Trump’s NATOME initiative remains a blur

Trump is yet to give details of what he meant when he said he would ask NATO “to become much more involved in the Middle East process.”
Sunday 19/01/2020
Uncharted territory. US President Donald Trump speaks during the NATO summit in Watford, England, last December.                (AP)
Uncharted territory. US President Donald Trump speaks during the NATO summit in Watford, England, last December. (AP)

The risk of all-out war between the United States and Iran has prompted reactions from European leaders, NATO and Middle East rulers who are no friends of Iran. All sought to lessen tensions and mistakes, such as Iran’s downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet in Tehran.

Particularly noteworthy was the reaction of senior Israeli officials who have backed the United States’ aggressive courtship of Saudi Arabia and confrontation with Iran. They are concerned about what they see as American bellicosity and myopia and a reluctance to be seen as encouraging a US-Iran military confrontation.

Amos Harel’s article last June in Haaretz headlined “Oman Attack: Why Israel remains mum as accusations against Iran abound” was prompted by a seasoned observer trying to consider the long-term regional effects of war between the United States and Iran. This change of heart, from an Israeli, should be considered a warning that US policy, in his view, was spinning out of control.

European and Canadian leaders, whatever their exact feelings about Iran, share such a sense of foreboding. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has questioned whether US President Donald Trump bears some responsibility for the downing of the Ukrainian jetliner, a disaster that cost 57 Canadian lives.

He and some European leaders seem to share the view that the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the ruthless commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force, gave Iran an excuse to abandon diplomacy.

The United Kingdom, France and Germany triggered a dispute mechanism in the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, taking their most robust response yet to Tehran’s declaration that it would no longer abide by the uranium-enrichment limits set in the accord. Those who know Iran are divided as to whether this measure was worth taking.

Robert Malley, president of International Crisis Group, said the decision was a “mistake” that could have the “unintended consequence” of strengthening hardliners in Iran who would be happy to tear up the deal. Malley, who helped to negotiate the nuclear deal, argues that the more the Europeans “go down that road, the more they risk losing Iran and the more they risk pushing Iran in a completely different direction.” Once the clock starts ticking, in other words, there is no going back.

Trump seemingly believes that NATO should become NATOME — North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Middle East. As so often happens with a president who contradicts himself and his senior officials, no one is sure what this remark means.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was quick to react by warning that the alliance was unlikely to deploy extra combat troops to the Middle East, setting up a potential clash over US demands that NATO and the Europeans do more in the region. He was happy to see NATO step up its efforts to fight international terrorism but remains convinced that “the best way is to enable local forces to fight terrorism themselves.”

Trump is yet to give details of what he meant when he said he would ask NATO “to become much more involved in the Middle East process.” What that last expression means is anybody’s guess, although it could include expanding the 430-person training mission for Iraqi forces, which was suspended because of the Iran crisis. Another potential move would be a rebadging to put some training activities of the international coalition against the Islamic State under NATO command.

Asking Europeans to send troops to fight in Iraq, where NATO has never had a combat mission, would be very contentious. The French are fully stretched by their commitments in Africa’s Sahel region and are not being helped by suggestions the United States might pull out of that part of Africa where its reconnaissance activities are vital to French military operations.

Germany would never agree and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has appeared more attuned to German and French caution than US bombast. They are well appraised of the fact that NATO, with its tool as a defence alliance, is not well-equipped to deal with the challenges in the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel region, which are often of a social, political and economic nature.

There is no agreement among allies on what is happening in the Middle East or Libya, let alone the Sahel. In the latter two, the situation is deteriorating and NATO leaders have not forgotten how they were dragged into a war in Libya in 2011: leading Western actors there decided to stay “until the job was done” without defining what the job was.

Until 1980, the hierarchy of interests that shaped US foreign policy privileged Europe and East Asia. As that singular critic of US foreign policy historian Andrew Bacevich points out, from 1940 to 1990, “there was a certain cohesion… you could say there was a strategy. If you wanted to reduce that strategy to a single word, the word would be ‘containment.’ The Middle East was peripheral.”

Former US President Jimmy Carter’s response to the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed that and began the process that vaulted the Middle East to the top of US foreign policy interests.

By 9/11, Bacevich, a former US Marine Corps officer and now a professor at Boston College, concluded: “The change gets expressed above all and most regrettably in the reorientation of the US military.”

Before 1980, US foreign policy was practical. Thereafter, it morphed into mission creep with the disastrous consequences that have cost trillions of dollars and millions of lives. European leaders and the NATO secretary-general seem to share that analysis. They are trying to be practical and restore a sense of purpose to the policy of the West in the Middle East.