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The Middle East, North Africa, and Foreign Policy Challenges for the Next President

Luis Durani

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2016 will be a pivotal year for the US as it chooses a new president. It is an election year with no incumbent running. With candidates on both sides vying for the highest office in the land, major challenges exist for the next president of the US. One of the more turbulent areas the next president will have to deal with is foreign policy.

With global affairs being tempestuous and capricious, the next president will have many challenges abroad to confront especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

ISIS

The US campaign against ISIS began with airstrikes in 2014. Despite the coalition air campaign against them, ISIS still managed to increase their territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq. As they acquired more territories, they managed to increase and build a steady flow of revenue from the oil wells they captured. They expanded their recruiting campaign by going global and becoming social media savvy. They have further escalated their operations by going after targets abroad such at the attacks in Paris as well as the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt. ISIS feeds on anarchy and anywhere instability erupts, the group moves in. Aside from originating in the chaotic regions of Syria and Iraq, ISIS has managed to get its tentacles into other anarchical war zones such as Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and the North Caucasus.

While defeating ISIS has become a complicated matter due to the regional and international web of involvement, the issue goes beyond defeating a terror organization. In order to prevent playing a game of whack a mole with terror organizations, the next president needs to tackle the root of the issue that led to the rise of ISIS. The invasion of Iraq was a major catalyst behind the regional battle for influence. The regional tug of war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that emerged after the fall of Iraq has helped further enflame the issue. With Sunnis being ostracized in Iraq during the tenure of Prime Minister Maliki, ISIS became the outlet for their frustrations as well as a means to security.

The next president not only has to be able to defeat and contain ISIS but also has to be able to reduce the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Defeating ISIS will not be an easy feat, sending in ground troops can lead to a potential quagmire while airstrikes so far have only managed to slow but not stop the group . It will require diplomatic finesse in order to put together an international coalition of troops, mainly comprised of regional nations, to lead the fight against ISIS. Simultaneously, the question of Assad poses a further complication for any coalition . Defusing the Saudi-Iranian tension will help remove the possibility of another ISIS-like group rearing its head again. This may be the one of the most difficult and complex military/diplomatic agenda the next president will face.

Afghanistan

The longest war in US history continues to go largely ignored by the media for the past 15 years. This war will span over 3 different presidencies before it might end. While the initial intervention can be justifiably argued due to the 9/11 attacks, the continuation and execution of the campaign has sparked a different debate.

Aside from removing a misogynistic regime that supported a terror organization, the US also decided to partake in nation building. The goal was to remake this war-torn nation into a vibrant democracy. But the whole campaign was born in original sin. The US inst alled warlords instead of technocrats. It was these same warlords that led the brutal massacre of Afghans during the civil war that erupted after the withdrawal of the Soviets. With corruption and other crimes taking place under the auspices of the Afghan government, the Afghan people lost hope. They began to look to the insurgency as an alternative government to provide them with security and justice. While the US became focused on Iraq, the Taliban built on the American diversion to create a momentum that is allowing them to win today. President Obama decided to prematurely imitate an Iraqi-style surge, which led to no real perturbations to the Taliban movement. With a raging insurgency, ISIS managed to establish a foothold in the country. As the deadline passed for the US withdrawal, President Obama has decided to retain a small contingent of US troops to ensure the survivability of the Afghan government.

The next president will have to come to terms with the somber reality that an ideal withdrawal and resolution will not happen. He/she will need to decide either to stay the course and further waste money into a black hole that will end the same whether there is a withdrawal now or later. The only element that has changed in the political calculus is the presence of ISIS. If a negotiated peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government is not formulated, which it most likely won’t, the US needs to make a pseudo-peace deal with the Taliban and work with both the Afghan government and Taliban to eliminate the threat of ISIS. While the Taliban may be a short-term regional nuisance, ISIS is a long-term strategic threat to the US globally. Time and momentum are on the side of the Taliban, so it might not hurt for channels to be opened with the group   on defeating ISIS.

