Image Credit: above: USS Nitze, foreground, and USS Mason during operations August 28, 2016 in the Arabian Sea. The Mason was fired upon by Houthi rebels while sailing off the coast of Yemen in the southern end of the Red Sea on October 12, 2016
As we approach the last year of this century’s second decade, the United States is still the most powerful state in the world, safe from direct threats by foreign state actors. Two oceans separate America from actual or potential hot spots on other continents, while its neighbors to the north and south are harmless and mostly affable. America’s geopolitical position continues to be uniquely favorable. No great power has ever been so richly endowed by geography and nature.
As such, the “challenges” America faces in the year ahead are entirely dependent on the definition of her interests and on the understanding of her grand strategic objectives. In other words, they are in the eye of the beholder.
An important cause of global instability since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been the tendency of the bipartisan “foreign policy community” in Washington to reject any traditionally structured hierarchy of U.S. interests. The resulting quest for hegemonistic dominance has rested on ideological assumptions which were inimical to America’s constitutional tradition and ran counter to many decades of diplomatic practice during the Cold War.
The ensuing string of direct or covert military interventions—by Bill Clinton in the Balkans, George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Barack Obama in Libya and Syria—were all conducted in the name of protecting American security interests, but proved to be injurious to those interests. Kosovo has morphed into an Islamist-friendly mafia statelet. Iran has established a degree of influence over Shia-ruled Iraq, which would have been unimaginable had Saddam stayed in power. An eccentric yet pliant dictator was replaced in Libya by the ongoing nightmare of competing warlords and jihadists, who have opened the southern route for the migrant invasion of Europe. Syria has been ruined by the U.S.-armed “moderate rebels.”
In November 2016 Donald Trump, an outsider victorious against all odds and predictions, declared his readiness to turn a new leaf. His “America First” was not a triumphalist slogan. It was a call for America to return to pragmatic, interest-based foreign policymaking, free from his predecessors’ exceptionalist hubris and global-imperial delusions.
Trump’s chief impediment, from the moment he stepped into the White House, has been a sustained sabotage of his agenda by the shadow government’s operatives in the national security apparatus and the military-industrial complex. This sabotage included almost two years of Robert Mueller’s investigation, immediately followed by the ongoing impeachment circus. Considering the strength of the resistance and the ongoing attempts to delegitimize and dethrone Trump, it is impressive that the President has managed to resist frequent calls to use military force in the Middle East.
Specifically, Trump should be credited for limiting U.S. air strikes in Syria following the alleged gas attacks in Idlib in April 2017, and—more significantly—for resisting pressure to attack Iran last summer. His withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Turkish border in northern Syria in October also reflected a realist strategy: judicious use of military force in proportion to the magnitude and nature of actual threats.
The firing of John Bolton last September can be seen now as Trump’s decisive act of self-liberation from the shackles of interventionism. It revealed that even the deepest Washington insider and uber-hawk was unable to cajole this Commander in Chief into starting a new war.
Thanks in large part to Trump’s prudence, the world is less unstable today than it was at the time of his inauguration three years ago.
In Syria, the conflict is coming to an end. Ankara, Moscow, and Damascus are likely to work out a functional long-term arrangement which will not infringe on any vital American interest. It is significant that Trump has thanked all three governments for their cooperation in the U.S. operation to liquidate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Kurds, who had recklessly overplayed their hand by counting on open-ended U.S. support for their putative statelet, will work out a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that will leave them no worse off than before.
The war in Yemen will also wind down. The country’s breakup is both imminent and natural. It should be accepted and managed, just as nearby Sudan’s breakup was successfully managed. The Saudis, and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman personally, will suffer a loss of face and credibility, which is a good thing for the region and for the world. America should support an outcome in Yemen which promises regional stability and uninterrupted trade flows. Which flag flies over Aden is immaterial.
The danger of war with Iran is lower now than a year or two ago. After last summer’s crisis in the Gulf, Trump seems to have realized that starting it would be strategically nonsensical. If he stays the course and makes progress on withdrawing from Afghanistan, America may free herself from Middle Eastern quagmires.
