The sacking of the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was replaced by CIA chief Mike Pompeo, happened just before the visit this week of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Washington DC. In truth, this represents an opportunity to force some firmness and exactitude into the US administration’s position on Saudi Arabia’s policy lines.
Indeed, Donald Trump’s fickleness has not only affected his administration but also US policy positions as a whole, despite them showing some coherence recently. Some figures in the Trump administration have clashed while others have worked well together. Some continue to try to influence the administration even after they had left the White House, such as Steve Bannon, while others are probably cursing the day they had agreed to work with the administration; perhaps most prominent among those is Mr Tillerson. But his sacking will be relief to some in the region, especially because of what was seen as his erstwhile sympathy for Iran and Qatar.
In contrast, Mr Pompeo is considered one of the hawks when it comes to Iran, while simultaneously being, like Mr Trump, an advocate of strengthening US ties with Saudi Arabia. Yet US policy and the performance of the administration has not instantly become clearer after the mixed signals of Mr Tillerson.
Therefore, in order to be successful, the crown prince’s US tour must seek to diagnose the root of the schizophrenia in US foreign policy and its symptoms. The Saudis must raise obvious and crucial questions, such as what does the US want in the Middle East?
Because without a clear answer, the ambiguity, deliberate or otherwise, might lead to something close to the April Glaspie scenario – the former US ambassador to Iraq who supposedly “lured” Saddam Hussein into the invasion of Kuwait by being vague about Washington’s stance, even suggesting consent. What happened next is history.
It will be crucial for the crown prince to put pressure on the US president and his team to forsake this ambiguity, because the current stage, whether in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East, cannot tolerate such an approach. The Saudis have a right to ask Mr Trump and his men for clarity, especially with Mr Pompeo in the State Department now alongside another solid pair of hands, National Security Adviser HR McMaster. For example, the Americans must clarify whether they are true committed partners when it comes to curbing Iranian meddling in Yemen. On this issue, despite the US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley’s tough line, the actual US policy on Yemen remains unfathomably vague.
The Saudis must ask: what does the US want in Yemen? In what ways does it intend to pressure Iran to modify its behaviour in Yemen? Does Washington see Yemen as a strictly Saudi problem, or does Washington see Yemen as a good place to launch a new partnership with Riyadh against Iranian incursions?
The US has also pursued conflicting lines on other pressing issues concerning the region. Today, there is an opportunity with the new team at the state department, especially given the timing of the crown prince’s visit.
HR McMaster has been the most clear of Mr Trump’s circle when it comes to committing to ending the Iranian project in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. By contrast, the Defence Secretary James Mattis is known in Washington as a liberal, despite being outwardly a conservative and a hawk. But with Mr Tillerson out, with Mr Pompeo’s appointment, and with the coming occupation of the State Department’s still vacant key positions by hawks rather than closeted liberals, Mr McMaster and his ilk could have the upper hand.
No one is guaranteed to remain in their post in the Trump era and reports suggest John Bolton is being groomed to replace Mr McMaster, although this could be part of the psychological warfare accompanying the competition for the administration’s core posts. However, if this turns out to be true, things could get complicated, because while Mr Bolton is tough on Iran he is tame with Israel and its influence on US policies, domestic and foreign, including on Iran itself.
Indeed, informed sources in Washington say that Mr McMaster wants to move quickly and decisively against Iranian projects “but the Israeli strategic thinking is that Israel does not want the Sunni-Shia conflict to end and wants it to last and linger”. For Israel, “as long as Sunni-Shia conflicts are raging and Saudi and Iran are squaring off, Tel Aviv will be let off the hook over having to resolve the Palestinian question, which Israel’s friends in Washington do not want to solve”, sources suggest. In other words, according to these sources, Israel fears that settling the Iranian issue would focus efforts on the Palestinian issue next. And Israel maintains immense influence on US policymakers in Washington.
So what do the Americans really want in the end? An answer to this question must come, at least on the major issues in the Middle East, to prevent ambiguity from causing a major miscalculation, or another April Glaspie moment.