Trump’s team faces hard choices as it tackles Middle East
Washington - Seven weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, steps by the US administration in Middle East matters are starting to expose ideological tensions within a White House still trying to find its footing.
In a retreat from an earlier hardline position, Trump on March 6th signed a revised 90-day travel ban for people from several Muslim countries. The new executive order superseded a version that was struck down by the courts. The new order dropped Iraq from the group of blacklisted countries, leaving Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen under the ban. It said people from those countries with valid travel documents or a second passport would be not covered by the embargo, which is to take effect March 16th.
While the first version of the ban, which caused widespread protests and chaos at airports, was drawn up by a small group of right-wing Trump aides, the new executive order was prepared in cooperation with key departments. Reports said the US State Department, seen as a more moderate player in the administration, had pressed for the decision to drop Iraq from the travel ban list.
Before the roll-out of the new ban, US Defense Secretary James Mattis presented a plan on how to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) to White House officials, with the Pentagon saying the strategy review ordered by Trump proposed military as well as non-military efforts to cripple the jihadist group. US Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, called the plan “global” and a “framework for a broader discussion” about how to defeat ISIS.
There has been no official statement about details of the plan but news reports quoted officials as saying that Mattis’ strategy included cutting the flow of money to ISIS and making recruitment of new fighters more difficult. The plan reportedly does not call for a major deployment of US combat troops in Iraq or Syria, meaning that Washington would continue to rely on allies such as the Kurds to do most of the fighting on the ground.
Addressing a joint session of Congress on February 28th, Trump reiterated his aim to “demolish and destroy” ISIS and added that task would be accomplished with the help of the United States’ partners in the region. “We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet,” the US president said.
US Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an earlier event at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the plan would target al-Qaeda and other terror groups in Syria and Iraq. He said the White House would be briefed on the complex aspects of fighting ISIS there, given the multitude of players, including Iran, Russia, Turkey and Kurdish groups. “What we don’t want to do is bring him options that solve one problem only to create a second problem,” Dunford said about Trump.
The nuanced approach suggested by military experts stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s sweeping campaign promise to “obliterate” ISIS and other rhetoric that suggested a swift military battle against the extremists, not a careful and multilayered method that could take time before progress becomes visible.
As the administration weighs its options, ideological battle lines are becoming apparent. US Army Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security adviser, has first-hand experience in the Middle East and is reluctant to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism”, favoured by Trump and hard-line, populist-pitching advisers such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka.
The semantic difference points to a deeper rift between advisers such as Bannon, in whose world view Islam is a force of evil, and national security officials like McMaster who argue that blanket accusations do not reflect more complicated realities. McMaster reportedly told the staff of the National Security Council that ISIS and other terrorist groups were “un-Islamic”. Trump, however, used “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech to Congress.
By insisting on that description, the administration put the spotlight on Islam, said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. “The foreign policy establishment is very suspicious about that,” Brown said.
The new Muslim ban was supposed to counter the perception of an anti-Muslim stance by the Trump administration but critics say the effort failed. “It is still a concern to us how it singles out Muslims,” said Rabia Ahmed, director of Media and Public Affairs at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). She said Trump had shaped a narrative that described immigrants, refugees and Muslims as a “threat”. Rights advocates and at least three states have said they will fight the new travel ban in the courts.
Trump’s efforts to translate populist campaign promises into policy are running into difficulties elsewhere as well. Following the announcement on February 27th of a proposed large increase in defence spending with corresponding cuts in almost many other areas of the budget, more than 120 former generals and admirals called on Congress to keep spending for international aid and diplomacy intact. “Now is not the time to retreat,” the former officers wrote in a letter to Congress published by the US Global Leadership Coalition, a group campaigning for spending on development and diplomacy.
The letter highlighted problems that “do not have military solutions alone” and listed “violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa” as an example. A reduction in international aid could affect some American allies in the Middle East, such as Jordan and Egypt, which receive billions of dollars of US support every year.