by: Kenan Kabbani
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have been escalating throughout the Trump administration’s term. Starting with the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Deal), the U.S. adopted a policy of “Maximum Pressure” by reintroducing many sanctions on the Iranian economy and exerting pressure on Iranian leadership and proxies. Iran initially responded with a policy of restraint, seeking to employ diplomatic measures such as appealing to European signatories of the Iran Deal to maintain their end of the bargain. Yet, in 2019, tensions began to sharply rise when Iran departed from this policy. Iran employed several traditional measures, such as attacking oil shipments in the Persian Gulf (a strategy dating back to the tanker war with Iraq in the 1980s), as well as the empowerment of their proxy groups in the region (such as using their affiliated Iraqi Shiite militia groups to attack an Iraqi base that killed a U.S. contractor). However, Iran also employed several more severe and unconventional measures. A direct missile attack on a Saudi oil processing center in September of 2019 and the use of the aforementioned proxy militias in Iraq to protest and attempt to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad are more pointed measures that Iran has not employed in the past, especially directly against U.S. assets and close allies. It is these more direct attacks that have prompted U.S. backlashes. The most severe and recent of these responses was the assassination of the infamous high-ranking Iranian “shadow” general, Kasim Soleimani, by an American Airstrike.
What has followed since the assassination is a frightening display of brinksmanship reminiscent of Cold-War era phrases of escalation. Iran and the U.S. have both engaged in shows of force and bombastic rhetoric. The U.S. increased deployment of American troops to the Middle-East, and Iran has threatened severe retaliation for the assassination, hoisting the Shiite red flag of war above the Jamkaran Mosque in the city of Qom in preparation for the conflict to come. Increased speculation regarding the Iranian response and the full implication of this assassination is still ongoing, however. The assassination itself is a departure from standard American policy. Soleimani, who often worked against U.S. regional interests through his involvement with various proxy groups and terror organizations was, nonetheless, a state-actor: A high ranking general of the Iranian Armed Forces Revolutionary Guard Corps. Such an open attack on a high-ranking official who is so central to Iranian policy-making could be compared to an open assassination of an American with the same stature as Henry Kissenger. By many metrics, this could be interpreted as akin to an act of war.
The consequences of this assassination lie not just in the Iranian government’s response, but also in the response of the Iranian people and the Iraqi government and people. The Iranian people were, prior to this assassination, in open protest against the Iranian regime; this state of affairs had been ongoing since 2018 as part of general Iranian discontent with the economic situation. These protests had surged in November following a sharp hike in gas prices. The U.S. could have been poised to capitalize on Iranian domestic instability. However, as a result of the assassination of Soleimani, a widely well-regarded and respected figure by Iranians due to his role in defeating ISIS, the protesters have largely abated and have instead united around the government in opposition to the U.S. attack. In Iraq, the Iraqi government has come under pressure by Iraqis who do not want to see the country become a battleground between the U.S. and Iran. The Iraqi parliament voted unanimously on Sunday (5th of January 2020) to expel American troops from Iraq in protest of the violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The attack itself has instilled a level of fervor during this period of mourning among the Shiite Iraqi militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a group of militias nominally controlled by the Iraqi government and with affiliations to Iran who were created during the war against ISIS. These militias have been Iran’s proxies in Iraq and were the actors on the ground during the embassy protests in December-January. The stirring up of these militias could pose serious security and stability threats to the Iraqi government.
Through looking at the responses of the Iranian government and the Iranian people, as well as the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people, it may seem that Washington did not fully comprehend the scale or the severity of their decision. The lack of a pressure outlet for Iran in the form of negotiations, the squandering of a political opportunity to bring Iran to the table during their period of domestic instability, and the backlash against the U.S. following the assassination of Soleimani showcase a decision-making process that did not plan for how to deal with the aftermath. In other words: a lack of long-term strategic vision. Besides serving as retaliation, what overarching goal did this assassination achieve? How did this assassination move U.S. assets and interests out of harm’s way as opposed to uniting regional players against the U.S.? Many would argue it has put U.S. interests in the region in jeopardy, as America finds itself yet again gearing up for a potential war without the backing of the international community.
