Al-Qaeda and Daesh-type movements throughout the region, including within Saudi Arabia itself. A second risk is unilateral Israeli military intervention against Iran’s presumed nuclear capabilities. A third risk is the strengthening of Iranian and Turkish ties with both Russia and China—precisely what Trump has hoped to prevent.
The purpose of Trump’s drone strike assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, and the presumed Trump green light for the assassination of Defense Ministry official Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, appears to be to goad Iran into taking actions that could rationalize an Israeli and/or US military response. Trump himself has purportedly advocated the option of bombing Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility—given reports that Iran’s uranium stockpile is 12 times larger than permitted under the JCPOA accord that Trump unilaterally dumped—but he was apparently dissuaded by his closest advisors.
Thus far, Iran has vowed some form of military retaliation, but only at the appropriate moment. In the meantime, the Iranian parliament has passed a law demanding the enrichment of uranium to a 20 percent level and has threatened to prevent IAEA inspections of its nuclear energy facilities if US oil and banking sanctions against Iran are not soon lifted by the Biden administration. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has claimed that he opposes this parliamentary legislation as it prevents diplomatic flexibility—but the government is ostensibly obliged to act in accord with Iranian law.
The dilemma is that Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy has strengthened Iranian hardliners, who have engaged in a severe repression, and who could win the June 2021 presidential elections once Rouhani steps down. In the meantime, the Iranian government will most likely look toward closer political, economic, energy and military ties with China and Russia as a bargaining chip to gain greater concessions from the US and EU.
Given Israeli opposition to Biden’s proposed efforts to restore the JCPOA, Israel could opt to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities much as it struck Hamas in Gaza just before Obama came to power in January 2009 in the lame duck period. And if Congress permits the Trump administration to sell Israel bunker bombs and the F-22 Raptor— in part as compensation for the US sale of the costly advanced F-35 fighter jet to the UAE—then the option of Israeli military strikes on Iran’s presumed nuclear facilities becomes more plausible at a later date. So too does a general war in the region.
Trump: lighting a match to the Middle East powder keg?
Neither Moscow nor Beijing want Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons, but they do hope that Iran will help smother pan-Sunni “terrorist” movements that oppose Russian and Chinese interests throughout the wider Middle East, Central Asia, and in Xinjiang province. And with the Trump administration planning to withdraw forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia and China will also seek to strengthen their ties with both the Iraqi and Afghan regimes.
The danger is that a full-scale Major Power War could soon become a Trump-fulfilled prophecy—in that the combined impact of NATO enlargement, followed by GWOT, the US pivot to the Indo-Pacific, and Trump’s “Peace through Strength” doctrine, has begun to pit the US, NATO, EU, Japan, plus other US Allies in the Indo-Pacific and in the wider Middle East, against a burgeoning China-Russia-Iran-North Korea Eurasian Axis that seeks to weaken US alliances and attract new members.
In the effort to ameliorate tensions in a number of key regional “hot spots” and to prevent a full-scale Major Power War, the Biden administration will need to initiate a truly concerted global strategy that works closely with the Europeans, plus key regional powers, such as India and Japan, in seeking to draw Russia away from closer ties to China—but without alienating Beijing.
And in order to prevent the real possibilities of a China-Taiwan war—what has been called the “Thucydides Trap”—the US will need implement a new truly concerted global strategy in working with the Europeans, Japan, India and Moscow that seeks to channel China’s rise to major power status—while bringing China and Taiwan into mutual respect—much as I argued in World War Trump.
Contrary to the Trump-Netanyahu doctrine, the Biden administration will need to revive the UN-backed JCPOA by working with the Europeans, Russia, China, as well as regional powers such as Turkey—in the difficult effort to restore Iranian trust. Biden will also need to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia into direct negotiations—and with Israel where possible—in an effort to resolve their significant geo-political and energy disputes, while also seeking to engage in missile reduction talks for the entire region.
In late November, Trump ominously forewarned that “there will be a lot of things happening between now and the 20th of January”. Let us hope that Trump’s efforts to light a match to the Middle East powder keg will not be one of his lame duck surprises.
** This commentary was first published at Wall Street International on December 18, 2020.
* Professor and Chair, ICP Department, American University of Paris. Hall Gardner is the author of “World War Trump: The Risks of America’s New Nationalism” and a collection of poems, “The Wake-Up Blast.”
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