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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

White House shows it is ready to lead from the front over Iran, ISIL and Qatar

Con Coughlin assesses Donald Trump's national security strategy document and its likely impact on the Middle East

Donald Trump at the White House earlier this week. Saul Loeb / AFP
Donald Trump at the White House earlier this week. Saul Loeb / AFP

After nearly a decade during which America’s allies in Middle East have felt neglected by Washington, the new national security strategy outlined by Donald Trump this week should provide some reassurance that America intends to reclaim its leadership role in the region.

During former president Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure, relations between the White House and its long-standing allies in the region became strained, to say the least. Tensions first arose during the Arab Spring, when Mr Obama preferred to support populist uprisings at the expense of governments with close ties to Washington. Mr Obama’s decision, for example, to back the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was, in retrospect, a watershed moment, one that showed pro-Western Arab states that they could no longer rely on American support and protection.

This grave misjudgment by the Obama administration was further compounded by Mr Obama’s half-hearted approach to dealing with the Syrian conflict, where his failure to carry out his promise to launch military action against the Assad regime if it resorted to chemical weapons destroyed his credibility.

Mr Obama’s failure to display firm leadership over Syria, together with his decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, opened the way for the vacuum to be filled by militant groups such as ISIL and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

The result is that the region is suffering widespread political instability on a level not seen in a generation.

But if Mr Trump’s national security strategy is to be taken at face value, then the era when the region’s malcontents have been able to take advantage of the failures in American leadership is now drawing to a close.

Instead of the “leadership from behind” mantra that was so popular with the Obama administration, Mr Trump’s strategy sends a clear signal that the senior security figures in his administration, many of whom have first-hand experience of working in the region, are no longer prepared to give Washington’s enemies a free pass.

On the contrary, the fact that the document explicitly confirms Iran’s designation as being a “rogue state” represents a complete reversal of the Obama administration’s approach, which was more interested in appeasing the ayatollahs in its desperation to keep the flawed nuclear deal alive.

Instead of turning a blind eye to Iran’s unwelcome meddling in the affairs of a number of Arab states, from Syria to Yemen, the strategy identifies Iran as being the primary competitor to American interests in the region.

The 55-page document also sends a thinly veiled warning to countries like Qatar, who continue to fund and sponsor Islamist groups with links to terrorism.

Rather than turning a blind eye, Mr Trump wants to foster development to make sure the region does not become a “safe haven or breeding ground for jihadist terrorists, not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and that contributes to a stable energy market.”

Nor is it just with regard to the Middle East that Mr Trump is signalling a radical shift in American policy-making. To my mind, one of the more defining passages in the new strategy is where it highlights the failings of so-called the “soft power” approach many Western powers have adopted since fall of the Iron Curtain. This policy was encouraged by leading American academics who argued that, as the age of major conflicts and global rivalries was drawing to an end, nations would be able to settle their differences through diplomacy rather than raw military might.

But as the document makes clear, this “end of history” approach has failed to persuade rogue states to behave responsibly and uphold their international obligations. Instead, it has enabled countries like Iran to increase their support for terrorism, and allowed rival powers such as China and Russia to strengthen their economic and military positions at the expense of the US.

This is an approach the Trump administration is no longer prepared to countenance. The document takes issue with “policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”

You only have to look at the political landscape of the Middle East today to see how this policy has failed. The Obama administration's woeful neglect of the region has allowed Russia to establish a level of influence that the Kremlin could only have dreamed of a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the missile fired by Houthi rebels earlier this week at the Saudi capital Riyadh, which US officials believe was provided by Iran, is yet another graphic illustration of the Iranian regime’s increasing involvement in the region’s conflict.

But given the Trump administration’s uncompromising stance towards Iran, which it regards as “the world’s most significant state sponsor of terrorism”, it is unlikely Tehran will be able to get away with such provocative behaviour for much longer. And that will good news for those pro-Western states in the region who yearn for the return of strong and effective leadership from the White House.