Further east, last winter’s crisis between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has abated, mainly thanks to the nuclear balance of terror between them. Pakistan de-escalated the conflict because, again to Trump’s credit, it can no longer count on automatic U.S. support. Trump has developed a new, strategically important relationship with India, which he sees as an essential partner in the Indo-Pacific region in containing China’s turbulent rise. He is also justifiably frustrated with Pakistan’s support for its jihadist proxies. In 2020 the subcontinent will remain tense, but quiet.
The Western hemisphere will be stable, too. John Bolton’s regime-change operation in Venezuela has failed miserably. President Nicolás Maduro is likely to start talking to the opposition, from which the irrelevant would-be usurper Juan Guaid? will be excluded. Maduro has no choice in the matter, as Russia and China are advising him to reach out to the opposition before they open purses for economic rehabilitation. America will do nothing much there, and she will do it very well indeed.
Trump’s desire to normalize relations with Russia is a geopolitical and civilizational necessity, but on this front he still faces fierce resistance. The neoliberal-neoconservative cabal which created the collusion myth contains Russophobic fanatics who are also obsessive Trumpophobes, such as Bill Kristol, Max Boot, Anne Applebaum, and Rachel Maddow. To them, the American deplorables inhabiting flyover country are similar to most Russians: white, Christian, non-postmodernized, free from self-hate and morbid introspection. In order for a true Russia reset, these people need to be fought hammer and tongs. Trump’s first task should be to debunk the Russian meddling myth, which supports the collusion narrative.
In Korea, Kim Jong-un will refrain from new missile tests. Kim is a nasty piece of work, but he is not stupid. He does not want to undermine Trump’s re-election prospects, because only Trump is ready to offer him a clear deal—possibly underwritten by Beijing and Moscow—that if Kim disarms and accepts international supervision, he may stay in power. His subjects will continue to languish under an extremely oppressive regime, which is regrettable but irrelevant to the U.S. security calculus. Trump’s security pledge would cost the U.S. nothing. Only by removing the tripwire on the 38th parallel can America finally force South Korea to upgrade its military and to assume the full economic and political burden of defending itself.
In the long term, China is the U.S.’s main geopolitical rival. But in 2020, China will face its own strategic challenges, which the U.S. must approach with caution. The U.S.-China trade war has already de-escalated, and will continue to do so. China’s navy will stay on its militarized islands in the South China Sea, but no new ones will be built. Beijing needs no additional headaches as it faces its slowest-growing economy since 1991, and while the Hong Kong protestors are still restive. When in trouble, China retrenches; it does not lash out.
The biggest potential threat to world peace in 2020 would be a major false-flag operation staged by Trump’s domestic enemies, acting in cohoots with their foreign protégés. The danger is chronic in the Gulf, and may become acute in eastern Ukraine. Trump’s unwillingness to respond forcefully could be spun as somehow related to his alleged quid pro quo with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
False flag operations could be used to try to “re-engage” America in the Middle East, or else to get her embroiled on Russia’s doorstep, which would be equally unnecessary yet infinitely more risky. Either scenario would drastically reduce Trump’s chances of re-election. Both would be pleasing prospects for the cabal inside the Beltway and its overseas clients-cum-financiers.
Trump should stay the course and ignore the provocations. He should insist that he is keeping his promises, especially the one to terminate America’s Middle Eastern wars. He should also revisit his 2016 campaign statement that NATO is obsolete, which was eminently justified. NATO-for-ever and America-in-the-Middle East-for-ever are both absurdly anachronistic in the light of our current geostrategic reality. The problem is that too many senior policy wonks and generals remain fixated on repeating these mantras, which they imbibed as interns and cadets in the final decade of the Cold War, or as postdoctoral students and captains after 9/11.
These people have nothing useful to offer, but old dogs can’t learn new tricks; they will not acknowledge their irrelevancy without a fight. It is in the American interest that they be thoroughly discredited, as the proponents of détente-for-ever were discredited during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Trump has the right instincts, but he needs to turn his intuition into coherent counterstrategy. To cement his support for next fall’s election, he needs to be more direct in accusing his critics of advocating open-ended military commitments devoid of attainable objectives. The common people who voted for him know the true cost of perpetual wars far better than his detractors. If Trump stays the course they will support him, and thereby they will save America.