The current heating up of relations with Iran is not the only example of this kind of decision making. The United States has shown a fundamental lack of long-term strategic vision and planning in its foreign policy initiatives. From the Middle-East and Putin’s Russia to China and Subsaharan Africa, the U.S. is increasingly finding itself outmaneuvered by its competitors. U.S. strategic plans, if they even exist for a region, are constantly being altered and changed, leaving no consistency and time with which results can take hold. Strategic goals are often vague, immeasurable, and nigh unachievable. Regional rivals, such as China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran have all outmaneuvered the U.S. on the geopolitical scene on multiple occasions. They have evaded and/or withstood U.S. countermeasures to their activities, in some cases for decades. Four U.S. presidents have unsuccessfully tried to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program, three U.S. presidents have failed to counter China’s growing influence in South East Asia and their increasingly dystopian human rights violations, three U.S. presidents have been unable to check Russian ambitions and meddling in the former Soviet Republics of the Caucuses and Eastern Europe (most notably in Ukraine and Georgia), and finally, Iran has evaded three U.S. administrations’ attempts to halt their nuclear program as well as their clandestine proxy activities in the Middle East.
Looking at this with regards to U.S. policy towards China, one can see a pattern of inaction, counterproductive actions, and sluggish responses. Take as an example the South China Sea conflict. This conflict has been a major international issue and an area of strategic interest to the U.S. for almost a decade, and yet, beyond the occasional naval confrontation, the U.S. has not developed any effective counter to China’s reef-building and aggressive posturing. Beyond the South China Sea territorial disputes, China has been pressuring countries using checkbook diplomacy in Southeast Asia and Central Asia through its Belt and Road initiative, and in the past 2-3 years, their aggressiveness in this regard has increased. Despite the U.S. strategic relationships with many of the nations along the Belt and Road initiative, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and others, it took the U.S. over 6 years to come up with an alternative, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP). Even then, the FOIP does not yet have near the same reach as that of the Belt and Road initiative. In a counterproductive move by the Trump administration in 2017, the United States actually withdrew from the best counter to Chinese regional influence, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In addition to China’s actions on the world stage, their internal authoritarian tendencies have also skyrocketed to Orwellian proportions. Yet, despite its interest in the region, and self-described role as “leader of the free world”, the U.S. has failed to take significant action regarding human rights atrocities committed against Hong-Kong, the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and other groups. There has been no economic pressure exerted, no calls to divest from China, and the administration’s frequent praise of Chinese leader Xi Jinping arguably empowers the Chinese government to continue with the kind of behavior that undermines U.S. interests in the region.
Beyond China, this issue can also be seen in the Middle East, where the U.S. consistently opens new theaters of conflict without: 1.) Adequate withdrawal plans 2.) Clearly defined and measurable goals, and 3). A full grasp of all the actors in the theater and their objectives, capabilities, and motives. U.S. conflicts in nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and now Iran are all examples of this Achilles heel of American foreign policy. It has become a consistent occurrence for the U.S. to entangle itself in yet another conflict in the Middle East and become trapped in a quagmire. Furthermore, these conflicts often persist for as long as they do partially due to a failure to identify long-term objectives and establish plans around them before entering a conflict. Following the Iraq invasion and the subsequent removal of the anti-Iranian Saddam Hussein, no countermeasures were put in place to prevent Iran from influencing the majority Shiite nation. Additionally, the U.S. did not put in place countermeasures to prevent sectarian violence, long since repressed under the Saddam regime, from erupting. Countless coalition and Iraqi lives were lost due to this blunder. Today, Iranian backed militias pose a serious threat to the Iraqi government’s hold on authority.
