Inside Story

American disruption, Saudi logic

Whether he knows it or not, Donald Trump is doing the crown prince’s bidding

Ross Burns 25 June 2019 1088 words

Who’s playing whom? US secretary of state Mike Pompeo with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh last October. Leah Millis/Pool via AP

Given the current drama in the Strait of Hormuz, it’s no surprise that little attention has been paid to a conference in Bahrain this week exploring the first part of US president Donald Trump’s plan to sort out the Israelis and the Palestinians. Is this the best time, many might ask, to be worrying about an issue that has been around for fifty-odd years and now plays a relatively small part in the region’s turmoil?

But the tentacles of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute spread right across the Arab and Islamic world, and any efforts to resolve it, well-intentioned or otherwise, could have significant knock-on effects.

Now into the second half of his term, Trump has systematically shaken the props behind the “rules-based world order,” even though he has failed to find anything better to replace them with. In the Middle East, he has clearly decided to trust a new generation of players who seem set on remaking the rules.

Ideally, in his view, these players would be the Saudis plus other key Gulf states, who would then take on Iran and those Arab states willing to act as Iranian proxies in alliance with Russia. But he is oscillating between the hawkish scenarios promoted by his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and his national security adviser, John Bolton, on the one hand, and the more sober assessments of his generals and diplomats, on the other.

Most American presidents would avoid bouncing around like this, but Trump lacks thought-through plans of his own. His instinctive tool is “disruption”; he has no patience for history or theology. We may well be at the most critical phase of his attempt to sweep old paradigms off the table and see what can be picked up from the floor in the way of new “deals.”

By deliberately courting disorder, Trump is abandoning the logical thinking that might be expected of the leader of a superpower and allowing himself to be manipulated by a new figure in the Gulf, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, who has adapted the customary Saudi formula of an aggressive form of Sunni Islam backed by profligate oil funds.

MBS’s role is amplifying the difficulty of resolving the stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians. Rivalries across the Gulf go back thirteen centuries and still define the way the Sunni–Shia divide is perceived. Most outsiders have long seen the divide as something to stay well clear of, conscious that the tensions have largely been kept in check since the middle of the eighth century by leaving small theological differences to theologians.

Instead of working through issues patiently and cautiously, though, and at least paying lip service to international mechanisms, Trump wants to try it his way. In the process, the United States is being sucked into disputes its president neither comprehends nor has patience for.

The current confrontation in the Gulf is largely a result of Trump’s willingness to do Salman’s bidding, and secondarily Israel’s bidding, by attempting to reduce Iran’s role in the region and ditch the exactingly negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, rather than build on it. The JCPOA got in the way because it was working. Its other members — China, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia and Britain — have been bypassed and even threatened with secondary sanctions for actions that are essentially legal under anyone’s law except Trump’s. The signal is clear: only Washington makes the international framework from now on.

Underneath this heap of disruption lies the compost pit that is the Israel–Palestine problem, with its huge overburden of UN and human rights resolutions. Trump has abandoned the traditional role of helping, or at least ostensibly helping, to unpick the issues between the parties, and has instead embarked on a course of serial disruption designed to replace UN resolutions and international law with disorder based on an impossible paradigm.

This week’s Bahrain meeting furthers that plan. In playing along with MBS’s vision of a Middle East in which Saudi Arabia is Trump’s deputy sheriff (or is it vice versa?), Trump has accepted another breathtaking leap of Salman’s logic. The same logic delivered an unwinnable war in Yemen, tried to hold a Lebanese prime minister to ransom and had a regime critic hacked to death in a backroom in Istanbul. On these performance parameters, Saudi Arabia’s chances of persuading scores of Arab League and Islamic states to accept Israel’s 1948 takeover of Palestine as a fait accompli are slim indeed.

The Bahrain plan is not only overwhelmed by the drama in the Gulf. In Jared Kushner’s hands, it also shows every sign of poor design and clumsy execution. Even if a brace of Arab states can be summoned to Bahrain to endorse a new economic “plan” for Palestine, little can be done unless Israel commits to lifting its blockade of Gaza and its stranglehold on the West Bank. But Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now so beholden to extremists that any hope of coopting him appears remote, even if some would find tempting the prospect of banishing the Palestinians to a series of Arab Bantustans and closing down their access to Jerusalem.

Middle-power countries like Australia have always argued that this dispute will only be resolved by a rules-based approach. Their interests lie in avoiding the nastier complications caused by disruptive tactics with no defined outcomes. Australia may be faced with difficult choices if Trump seeks support for hastening the dismantling of the JCPOA, or in endorsing the Bahrain game plan as a way of bypassing many decades of support for a two-state solution in Palestine. To join the disruption game is to put at risk structures that have largely served Australia’s interests well.

Scott Morrison’s ill-informed lurch towards the recognition of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem last year was a foretaste of what life might be like if we rely on deals in the age of America First. Australia has maintained a policy of engaging with Iran, for example. It is perhaps ominous that Pompeo is currently in the Gulf pressing a range of countries to join a “global coalition” against Iran — “a coalition,” to use his words, “not only throughout the Gulf states but in Asia and in Europe.” This is a deal-making game Australia would be well advised to stay out of if it doesn’t want to find itself a victim of Pompeo and Bolton’s dark obsessions. •