Will Trump return to the go-it-alone imperialism of the Bush years, asks Simon Assaf
The crisis for US and Western imperialism can only intensify with the advent of a Trump presidency. The go-it-alone policy Trump advocates, which was pioneered by George W Bush’s “new American century”, failed bitterly in Iraq. According to one commentator the coterie who will be running the new US foreign policy will make Bush’s neo-cons seem like “a bunch of old history professors”.
Trump’s neo-con dream to “make America great again”, along with his bellicose statements and brazen racism, has created great uncertainty not only with ordinary people, but also among the US’s Western allies. Trump’s vitriolic racism even made the Israelis blush. In 2015 Trump cancelled a trip to Israel after the Netanyahu government criticised as too harsh his plans to bar all Muslims from entering the US — in a rather bizarre statement the Israeli government claimed it “respected all religions”.
Trump’s problem is that he is set to inherit a global crisis fired by renewed inter-imperialist rivalries not seen since the end of the Cold War. The return of the neo-cons breaks the post-2003 consensus among Western powers on display in Syria and Iraq — containment and “realpolitik” with its “practical”, short-term and localised alliances.
The West’s current strategy in Iraq — which is beginning to make progress — rests on a practical alliance with Iran, the UAE, the Kurds, the Shia-run Iraqi government and its sectarian militias, among others. Since its defeat in Iraq the US has become punch-drunk and struggled to implement a coherent policy. This has opened the door for other forces to come into play.
Imperialism is a system of geopolitical rivalries that is constantly creating circumstances for new conflicts.
No doubt Trump’s gang will entertain ideas of using vast military power to re-arrange the facts on the ground. But it will be difficult to untangle the alliances and rivalries that have emerged out of the Iraqi debacle. In terms of military reach and muscle, there is still much to fear. The US has 19 aircraft carriers, with another ten advanced supercarriers on order. This dwarfs Russia’s sole ageing carrier that is currently in action off the Syrian coast. China is building a new fleet, but it is many years away.
China’s challenge to the US remains regional, although the size and speed of its military programme pose a near-future crisis for the US’s Pacific domination. But this must be taken in perspective: despite China’s vast investment in Iraqi oil, it cannot send its army to guard the oil fields or its ships to police the Persian Gulf. This continues to fall on US shoulders.
Russia’s Putin is challenging the US openly over Ukraine and Syria. But Russia’s aggressive reassertion of its global power is still a shadow of its Cold War strength. Putin’s main ambition is to regain some of Russia’s old influence, but this is taking place mainly in the countries that broke away from the old Soviet Union, such as Georgia and Ukraine. Putin’s intervention in Syria is to protect Russia’s last ally in the Arab world. He is not breaking new ground.
Russian firepower in Syria has been devastating, but it cannot confidently challenge the US militarily. Instead Russia has become another player making practical alliances that sometime coincide, and at other times challenge, the other powers.
US strategy under Trump is unlikely to succeed any better than Obama’s in this complex geopolitical terrain. Trump has floated the prospect of a tactical alliance with the Assad regime in Syria against ISIS, more closely aligning US policy with that of Russia (both powers are also courting the Kurds). But aside from the rhetoric, this is not a radical break from Obama’s strategy.
The US already has in its sights the jihadists who form the backbone of Syria’s armed rebels around the cities of Aleppo and Idlib. It has been targeting for a while Jabha Fateh al-Sham (formally Jabha al-Nusra), a leading rebel organisation allied to al-Qaeda, and already declared other leading rebel Islamist formations as “enemies”.
There has been US intervention in Syria — not the no-fly zone to protect Aleppo as many people demanded, but against the Islamic State and recently in direct support of Assad. Rather embarrassingly the US marked its arrival on the Syrian battlefield when it bombed, by mistake, Syrian regime soldiers holding off an ISIS offensive on the city of Deir al-Zour.
The defeat of ISIS remains the West’s top priority, but so is the prospect of carving out a rump Sunni state in western Iraq and eastern Syria, one beholden to the West rather than a grand caliphate. A partition of both countries is on the cards, and can emerge as the only “practical solution” to deeply sectarianised regimes in Iraq and Syria. There are further complications with the emergence of Turkey and Iran as active regional players.