Pakistan

On the border with Afghanistan, Pakistan represents the ultimate balancing act for US foreign policy. The fragile country possesses both nuclear warheads and radical fundamentalist groups. Pakistan’s alliance with the US is shaky at best. Despite a strong alliance during the Cold War especially during both nations’ covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the relationship went somewhat sour shortly after. The relationship was renewed once again after 9/11 but was circumstantial at best. To the chagrin of the Pakistanis, the newly installed Afghan government of Karzai was much friendlier to India, Pakistan’s mortal enemy. As the US became entangled in Iraq, the Pakistanis renewed their covert alliance with the Afghan Taliban to help secure an allied government on their northern border. The control of Islamic fundamentalist organizations to carry out the Pakistani foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan, India and other places has metastasized into a whirlwind of trouble for them. At one point, their native insurgents came within miles of taking over the capital and perhaps the nuclear arms. Pakistan has been in a low-level civil war ever since. While the US has larger threats, it has to watch the developments in Pakistan closely because the situation can become the primary concern for the US overnight.

Syria

Syria represents a Great Game within a Great Game. It is the battleground for two proxy wars; a regional war between the Saudis and Iranians as well as the emerging global competition between the US and Russia. Ever since the protests against Assad’s government in 2011, the country has descended into civil war. In the wake of this bloodshed, ISIS used the chance to expand its territories and establish a foothold in both Syria and Iraq. Now the conflict has foreign militaries that include the US, EU, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States, the Kurds and others. The situation is a powder keg that can explode at any moment into a larger regional conflict. The next president has to find a way to wade through the turbulent seas of the Syrian conflict. Despite what the next president decides to do in Syria, ISIS will force them to be actively involved in the battle. The future of Syria is bleak at best.

Libya

President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s intervention in the Libyan civil war to remove Gaddafi has proven unwise to say the least. The once quiet North African nation has been in turmoil ever since. Despite the lack of media coverage, Libya has descended into civil war with a tribal twist. In the wake of the anarchical state that Libya has become, ISIS has expanded its tentacles and created a stronghold in the North African nation. This strategic location allows ISIS a pivotal base at the southern gate of Europe as well as access to another oil-rich country. The next US president has to decide on whether to get involved in a civil conflict that was mostly instigated by its initial intervention or try to limit any type of involvement to solely eliminating ISIS.  

Yemen

Yemen represents another venue in the continuing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional supremacy. While Iranian troops have been bogged down in Syria, Yemen has become Saudi Arabia’s quagmire. Yemen has long been simmering with tribal and sectarian conflicts. The Cold War witnessed the nation bifurcating along US/Soviet lines while reunification in the early 1990s helped to temporarily heal the divide. The long authoritarian rule of Saleh came to an end when the Arab Spring swept the region. Shortly thereafter, the country devolved into civil discord. When the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels appeared to be ascending into power, the Saudis decided to intervene and restore their allies back into power. Saudi Arabia could not afford to have an Iranian-allied nation on its southern border. The Saudi intervention has turned into a quagmire. In the midst of the civil strife, Al Qaeda found havens in the mountain region of the country. But now Al Qaeda has been eclipsed by ISIS. With Saudi Arabia bogged down in its own imbroglio and ISIS at its border, the entire US strategic calculus for the Middle East can fundamentally change if ISIS creates upheaval in the Saudi kingdom itself and establishes a foothold there.  

Somalia

Ever since the early 1990s, Somalia has been a failed anarchical state. Different factions have been vying for power but to no avail. The US has stayed clear of the region since its failed 1993 intervention in an incident that became renowned as Black Hawk Down. But since 9/11 and the rise of the Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization Al Shabaab, the region once again has popped onto the US radar. To make matters worse, the group began piracy operations, which eventually culminated in an international effort to stop their raids. Despite not posing the direst threat against US interest at the moment relative to other issues, the organization has been successful in recruiting Somalis from the West especially the US. In addition, ISIS has begun a campaign to have the Al Shabaab turn against Al Qaeda and join its ranks. The next president will need to ensure that not only Al Shabaab is isolated but also find a way to help the provisional Somali government establish authority over the entire country. If that happens, then Horn of Africa will not be a potential breeding ground and emanating source for terrorism.

Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of "Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State" and "China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine." Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani

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Americas

Trump: The Symbol of America’s Isolation in the World

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The president of the United States, who came to power in 2016 with the slogan of “Reviving Washington’s Power”, has become the messenger of failure and defeat of his country in the West Asian region and in the international system. The U.S. numerous military and political defeats in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon were so outstanding that there’s no way Trump can brag about his achievements in the region.

