By Arab News
By Oubai Shahbandar*
In 1975 Henry Kissinger, who understands better than anyone the importance of history in informing strategic decision-making, gave a speech in Minnesota where he addressed the dichotomy of what he called “the pursuit of America’s values as a humane and just example to others, and the furthering of America’s interests in a world where power remains the ultimate arbiter.”
That sentiment remains true to this day. Power in modern geopolitics remains the ultimate arbiter. But how can balance be found with Washington’s global role? In his September address to the UN General Assembly, President Trump adroitly captured the Kissingerian historical imperative to balance values and power when he said, “We are fulfilling our destiny as a peacemaker. But it is peace through strength. we are stronger now than ever before, our weapons are at an advanced level like never before.”
President Trump rightly pressed the UN to do more to stop ethnic cleansing throughout the world, while highlighting the significant increase in size and fire power that the US military has undergone in the past four years.
The balance between power and values was also most recently embodied in the President’s crude warning to Iran to not “f*** around with us.” And it is working. All indicators show that so far Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders have fully internalized that Trump is dead serious.
Trump’s relentless implementation of his maximum pressure strategy, the bold gamble in killing Iran’s Qassem Soleimani and his incredibly direct approach in public messaging has been often criticized by detractors. President Trump’s former presidential rival Hillary Clinton argued in her Foreign Affairs long-form essay that Trump’s policies were leaving the US more globally isolated.
But the Trump administration’s principled stance in ordering the elimination of one of this century’s most diabolical mass murdering masterminds, Soleimani, despite so many around the president cautioning against ostensible catastrophic repercussions, and the President’s administration consistently taking the genocidal regime of Bashar Assad — an Iranian puppet — to task, has won America major clout throughout the world.
I was in the Middle East, reporting on Syria, last year when Soleimani was killed and I could not find a single Muslim who didn’t praise Trump’s action. Beyond the anecdotal evidence, a recent YouGov poll taken in the Middle East found that the strike against Soleimani enjoyed popular appeal, even in Shiite-majority Iraq where the strike took place.
So much for isolation. The Trump administration should be commended for taking a number of real tangible measures against Iran’s proxies in the region, squeezing Hezbollah’s finances in Lebanon and Syria to an extent that the Obama administration refused out of fear of placing the Iran nuclear deal in peril.
Enacting the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and imposing crippling sanctions on the Assad regime and its Lebanese bagmen is decisively humanitarian and strategic in action. Assad regime is crumbling from within, with intra-family disputes amongst the Assad clan being exasperated by lack of resources and cash.
These measures in Syria must be viewed as linked to the steady progression of sanctions against the Iranian regime’s nuclear ballistic missile and conventional weapons programs. None of the Syria goals could have been achieved if Washington was hamstrung by a lopsided nuclear deal with Tehran.
Indeed, the Obama nuclear deal essentially was Soleimani’s lifeline. America was not left any safer, the deal merely bought Soleimani’s militant network time to rearm and refit. It is the same deal that former Obama officials such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argue must be reinstated in its previous form.
As for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion that the US military “has been damaged by Trump’s mismanagement,” the reality is that President Trump has adeptly managed the difficult task of maintaining civilian oversight over four-star generals that obstinately try to slowdown or obstruct the commander in chief’s instructions to end the forever wars. This isn’t mismanagement; it’s prudence.
The administration has also increased the defense budget by nearly 20 percent since Trump took office. The U.S. and its allies are safer because of President Trump’s executive orders restoring international sanctions on Iran that Secretary Clinton and her colleagues had lifted, and imposing new sanctions and export controls on Iranian entities that covertly support Iran’s nuclear, missile and conventional arms activities.