The US retreat from Iraq over the past ten years, along with the “pivot to Asia” favoured by Obama, has created conditions for old ambitions in the Middle East to resurface. Both Iran and Turkey are now actively involved in both Syria and Iraq. By opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Turkey broke free of its Cold War obligations — its unquestioned alliance with Israel being one of the key features. As with Iran, it was well positioned to fill the vacuum left by the US retreat.
Turkey and Iran have a shared interest in Iraq and Syria — the strategic imperative to stymie the development of an independent Kurdish state. Both countries have sizeable and restive Kurdish populations. Since the failed coup in July Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s ruler, has broken through any fetters holding back his ambitions. The balance of power with the old state has shifted massively in his favour, yet the core principles that guide Turkish interests are not fundamentally altered.
Turkey wants a stable southern border; to halt the development of a Kurdish state and position itself as a counterpoint to Iranian expansion; to remain the guardian of the EU’s eastern borders and strengthen its hand in the on-and-off negotiations for EU membership. Its battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria gives it the opportunity to position itself as a key player in both countries. Turkey insisted, despite the objections of the Iraqi government, that its troops be part of the Mosul offensive. It is now building a permanent base in the territory it has seized east of Aleppo.
Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria was not to relieve the siege of Aleppo, but to ensure that the Kurds do not control a continuous strip of territory from northern Iraq to northern Syria and create a safe haven for the Kurdish independence movement. By sending its tanks across the Syrian and Iraqi borders, Erdogan is now free to pursue his strategic goals in the direct interest of Turkish capital.
Iran has positioned itself in a similar manner. Following the nuclear deal with Western powers, Iran is emerging as a regional power in its own right. Iraq gave it the opportunity to break free of the complex manoeuvres with the West it had to perform in order to protect the regime.
If Trump rips up the nuclear deal it would put a huge strain on his Western allies and cross a number of “red lines” that could draw US ground troops back into the Iraqi quagmire and direct confrontation with Iran. The prospect does not appeal to global powers.
Where Trump’s active foreign policy might have an impact is in buttressing Saudi Arabia’s proxy war with Iran over Yemen. The Saudi war, launched with grand phrases of a quick victory, has now entered its 20th month. The country is being demolished and its people driven close to starvation by a war that shows no signs of ending. Yemen, which witnessed one of the most popular Arab Spring movements, faces the prospect of future partition under rival Iranian and Saudi patronage.
Despite the 2015 spat over Trump’s language, there will be no change for Israel. Netanyahu thought the Obama administration was too critical of Israel, but it did not stop it from dropping any pretence of seeking a solution to the Palestinian question or ease the Israeli gold rush for Palestinian lands. The Israelis are pursuing a wave of dispossessions that is set to consume the West Bank and designate historic Palestine to the Gaza Strip. Trump’s ascendency will not alter this.
The fundamental “known unknown” is that the so-called “Arab street” remains a seething hotbed of popular anger. The new US administration can try to reassure itself that the Arab Spring is over and counter-revolution victorious, but this is fanciful. The economic conditions that underlay the 2011 revolutions have not eased; they have become harsher. From Saudi Arabia to Morocco the conditions of ordinary people have become extremely hard, and sudden outbreaks of protests are a stinging reminder that all is not well. At the end of October mass protests swept Morocco, triggered by the police killing of a fish seller. Egypt has seen sharp outbreaks of localised protests, such as the near uprising in Port Said over rent rises.
Egypt remains the most important Arab country, and its revolution went the furthest in shaping a different future for the Arab world. The forces that made the Tahrir uprising have been silenced, but not crushed. Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi mobilises his security forces at the slightest whisper of public protest. His standing among ordinary people is falling as his government is unable to fulfill the promises he made on seizing power.
Sisi has much to fear. In return for a £10 billion IMF loan, his government is pushing through an austerity package that includes, among others, a 50 percent hike in the price of basic necessities such as baby milk formula (though not for army families), similar hikes in electricity and fuel, education, medicines, wheat and rent.
The government even sent the police to seize Pepsi Cola’s supplies of sugar in response to a national shortage. Underlying this is a 48 percent devaluation of the Egyptian pound as part of the IMF deal, which will further hike up the cost of imports. State repression has kept a lid on protest and on strikes. But it cannot contain the unpredictable explosions of anger.
There can be no doubt that Trump’s election represents a further turn in the spiral of crisis for the West and imperialism. There is much to fear from the return to the military doctrine epitomised by the neo-cons. But the Middle East has become vastly more complex, and it continues to teeter on the edge of another wave of revolutions.