Doubtless, one of Barack Obama’s most mixed legacies is to be found in the Mideast. Things could be much worse, but U.S. policy in the region is dangerously adrift.
The Islamic State has been put back on its heels, but America’s own strategic posture has been badly weakened, too. Taking a new direction means making some dramatic departures from our current, uncertain course.
In a bid to do exactly that, President Donald Trump wants to encourage Russia to weaken its support for Iran, upending the imbalance of power created by Obama’s pivot away from our traditional, if sometimes troublesome, Arab allies. Although winning with this approach is a tall order, the United States now has few options, and may be forced to choose quickly among the least bad.
In fact, the constraints facing the Trump White House could actually help ensure that a bid to put distance between Russia and Iran gets some traction. Partly due to the stickiness of the Obama administration’s policies, but partly because of canny calculation, the new administration cannot just scrap what came before and start over. Trump’s own secretary of defense, retired Gen. James Mattis, recently avowed his support for the “imperfect” nuclear treaty with Iran — and for a firm forward defense posture along NATO’s eastern flank. Strong critics of these policies, many of whom support Trump, may worry that Mattis and his allies could make it harder to pull Russia away from Iran. But Russia may well be more apt to ease off if Iran is not placed at a sudden, extreme disadvantage. And Russian interests might turn toward a stable, productive Mideast if European meddling was successfully discouraged.
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On the other hand, there is reason to believe that neither Russia nor Iran have much reason to compromise with the United States on the intimacy of their own relationship. Ironically, the relationship’s rocky past shares some responsibility for that. Moscow and Tehran have struck up a mutually beneficial arrangement, but its roots do not go deep. In the interest of not upsetting the current balance, the allies won’t look kindly on the Americans trying to cool their limited affinity – unless, of course, they each think they can seize on some larger benefit for playing along.
Complicating things further, many in the United States don’t want to see a closer relationship with today’s Russia, no matter what the potential upside may be. Moscow is perceived as increasingly fascistic and theocratic – an anxiety-ridden view exacerbated by the way critics of liberalism on America’s so-called alt-right embrace Putin as a symbol of white resistance to Western multiculturalism.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world demands the attentions of the president, whose transition team faces a steeper learning curve than usual. Trump himself clearly considers trade arrangements with China and the rest of North America to be a priority. To be sure, most Americans would welcome a world in which the Mideast could safely take a back seat. Getting there, however, will require concentrated effort and significant risk. With Europe’s own hands full, and other regional allies like Turkey drifting away from the U.S. orbit, Russia may be one of the few choices available for leveraging a new way forward.