Trump accelerates demise of multilateralism in Middle East

While multilateralism’s demise has been accelerated by Trump, it has roots in the “creative chaos” espoused by Condoleezza Rice, US national security adviser during the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Saturday 31/08/2019
US President Donald Trump gestures during a news conference at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, August 26. (AFP)
Building on chaos. US President Donald Trump gestures during a news conference at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, August 26. (AFP)

Two months before his death in May 2018, Paul von Maltzahn, former German ambassador to Egypt, Iran and Iraq, warned of the dangers of the Trump administration. “The problem is that American policy is destroying the multilateral approach,” he said. “It’s sad but multilateralism is quite new and is in danger. Multilateralism is complicated and takes a long time but it can create more stability.”

Trump’s disdain for international conventions and his unpredictability masked a lack of foresight, von Maltzahn said. “Russia is outwitting the US in the Middle East because it has a strategy, which America lacks,” he said. “The Russians have been ruthless in pursuing their objectives but they have more of a long-term view.”

The G7 summit in France concluded with an agreed declaration of sorts but those were two days during which the world’s leaders jockeyed for position. French President Emmanuel Macron seized an initiative by inviting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose country has been under new US sanctions since July. After speculation Zarif would meet with senior US officials, Iran’s foreign minister saw only his French counterpart before leaving for Beijing and Tokyo.

The day Zarif arrived in France, August 25, an air strike blamed on Israel hit a convoy of Brigade 45, a Shia militia, near Iraq’s al-Qaim border crossing with Syria. The same day, two Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles crashed in Beirut’s southern suburbs, prompting Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to exchange bellicose rhetoric and threats. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri appealed for assistance not from the international community or Washington but from Moscow.

While multilateralism’s demise has been accelerated by Trump, it has roots in the “creative chaos” espoused by Condoleezza Rice, US national security adviser during the 2003 Iraq invasion and later secretary of state. However, Trump’s “America First” and disdain for international frameworks — in 2017 he abandoned the Paris Agreement on climate change and last year the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — have tempted other leaders to seek Trump’s direct largesse.

Netanyahu has usually been first in the queue. West Bank settlements have continued apace with Trump recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and pushing son-in-law Jared Kushner as the architect of a “peace plan” that simply ignores the Palestinians’ claim to statehood.

However, Trump’s unpredictability has dangers even for Israel, where senior officials panicked over rumours that Zarif was at the G7 to facilitate talks between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani. “They’re afraid Trump might fall in love with him as he did with Kim Jong-un [leader of North Korea, whom Trump has met with three times],” an Arab security analyst noted.

In a febrile atmosphere with normal diplomatic channels clogged, “messaging” is hit-and-miss, the analyst said: “With the drones, the Israelis may be sending a message to Iran that they have changed their mind about whatever red lines — for example, hitting infrastructure but not personnel — that supposedly apply to Iran’s deployment in Syria and Iraq.

“The strong reaction from Nasrallah may be telling the Israelis they are not abiding by any new Israeli red lines and will open up the Lebanese front [against Israel] and it all may tie in to Iranian messages to France and the US that if they don’t come to their senses [easing sanctions against Iran] they will rock things around.”

This is infertile ground for fresh multilateral frameworks — even limited ones like the 1996-2000 agreement governing Israeli-Hezbollah clashes in occupied southern Lebanon under which Israel did not bomb civilians and Hezbollah did not fire rockets into Israel. And, as Hariri recognised, it looks like Moscow is seen as the “honest broker” or at least as a reliable mediator.

Israel’s overriding concern is Iran and its “proxies, first and foremost Syria,” said Yossi Alpher, former Mossad officer and author of “Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies.”

“This threat from the north is Israel’s major strategic preoccupation. The war of attrition against Iran’s build-up has so far been successful, but we are far from finished. As long as Iran is involved, I see no political solution,” he said.

Alpher said both Russia and Israel have sought to make the most of regional instability since the Iraq invasion and the “Arab spring” — with Moscow expanding its military role and gaining a Mediterranean foothold with a naval base at Syria’s Tartus.

“Putin’s capacity to mediate is limited and he knows it,” Alpher said, “but he’s our neighbour now, like Iran, but neutral. [Netanyahu] has cultivated him skilfully but that, too, has limits.”

Alpher conceded that Netanyahu and “most Israelis” like Trump and that many expect his re-election next year.

Alpher’s own view is different: “Ultimately, Trump is disastrous for us, for two reasons. First, he is helping us become a binational apartheid state [by incorporating the West Bank]. Second, when push comes to shove with the Iranians, the Russians or anyone else, we cannot really depend on him.”

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