Despite concerns about the weekend attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, the United States must avoid escalating conflict in the region and continue seeking a diplomatic resolution with Iran.
The attack, and an ensuing flurry of bombastic tweets by President Donald Trump, highlighted how desperately the White House needs a coherent policy for the Middle East and more deliberate crisis communications.
Trump campaigned on a promise to reduce the U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. He mocked President Obama for subsidizing Saudi Arabia’s defense, then gutted Obama’s multilateral agreement to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Now, the U.S. is facing another Middle East dilemma with no consistent policy for the region, a national-security advisory program in disarray, no plan for Afghanistan peace and the alliance to contain Iran in tatters. Management by chaos and shooting from the hip at the crisis du jour is not assuring when there’s an actual crisis.
The U.S. created a leadership void in the Middle East. Regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and Iran are now “trying to take advantage of this void, to compete with each other and advance their own interest,” said Reşat Kasaba, director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
Ongoing strife is causing humanitarian disasters, including the Syrian refugee crisis and now a devastating civil war in Yemen putting millions of people at the brink of starvation, according to the United Nations. While Iranian missiles may have been used by Houthi rebels to attack Saudi Arabian oil facilities, don’t forget Saudi Arabia has been using U.S.-made weapons on Yemen, including the notorious 2018 bombing of a crowded school bus.
The only solace may be that Trump remains averse to starting another war in the Middle East. He was circumspect away from his phone and speaking in person on Monday, during a press availability at the White House.
Appearing with another Middle Eastern ally, Crown Prince Salman of Bahrain, Trump was notably restrained, refraining from lobbing further accusations at Iran until the U.S. had “definitively” identified who is responsible for the attacks.
Asked point blank if he wants war with Iran, Trump said “Do I want war? I don’t want war with anybody. I’m somebody that would like not to have war.”
Then he engaged in a Trumpian deterrence strategy, bragging about the might of the U.S. military and how it has the “best missiles” and fighter jets. So much for speaking softly and carrying a big stick.
It’s a tall order from the least diplomatic president in memory. But what’s most needed now is diplomacy, including outreach to Iran and peacemaking efforts at the U.N. General Assembly commencing this week.