By Brig Anil Gupta (retd)*
2020 is an election year in the USA. President Donald Trump is trying for a second term. The American public will definitely review his performance before giving him a second chance. As far as foreign policy is concerned Trump’s record has been a mixed bag. The cornerstone of his Administration’s foreign policy has been “principled realism” or “America First.” What else is the purpose of any country’s foreign policy except to put its own interests, the interests of its citizens, first?
Trump will tout his record on foreign policy as a resounding success. While he hasn’t built a wall and expensed it to Mexico, he has followed through on pledges to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord, to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, to renegotiate NAFTA, and to aggressively press China on trade. In doing so he has annoyed allies and friendly nations, undermined international institutions, dishonoured treaties and accords and created flashpoints. Conventional wisdom says that foreign policy does not win elections. But Trump may break this convention.
The majoritarian view in the US still favours US engagement and shared leadership in international affairs, and US participation in alliances and agreements, while Trump continues to move in the opposite direction. As per a latest US survey, nearly 57% Americans disapprove of his foreign policy performance.
The tension in West Asia has been building for some time. Iran has tested Trump’s patience by repeated misadventures, like shooting down an American surveillance drone, mining the Strait of Hormuz and assaulting Saudi oil facilities in response to US sanctions. The brain behind Iran’s defiance was Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force.
Soleimani had been in the bad books of Americans since he emerged as the mastermind behind Iran’s use of proxies to target American and Western assets & servicemen and conduct of destabilising activities in countries hostile to Iran. He crossed the red line in Trump’s eyes by attacking an American military base in Iraq, killing a US contractor, and injuring several US servicemen.
So, Trump ordered Soleimani’s killing. The US drone missile strike on January 3 also killed a top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, evoking a swift and furious response from both Iran and Iraq. Ayatollah Khamenei, to whom Soleimani reported directly, vowed a harsh revenge, while Iraq’s Parliament voted to remove US troops stationed in Iraq.
Has Trump over-reacted and made a wrong strategic calculation especially in an election year? The chances of an all-out war or a global crisis may not be very high but it would lead to dramatic escalation in the low-level conflict between the US and Iran, with global consequences. Additional deployment of 3000 troops in Kuwait to ward off the Iranian threat and failure to reduce the boot strength in Afghanistan may also prove costly for Trump.
Apart from retaliation through attacks targeting American military commanders and soldiers or operations to destroy American bases and assets, Iran may resort to cyber-attacks and may try to enlist Chinese and Russian support and, combined with their cyber forces, launch propaganda-cum-perception operations which could badly hit Trump’s campaign.
The situation in West Asia has become highly tense, with Israel and Saudi Arabia on alert against possible attacks. Shia terror groups in Pakistan may also become active against American targets and US troops in Afghanistan. Soaring oil prices and tumbling share markets will be the immediate global consequence. The possibility of a burgeoning Shia versus Sunni conflict may disturb peace in many regional countries.
India cannot remain unaffected by events in West Asia since it remains one of the world’s largest oil importers. Soaring oil prices, apart from hitting the pockets of people in India, will also add to its economic woes while it is struggling to revive the sluggish economy. The escalation of tensions may also effect smooth oil supply from sources in the Gulf region. Strategically, it would adversely impact India’s bid to develop Chabahar port and develop alternative rail and road access to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan, and open trade routes to land-locked Central Asian Republics.
Across the globe, Soleimani’s killing has been termed as an ‘unnecessary provocation.” Surprisingly, the usually hyper Trump has chosen to remain quiet. He will face a dilemma since he ran his campaign – and continues to do so ahead of the 2020 election – on the promise of an end to Middle Eastern wars.
Democratic Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders attacked Trump saying, “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East…Trump promised to end the endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one.” It remains to be seen if America and the globe is plunged into a more devastating spiral of costly conflict.
*About the author: The writer is a Jammu-based veteran, political commentator and strategic analyst. He can be contacted at [email protected]
Source: This article was published by South Asia Monitor