US Mideast policy is a crucial 2020 issue
November's presidential election will be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House's handling of it, and the subsequent economic fallout. However, it is easy to forget now, what with the rollercoaster year we have all experienced, that it was America's relationships in the Middle East, and particularly with Iran, that dominated the early 2020 headlines.
Back then, it was natural to think America's post-Iraq role in the region would be a leading election topic. Just because it no longer is, that does not make it any less important.
The Trump White House's relationship with Iran has rarely been far from the headlines throughout his presidency. Tearing up the Obama-era JCPOA was a bold, long overdue move. While angering some, finally, the spotlight shone on the deal's flaws — namely, its permissive approach to terror funding, its silence on Tehran's rocket program, and a failure to recognize Iran's generally destabilizing impact. The future of this relationship is seen as the defining feature of U.S. Middle East policy for years to come.
COVID-19 may finally achieve a necessary step toward regional stability by pulling Iran back from the billions of dollars and resources it lavishes on violent proxies across Middle Eastern hotspots. The devastation the disease has wrought across the country will hopefully see a necessary turn inward and recognition of the need to re-allocate those resources toward domestic rebuilding. This unforeseen pandemic may finally starve the likes of Hezb'allah and Hamas of the funds they have taken for granted for so many years now.
For whoever is president in January, perhaps Iran won't be the front-and-center foreign policy running sore that it has been. That doesn't mean, however, that the United States can afford to pursue uninformed policies in its Mid-East relationships. In Turkey, one finds a longtime ally instigating an increasingly reckless and destructive foreign policy running counter to American interests. While much has been made of Trump's apparent admiration for President Erdoğan's strongman tactics, it is clear that America's once staunch NATO ally is treading a path that renders it an increasingly unreliable partner.
The United States and the wider Western world have long been able to depend on Turkey as their most powerful security ally in the Middle East, dating back to the start of the Cold War. Its presence in NATO was an indispensable source of stability and partnership in the West's wider Middle Eastern policy, a constant during times of broader instability. Alas, with Turkey's descent into Islamism and its increased taste for repudiating the West and secular values, Erdoğan has been taking a hammer to this once ironclad relationship.
One need only look at the overtures Turkey is making to Iran, Russia, and China to see where its international relations priorities lie. Elsewhere, in Libya, the Turks are exporting former jihadi extremists from Syria, lured by the promise of Turkish citizenship and financial reward, in the thousands to add fuel to the fire of that already destructive civil war. This is in stark contrast to America's active role in calling for peace and negotiation.
While the need for a re-evaluation of U.S.-Turkish relations is gradually more understood, Ankara's close relationship with Doha, Qatar, and how together they are increasingly operating counter to Washington's foreign policy agenda, is less so. Last week, disturbing reports emerged that Qatar had financed weapons deliveries to Hezb'allah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organisation. This is despite the tiny emirate playing host to 10,000 American troops.
Qatar is, on paper, at least, a staunch U.S. ally, yet it is shown once again to be funneling resources to groups who consider the United States their sworn enemy. Arguably, Doha is playing an even more duplicitous game in its relations with the West than Ankara, putting on the veneer of friendship while engaging with hostile elements.
In 2009, then–secretary of state Clinton presented her somewhat infamous "reset" button to Russian president Medvedev, indicating a desire to recalibrate relations. Despite the opprobrium this gimmick received, a similar, more substantive approach must be taken by the Oval Office occupant come January. It is imperative that the United States review previously close alliances with those who now appear to be working directly against its interests.
Graphic credit: Cacahuate, amendments by Globe-trotter and Joelf, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.