On the other hand, many Democrats in the United States, and even the traditional Republicans, have been criticizing the President’s costly and barren foreign policy in West Asia. In such a situation, Trump attempts to attribute this failure to the country’s previous administrations and condemn them over what is happening in today’s world, especially in the West Asian region, and he blames Obama for Washington’s constant and extensive failures in this area.

Besides, Trump’s other projections about the hard conditions of the U.S. in West Asia are noteworthy. In his recent remarks, Donald Trump said that if he wasn’t at top of the U.S. political and executive equations, Iran would capture the Middle East (West Asia)! This is while Islamic Republic of Iran created stability in the West Asian region, and besides, has stood against the long-term, medium-term, and short-term and destructive goals of the United States and its allies in the region.

Trump’s strategic weakness in the West Asia is an important issue which can’t be easily overlooked. Of course this strategic weakness did exist during Obama’s presidency, but the truth is that it reached its peak during Trump’s presidency. And in the future, this weakness will bring severe blows to the United States.

The fact is that the strategic calculations of the United States in the West Asia region have all failed. And many of the pre-assumptions that Washington called them “strategic propositions”, have never turned into reality for some reasons, including the vigilance of the Resistance movement in the region. This is the reason why America is so confused in confronting the equations of West Asia.

Under such circumstances, the only way before the President of the United States is to leave the region and confess to his defeat; an issue that many American analysts and strategists have noted. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in spite of his campaign slogans for stopping the military intervention in the region, the current president of the United States has intensified conflicts and created constant security crises in West Asia.

The direct, perfect, and comprehensive support of Donald Trump for takfiri terrorists reflects this fact. Trump started his support for ISIL since the beginning of his presence at the White House in early 2017, and he stood for the terrorists until the fall of ISIL in Syria. Even now, Trump is attempting to revive terrorist and takfiri groups in Iraq and Syria.

Despite passing half of his presidency, Trump has claimed that the defeat in Yemen, Syria and Iraq was Obama’s legacy. There is no doubt that Obama and his two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, played a major role in creating terrorist and takfiri groups (especially ISIL), and committed bloodshed in Syria and Iraq.

There is also little ambiguity in the strategic, operational and even tactical defeat of the Obama administration in the battlefields of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. However, Trump can’t deny his share in this defeat, and pretend as if he’s the messenger of the victory of the United States in these scenes! The fact is that Trump completed the military and political defeats of the United States in the West Asia region. Today, the United States is defeated in the battlefield, and can well see that its pieces had failed in these wars.

On the other hand, the White House has lost the political arena of the region. The failure of the United States in the Lebanese and Iraqi elections, on the one hand, and the popular support for the resistance groups in Yemen and Syria, has left Trump and his companions disappointed in the region. In such a situation, attributing the recent and ongoing defeats of the United States to the Obama administration is completely expectable, and at the same time, unacceptable!

Finally, we can see that just like Obama, George W Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter, Trump is stuck in this strategic miscalculation in the West Asian region. Undoubtedly, in his last days in power, Trump will also understand that there’s no way he can overcome this strategic weakness through Saudi and Emirati petrodollars.

However, it seems that the scope of Trump’s defeat in West Asia would be wider than the previous presidents of the United States. Undoubtedly, in the near future, Trump, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley will become the symbols of failure in the US foreign policy, especially in the West Asia. In other words, the president of the United States and his companions at the White House will have to admit to defeat in the West Asian region at a great expense, and this is exactly what frightens the American authorities.

first published in our partner Tehran Times

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Weather and White House Turmoil as Elections Loom

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc as it traversed the Florida panhandle.  The first Category 5 hurricane to hit the area since 1881 when records began, its 155 mph winds (only 5 mph short of Category 6) felled massive trees, blew away houses, collapsed buildings and left devastation in its wake.  Relatively fast moving at 14 mph, it was soon gone continuing as a Category 3 into neighboring Georgia and then further up its northeasterly path.  It seemed to signify a stamp of approval for the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on holding earth to a 1.5 degree Celsius warming issued a couple of days earlier.  We are at one degree now so storms can only be expected to get worse.

In northeastern Turkey, a 300-year old stone bridge disappeared overnight.  Villagers convinced it had been stolen called in the police.  Further investigation concluded it had been washed away by a flash flood caused by a sudden summer thunderstorm further upstream — clearly far more intense than in the previous three centuries.

