Last month, Donald Trump may have become virtually unchallengeable.
In Powerball, Part One, it was suggested that President Trump and Attorney General Sessions may have acquired James Comey’s files, and thus significant leverage against “much of official Washington.” If that has happened, it may come to be viewed as one component of the most sweeping Washington power consolidation since FDR’s first term.
Trump’s recently traveled to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Europe. He made magnanimous overtures to the Saudi regime he had harshly criticized during his presidential campaign. That regime has been rightfully condemned for repression, institutionalized misogyny, religious intolerance, a draconian legal system, and sponsoring global terrorism (including the 9/11 attacks), among other transgressions. Trump not only reversed his rhetoric, he signed a deal to sell the Saudis $110 billion worth of American armaments. Saudi atrocities against its southern neighbor, Yemen, had prompted Obama to hold up some arms sales; now they’ve all been green-lighted.
Nations who foolishly venture into the Middle East should pick a side—Sunni or Shia—and stick with it. For decades the US government has tried to play both ends against the middle. In Syria and Iraq, it has allied with both Sunnis and Shias and found itself played: manipulated by both sides, blood and treasure lost, in the midst of self-inflicted chaos and instability, and afflicted, with its European allies, by refugee and terrorism blowback.
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Trump’s visit made clear that game is over: the US government will back the Sunnis—Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies, Egypt, Turkey—and their tacit ally, Israel. Under Obama, relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel had deteriorated, with no offsetting improvement in relations with the Shia crescent: Iran, Iraq, Alawite (a minority Syrian Shia sect—Bashar al-Assad is Alawite) Syria, and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Trump stepped up criticism of Iran while assuring the Sunni-Israel axis he wouldn’t interfere in their internal affairs . There were no criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s, Turkey’s, and Israel’s treatment of Yemenis, Kurds, and Palestinians respectively.
Commentary about Trump making nice with the Saudis has been widespread; questions about what he received in return much less so. What did the Sunni-Israel axis give up for this amplification of US allegiance? The Deep State has used Islamic guerrillas for its own geopolitical aims since the US aided the mujahideen’s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. While Sunni ISIS is an offshoot of al Qaeda, purportedly behind the 9/11 bombings, it is the main source of opposition to Assad and the Shia regime in Iraq. Deposing both is a longstanding goal of the Sunni-Israel axis. The US has not objected to their military and financial aid to ISIS. The US itself stands accused of directly aiding ISIS. By supplying training and arms to purported moderate rebels, it has certainly indirectly aided the group. Those “moderate” rebels often fall in with ISIS or the Al-Nusra front, ISIS’s ally, supplying manpower and their US-provided weaponry.
Trump has shifted the goal from deposing Assad to defeating ISIS and allies once and for all, a sea change in American policy. He may have entirely abandoned using Islamic proxies for US ends, another sea change. For arms deals and other goodies, he probably extracted a pledge from the GCC states and Turkey to quit supporting ISIS. Tellingly, this weekend Saudi Arabia and other GCC members severed relations with member Qatar, citing, among other alleged transgressions, its funding of Islamic State and al Qaeda.
Trump’s shift recognize reality in Syria. As long as Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah support Assad, it will be virtually impossible to depose him. Helping them defeat ISIS is the only way the US will have any post-ISIS negotiating leverage in Syria. Getting rid of Assad or giving up its Syrian port would be deal-breakers for Russia, but a de facto or de jure partitioning of Syria and perhaps Iraq: Kurdish autonomy, up to and including their own country; a pipeline through Syria to Europe for Qatari natural gas (if the current GCC spat is resolved), and other issues concerning the fate of post-ISIS Syria and Iraq would be on the table.
As Joseph Stalin recognized, controlling territory is the strongest argument in post-war negotiations. Moving decisively against ISIS will give the US coalition eastern Syrian territory and negotiating leverage. Importantly for Israel, it also breaks the transportation link and hinders the supply of arms from Iran and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. That would make a diminished western Syrian state, albeit one still ruled by Assad and protected by Russia, easier to swallow.
If, as posited in Part One, Trump’s primary motivation is power, arguments that the US should seek better relations with Iran—leader of the Shia crescent and less repressive and more democratic than Saudi Arabia—will continue to be ignored. Sunnis are 90 percent of Islam, and in the Middle East only Iraq, Iran, and Bahrain are majority Shia. Trump will back winners; that’s the logic of power. Corrupt, repressive, and destined for the dustbin as its government may be, Saudi Arabia has the largest Middle Eastern oil reserves and is the linchpin of the petrodollar arrangement. Erdogan is an aspiring tyrant, but Turkey has the largest military in the region. Israel is the only nuclear power.
There is another factor crucial to the power calculus. Shia Islam has virtually no influence on domestic US politics. Saudi Arabia and Israel both have outsize influence, spending millions on lobbying, campaign donations, and efforts to sway US public opinion. Turkey, to a lesser extent, plays the same game. Tilting towards them will come in handy as Trump bolsters his position in Washington and seeks reelection in 2020.
Trump went to the Middle East bearing carrots and kept the sticks hidden. In Europe he did the opposite. He berated the Europeans for insufficient defense spending and signaled that he would withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. However, if he has implemented the hypothesized changes in US Middle Eastern policy and the US and Russia defeat ISIS, he will make European leaders’ life easier. For the first time official NATO forces are joining the war against ISIS, which probably means Europe’s leaders are on board with Trump’s plans. If a semblance of order is restored to Syria and Iraq, even if that means one or both are partitioned, refugee flows to Europe should diminish. Refugees already in Europe may return to their homelands. It might reduce terrorism, although that could be wishful thinking.
To answer a question posed in Part One: if Trump has consolidated power both at home and abroad, don’t hold your breath waiting for a swamp draining. The most effective power is often power of which only a few know. Those he has by the short hairs would be most helpful to him—sub rosa—if they’re still in government. If such is the case, don’t be surprised if the Russia probe fades away, Trump’s nominal opposition consigns itself to rote denunciation, the Deep State sits still for his Middle Eastern policy changes, and he gets more of his agenda through than anyone expects.
The thought of a virtually unchallengeable Trump may delight his supporters, but it should scare the hell out of them and everyone else. Saints don’t take positions in government. If in a mere four months Trump has made himself unchallengeable in a way few people recognize, he’s employed a series of ruthlessly Machiavellian calculations and strategies to do so. Imagine what he could do in four or eight years. But human nature is human nature. Consider these last words on power, which come not from Machiavelli, but nineteenth-century British noble Lord Acton: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.
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