Pompeo can convince allies in ME only if Trump has his back
The White House should let the 'grown ups' set the foreign policy house in order.
By Arnab Neil Sengupta (Taking Stock)
Published: Thu 10 Jan 2019, 7:52 PM
Last updated: Thu 10 Jan 2019, 9:55 PM
They could have chosen to follow in James Mattis's footsteps and quit the administration.
They could have composed powerful resignation letters and gone public with them. But to their credit, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo among other high-level officials have decided to stick it out.
They surely have no illusions about the risks and uncertainties of reporting to Donald Trump. The challenges of keeping a job in an administration where the chief executive announces crucial decisions via Twitter before consulting his cabinet are daunting to say the least.
But deep down they know that with so many of the "grown-ups" gone from the government, all that stands between some semblance of order and a total meltdown is possibly just them. Without their calming influence, the creator of the muscular strategic framework that Bolton, Pompeo et al had long waited to be permitted to put in place could turn into its destroyer one fine day.
Together they also owe it to Washington's genuine allies, especially those risking life and limb in the Middle East's war zones, that their boss's impulsive behaviour does not suddenly leave anyone twisting in the wind.
They may have succeeded for now in walking Trump back from his December 19 call for an immediate military pullout from Syria. But the shock waves from that decision are still being felt by countries that have committed troops, money and equipment to different campaigns on the assumption of a basic continuity in US policies regardless of which party or politician holds the reins of state power.
Without strong assurances from Bolton and Pompeo that the administration will never do to any allies what it was on the verge of doing to Syria's Kurds, the coming days could witness shifting political alignments and a scramble for security arrangements that could leave Washington high and dry.
That being said, two developments argue against a hasty abandonment of America by allies shaken by the Syria fiasco.
One is the corrective effect of the backlash against Trump's Syria announcement, resulting in the morphing of the pullout timetable from "one month" into "four months" into "gradual" and finally into "over time". Put simply, an assertion of Trump's presidential prerogative has been effectively nixed by his own inner circle and the foreign-policy establishment acting in the best interests of America and its allies.
The other, more worrying development is the collective reaction of America's strategic rivals to the Syria pullout plan. It seems no story could have warmed the cockles of the hearts of the Turks, Iranians, Russians and Syrians like the one about the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan upending a pillar of US policy in the Middle East with a simple phone conversation with Trump on December 14.
Each side has since sought to portray its game plan as a fight against terrorists while essentially aiming to strip the joint Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces of control of the biggest piece of Syrian territory still outside the control of the Assad regime.
Despite the conflicting ambitions of Turkey, Iran and Russia in Syria, their leaders appear to have achieved a modus vivendi that has averted any strife that could play into the hands of the US and its regional allies. Ideally, they would want Trump to join their axis of opportunism instead of playing the role of an adversary. But conservative hawks' dominance of the US administration is a stumbling block to their plans.
Small wonder, then, Erdogan got an opinion piece published by the New York Times this week to express his frustration over Trump's failure to force his team to fall into line. Itching to repeat the success of his capture of the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin early last year and buoyed by the diplomatic capital he accumulated following the murder in October of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, the Turkish leader is in no mood as yet to concede defeat.
Given the high stakes of the region's complex geopolitical battles, it is no surprise that Bolton is catching flak from not only Erdogan but also anonymous detractors within the US government, who have taken to feeding critical stories about him to liberal media outlets. Then there are the usual suspects on the left, political mavericks and policy wonks with hidden agendas who also have taken up the cudgels for the abandonment of US allies in the Middle East.
Under the circumstances, it is obvious that those in the Trump administration eager to confront the Middle East's "malign actors and strategic competitors" (to use Mattis' words) have their work cut out to get the US back in the game. Not only should the US be prepared for an indefinitely long stay in Syria, it must strive to stand by its partners and allies across the region while ramping up the pressure on their common adversaries.
Despite the mistakes he has made, Trump has also assembled a team comprising some of the most competent and clear-sighted foreign-policy hands. The least he can do for them is to get out of the way so that, secure in the knowledge that he has their backs, they can make the difficult calls needed to rectify the situation.
-Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East