Power projection as a staple of American foreign policy is not a partisan issue, and a doctrine that President Trump doesn’t have a monopoly over. Just as some of Trump’s closest advisors, such as erstwhile hawk Senator Lindsey Graham, had reportedly cautioned the President against taking out Soleimani, President Obama faced a critical decision point in deciding to greenlight the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Many in Obama’s inner circle advised against the Bin Laden raid, including then Vice President Biden. Obama pulled the trigger nonetheless. The daring action worked, and Pakistan quietly accepted the reality.
The U.S. was not globally isolated as a result, and the demonstration of the long reach of American power stunned the world, allies and adversaries alike, once again. In fact, Obama would later make it a point to mention that he never intended to ask Pakistan “for permission” to go after Bin Laden on Pakistan’s home turf.
Somehow President Obama never did face the same opprobrium given to President Trump for taking decisive — and ultimately vindicated — unilateral action. In making the national security case for the election of Biden, Secretary Clinton also admonished the Trump administration for planning to spend billions of dollars on upgrading the nuclear arsenal.
This, too, is mistaken. Russia has been investing heavily in developing a variety of low-yield nuclear warheads which brings with it many strategic advantages on a future battlefield.
Extremely low-yield nuclear weapons increase the likelihood that they can be used without facing disproportionate nuclear retaliation. It would be folly to not match Russian developments in this field and cede strategic deterrence.
In defense innovation, the US is still a world leader in developing next-generation weapon systems to counter a determined effort by Russia and China to close the technological gap. Moscow and Beijing view hypersonic missiles, able to reach any target around the globe within minutes, as the ultimate equalizer. Putin himself has boasted of his country’s advances in this field in a number of his appearances with Russian media.
The Defense department has launched what they call “an accelerated path” to develop hypersonic weapons that can be launched from land, sea, and air.
The Trump administration’s significant investment of resources towards a space-networked defense against adversarial hypersonic missile capabilities is proving fruitful, though exact details of hypersonic weapon developments and new space-enabled warfare capabilities remain highly classified.
American alliance building with European partners has also been remarkably robust. Speaking of deterrence and history, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda was standing next to President Trump in the White House Rose Garden this summer when he made the following statement, “One hundred years ago. in a great battle in 1920, we defeated the Soviet Army Bolsheviks and we drove them back to the east … We would never want to see that situation repeated again. That is why the Allied presence is crucially important to us today and it is a very important security guarantee to us.
“So I’m very pleased that both within NATO, as well as in the United States, the President of the United States understands the history of Europe and he understands the realities in Europe, and that he also understands the situation as it is developing in Europe.”
So much for lamenting America’s “frayed alliances” that Secretary Clinton argued is “weakening” our national security.
Indeed, the Trump administration’s record on alliance building is not as dire as Obama alumni would have you believe. Trump has strengthened relations with the Baltic states, which essentially serve as the ramparts against any future Russian incursion into eastern Europe, and has created new defense relationships right on the doorsteps of one of Russia’s largest military enclaves, including rotations of US military personnel deployment to Poland, a historic adversary of Russia.
While the Obama administration stood idly by while allowing the Russians to fly through US dominated airspace in the Middle East to transport tons of military equipment and personnel into Syria, the Trump administration stood by NATO ally Turkey as its forces battled the Russian-backed Assad regime in the northern province of Idlib in February.
ith the administration’s reinforced alliances with Arab powers, as evinced by the Strategic Dialogue held between Secretary Pompeo and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, it is a track record that ought to be viewed as a positive reflection of the partnerships in the Muslim world that Trump’s “don’t “f*** around with us” doctrine has remarkably achieved.
America’s standing in the world remains strong, because the US president has backed his foreign policy posture with real strength, and demonstrated to adversaries that he is prepared to wield that strength judiciously and with significant effect.
In my travels throughout some of the world’s hardest hit conflict-ridden zones, the respect and support for key foreign policy actions taken by President Trump show that daring decision making in the international arena coupled with translating strength into peace-building remain key ingredients in fulfilling America’s geopolitical destiny.
* Oubai Shahbandar is a Syrian-American former Middle East Pentagon analyst. Twitter: @OS26