Significance of US diplomacy reset

Trump’s diplomatic reshuffle is likely to subtly change the tone and substance of US-Saudi discussions on countering Iran.
Sunday 18/03/2018
US President Donald Trump (R) speaks alongside the then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a cabinet meeting at the White House, last December. (AFP)
Diplomacy reboot. US President Donald Trump (R) speaks alongside the then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a cabinet meeting at the White House, last December. (AFP)

The firing of Rex Tillerson did not come as a surprise to anyone. Rumours of his dismissal were rife from late last year. It was considered so likely that the former US secretary of state was nicknamed “Rexit,” a play upon the made-up term to describe Britain’s exit from the European Union.

It has long been obvious US President Donald Trump and his chief diplomat did not see eye to eye on key foreign policy issues, including Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal.

Trump mentioned the difference of views the day Tillerson was dismissed. “We disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal, I think it was terrible.” His secretary of state, he complained, had a different view. “I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently,” Trump said. “So we were not really thinking the same.”

Many in European capitals, however, said that Tillerson’s position on Iran was closer to their own, rather accommodating stand than Trump’s.

Not just on Iran policy, it was becoming increasingly difficult to understand where the United States stood on world issues. Middle Eastern leaders found Washington’s mixed signals confusing, especially with respect to the Saudi-led bloc’s demand that Qatar cease its connection to extremist groups and downgrade its ties to Tehran. White House expressions of support for the grievances against Doha were, at times, contradicted the very same day by the secretary of state.

There were obvious differences between the president and his secretary of state on climate change and North Korea but nowhere is there greater expectation of foreign policy leadership from the US president as in the Middle East.

The muddle over Qatar damaged US credibility. Doha, the region thought, was emboldened by Washington’s ambiguity and consequently felt able to ignore the demands of its neighbours.

Trump’s nominee as US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, will have to hit the ground running. He has much going for him, not least a personal connection to the president. Trump has said of Pompeo: “We’re always on the same wavelength. We have a very similar thought process.”

Even so, Pompeo has much to do, starting with putting the State Department in order. Eight of ten top positions in the department, as well as many key diplomatic posts around the world, remain unfilled.

There will be an urgent need to re-examine the US position on the nuclear and conventional threat posed by Iran, especially as the May 12 deadline looms for Trump to decide whether to withdraw from the agreement.

Trump’s diplomatic reshuffle, just days before the visit to Washington of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, is likely to subtly change the tone and substance of US-Saudi discussions on countering Iran. Clarifying Washington’s stand on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s row with Qatar is also likely to be part of the agenda.

It is to be hoped there will finally be clarity.

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