Next door to the Middle-East, an opposite issue appears to be taking hold. Whereas the Middle East might arguably see too much U.S. attention, the fast-growing nations of Subsaharan Africa might be seeing too little. Subsaharan Africa is a theater that is proving increasingly important as it is a concentration of some of the fastest-growing economies of the world. However, it is also a theater that the U.S. and its allies have practically conceded to the Chinese, who are now buying influence throughout the continent via the aforementioned strategy of checkbook diplomacy: the provision of loans, police and military resources, and the financing of infrastructure and development projects all across Africa. In an interview with Vice News regarding the conflict in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the former U.S. Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes, Russ Feingold, commented on the US’s plan both for the East African region and, in a larger sense, the world. In it, he describes the U.S. plan simply as nonexistent. The lack of interest in this vital region by U.S. policymakers is of real concern. The current administration did not appoint an ambassador to the DRC, a critical nation in the region due to its central location and history of instability, until late 2018, a full two years after the administration took office. Ambassador positions in many African nations such as Chad, Cote D’Ivoire, and Tanzania remain vacant as of the writing of this article. In this region of East Africa, terrorist organizations such as the ADF are able to commit atrocities with impunity. Through their actions, they not only destabilize this vital region in the heart of the African continent but also assist in transforming it into a hotbed of activity that may harm and destabilize other areas around the world. The rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad, and subsequent slow American response, draws parallels to the apathy displayed in the Congo region. The lack of a U.S. plan has lead to other areas of Africa to remain unstable years after conflicts began. Mali, Nigeria, the DRC, and their neighbors continue to suffer from instability and violence and are largely ignored by U.S. policymakers.
Lastly, the Achilles Heel can be seen in U.S. policy meant to counter Russian meddling, interference, and influence in the former Soviet sphere of authority. The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin has successfully violated the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia in the past decade. It has also attempted in the past to influence and meddle in the affairs of the Baltic states, the Scandinavian states, the Balkans, and the Caucuses. Perhaps most worryingly, Russian intelligence has been caught attempting to meddle in the elections of the UK, Austria, Germany, France, the US, and Montenegro, where Russia attempted a coup in 2015. Here, the Russian strategy of an “asymmetric assault on democracy”, coined by Senator Ben Cardin in a report he issued on the subject in 2018, is the most concerning for the stability of democratic nations. Through observation of Russian actions in the past decade, starting with actions against Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the 2000s and continuing today with violations of Ukranian sovereignty and election interference in democratic nations, the U.S. has displayed an inability to contain Russian actions. The U.S. responses have been characterized by being both ineffective at preventing future violations of sovereignty and at halting the ongoing violations of sovereignty (Russia has yet to return occupied Georgian and Ukranian territories, despite sanctions and diplomatic action).
As of now, I cannot with any certainty point to an identifiable cause behind this foreign policy crisis. Perhaps the answer lies in the commanding power that the executive branch wields in America with regards to foreign policy. A lack of checks on the president’s ability to change foreign policy (or perhaps, an unwillingness to exercise those checks by Congress) coupled with the lack of coordination with the legislature on the matters of funding and diplomatic initiatives by the executive could result in foreign policy being changed suddenly and unexpectedly, with the consequence that the legislature is unable to keep pace with the changing diplomatic and geo-political situation. Perhaps it is also this presidential autonomy in diplomacy and geopolitics that, combined with a high turnover rate in the executive branch compared to some other nations, results in dramatic new approaches to foreign policy once every 4-8 years.
Perhaps the issue lies somewhere in the bureaucracy of the State Department, the Defense Department, and the intelligence services. The existential raison d’existence of the bureaucracy is to provide stability within policymaking: the idea that, no matter the turnover of politicians and their staff, there stays a layer of experienced and capable individuals who can carry out policy. If there exists an issue regarding that bureaucratic layer’s ability to communicate with itself, or its ability to execute policy, then that could account for the inability of the U.S. to counter the influence of its regional rivals.
Many credit the military might of the U.S. for its status as a superpower. However, military might can be blunted without the ability to project cultural and economic might alongside it. The blows to U.S. prestige, in the form of repeated failure to exert influence in major theaters, pose a serious risk to the US’s future ability to project military, economic, and cultural power. Regardless of the sources of this foreign policy crisis, it appears that, without correction, this crisis could diminish the United States’ ability to project power (both soft and hard) and to counter destabilizing and threatening influences from its rivals. From Baghdad to Manila, the US’s influence could start to waver, and with it, the swaying of the Sword of Damocles could finally push the U.S. from its thrown.