A stunning amalgamation of hubris, impatience, and misinformation stemming from George W. Bush’s presidency, the invasion of Iraq has mired America in a conflict so ostensibly complex that it is hard to imagine peace restored in the region.
Reactive and fuelled by rage in response to the 9/11 attacks, the United States was unwilling to engage in steady, piece-by-piece multilateral decision making at the time. This unwillingness led to the intractable war for which the U.S. is still paying the price, not only in blood and treasure, but in diplomatic capital that took decades to acquire.
The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ushered in a period where the rate of return on America’s invested diplomacy was soaring around the world. The Gulf War, waged by coalition forces from 35 nations and led by the U.S., was a remarkable example of international collaboration and partnership, an inspiring realisation of what a superpower could coordinate with its allies.
In spite of such an achievement, the unassailable idealism of American leadership on the international stage was short-lived, and has all but vanished from our present day. Hamstrung by its own Middle Eastern quagmire, the Trump administration’s foreign policy is one of bluster, myopia, and ambiguity. It is one that may find it susceptible to the same strategic miscalculations of past presidencies.
The Trump administration’s hawkish determination to cripple Iran at any cost, whether via sanctions, forcing them to a non-existent negotiating table, or the threat of regime change, represents a complete lack of historical understanding, hindsight, and diplomatic deliberation. In the absence of a comprehensive Middle East strategy that centers on the diplomatic process, substituted instead by threats of military retaliation and rhetorical bravado, Trump has found Western allies hesitant to engage voluntarily on the issue of Iran’s belligerence.
In the Trump administration’s defense, the Middle East is historically a land of bad policy options for the U.S. Previous failed attempts by past presidencies at nation building, humanitarian intervention, and ill-conceived multilateralism has left American citizens rightfully exasperated with involving itself in the conflict. Trump himself is justifiably hesitant to entangle America deeper in the region.
Despite his desire to avoid war, however, Trump continues to blatantly disregard the nuance that is required to operate effectively in international relations. He is unwittingly edging towards that which he so desperately fears will destroy his re-election campaign: another foreign military intervention.
Was U.S. credibility not in jeopardy, opportunity could be sought for it to strategize as it did in the early 90s to great success. The U.S. could mobilise both regional and international action around a shared sense of security in order to temper a bellicose Iran. An affirmative and inclusive agenda could be devised, one that embraces and builds upon the terms agreed to in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) instead of rejecting it completely, an agenda which aims to deter Iran from further agitating an already fragile region instead of backing it in to a corner.
Unfortunately, what we are witnessing is the antithetical approach. The uber-macho assertion of American power, encapsulated by Trump’s “locked and loaded” comment, is a reminder that any military action the U.S. deems appropriate need not be inconvenienced by international consensus or diplomatic considerations. Retaliation shall not be restricted by the fetters of coalition building and cooperation if decisive action is what’s needed to quell an aggressive Iran, just as it was to depose the Saddam regime and the empirical threat that it supposedly represented.
U.S. reliability to act in tandem with its international partners and its apparent declination is not something that started with Trump, but it has drastically eroded under Trump’s leadership. Through his public admonishments of democratic allies, condemnation of global agreements, and praise for authoritarian regimes, it is difficult to contemplate why any nation – friend or foe – would agree to trust and cooperate with the U.S. at this point.
Threats of force and unilateral reactivity are no substitute for genuine dialogue and diplomacy. Yet it is clear that Trump associates such solutions with weakness and appeasement, a view which diminishes the substance of diplomatic work and its understated but potent influence. As an instrument of statecraft, diplomacy is an arduous, gruelling process. It requires an appreciation for political communication, patience, and an openness to emphatically negotiate with all parties concerned in pursuit of a common goal: peace.
The U.S. once again finds itself on the precipice of a decisive turning point with its Middle East policy, but with discernibly less encouragement. If allies continue to be devalued, military might overvalued, and diplomacy pushed to the sidelines, it is difficult to see how this administration will not fall victim to the same failures and short-sighted mistakes of the Bush 43 presidency.
Benjamin Moore is a master's graduate of International Relations from Dublin City University in Ireland, currently working in the Taipei Representative Office in Ireland. His areas of interest and research include U.S. foreign policy and 20th century American history, which he covers on his blog.