Ever more powerful hurricanes, monsoons and forest fires point to a proliferation of extreme weather events that experts relate to global warming.  Yet President Donald Trump and his administration remain obdurate in climate change denial.

Thins are certainly warming up in the White House.  Nikki Haley announced her resignation in an amicable meeting with the president.  A staunch defender of many of Mr. Trump’s most egregious foreign policy changes, the UN Representative will be leaving at the end of the year to pursue opportunities in the private sector.  So said the announcement.  An astute and ambitious politician she has probably reassessed the costs versus benefits of remaining in a Trump administration.  Some tout her as a future presidential candidate.  Should she be successful she will be the first woman president, who also happens to be of Indian and Sikh ancestry.

The rap singer Kanye West visited the president in the Oval office.  A ten-minute rant/rap praising him was followed by a hug for which Mr. West ran round the wide desk that had been seemingly cleared of all paraphernalia for the performance.  He is one of the eight percent of blacks voting Republican.  Sporting the Trump trademark, Make-America-Great-Again red hat, he claimed it made him Superman, his favorite superhero.  And some suggested it was all further proof the place had gone insane.

A little over three weeks remain to the U.S. midterm elections on November 6th.  Their proximity is evidenced not by rallies or debates rather by the barrage of negative TV ads blasting opponents with accusations of shenanigans almost unworthy of a felon.  A couple of months of this and you lose any enthusiasm for voting.  Perhaps it is one reason why nearly half the electorate stays home.  Given such a backdrop, the furor over ‘Russian meddling’ in elections appears to be a trifle misplaced.  Others call the whole business a ‘witch hunt’ and state flatly the U.S. does the same.

The old idiom, ‘put your own house in order’ is particularly apt when we realize the beginning of this affair  was a Democratic National Committee email leak showing ‘the party’s leadership had worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign’.  It resulted in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Always fair, aboveboard elections?  Not bloody likely, as the British would say.  Given the rewards, it’s against human nature.

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The hot November for Trump is arriving

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Political turmoil in the United States has become extremely unpredictable. The turn of events became worse with an op-ed at the New York Times on September 5. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon described it as a coup against Donald Trump.

The reality is that the president faces domestic problems in his second year in office. This has rarely happened in the US political history. The issue is of great importance with regard to the approaching mid-term congressional elections in November. Republicans have the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but they feel the risk of losing the majority in both houses due to Trump’s record.

Indeed, a feeling has emerged among some American politicians that their country is heading in the wrong direction because of Trump’s policies. Even former President Barack Obama has joined the election campaigns by breaking his promise not to get involved in political affairs.

The situation is not also good for Trump internationally. Disagreement with the European Union – a traditional ally of the United States – over trade and political issues, trade war with China, increasing tension with Russia, exit from international treaties such as the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement Iran, have all made Trump to look dangerous in the eyes of the world. All these issues have made the situation unfavorable for Trump and his government at home and abroad.

But what is the answer of the president of the United States to these criticisms? The answer to this question is one word: economy. However, Trump is proud of his economic record.

According to statistics, the Labor Department published on September 8, US employment growth in August has beat market expectations, the non-farm payrolls increased by 201,000 from the previous month. Analysts were expecting growth of about 195,000.

The unemployment rate for August remained low at 3.9 percent. The average hourly wage rose 2.9 percent from the year before. That’s the highest level since June 2009. The latest figures are increasing speculation that the Federal Reserve will raise its key interest rate this month. The US economy expanded 4.2 percent in the April-to-June quarter, and is expected to grow more than 3 percent in this quarter.

But the economy cannot keep the president of the United States from the edge of criticism. Trump is in a difficult situation and worried about the result of the election and possible control of Congress by Democrats.

Issues such as the confessions of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen on bribing women for having affairs with Trump and Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 presidential election could possibly lead to his impeachment and his dismissal from power.

The US constitution says that the impeachment of the president should be endorsed by representatives from both chambers of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats now have 49 seats in the 100-member Senate, and if they get 51 seats in the November election, they will still need at least 15 Republican senators to impeach Trump.

Still, if Democrats win the November election, even if this victory does not lead to Trump’s impeachment, it can put further pressure on him and cripple his government. According to a CNN poll, decrease in Trump’s popularity even among his supporters shows that the days following the November election will be hard times for Trump and his government.

First published in our partner MNA

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