United States

Running amok

Print edition : March 03, 2017

Ethnic Yemenis and supporters protest against Trump’s ban order on immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, on February 2, in New York city. Photo: SPENCER PLATT/AFP

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, in Tehran on February 7. Photo: AP

Nikki Haley, the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, upon her arrival at the U.N. headquarters in New York on January 27. Photo: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

Within a short span the Trump administration has escalated tensions, political, economic and military, all over the world.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump had promised to be a true friend of Israel and scrap the nuclear deal with Iran. He had also said the greatest mistake that the United States made in Iraq was to allow the government in Baghdad to retain control over the country’s oil. Trump was constantly railing against China over issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea. Now he is even threatening to oppose China’s “One China” policy. However, it was his stance on immigration, particularly his pledge to stop Muslims from entering the U.S. and the promise to build a “great wall” along the long border with Mexico, that galvanised his voter base and, at the same time, turned world public opinion against him.

Many Americans as well as world leaders were under the misguided impression that Trump’s campaign rhetoric was just a populist electoral tactic. But within weeks of taking over, he has proved otherwise. The decision to implement a ban on Muslims from certain countries is only one illustration. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia, whose citizens have been subjected to the ban, have long been in the crosshairs of U.S. administrations. Some of these countries have already been subjected to American attacks or invasion. It was the Barack Obama administration that first introduced stricter vetting procedures before giving visas to citizens from these countries. In 2011, it stopped processing visa applications from Iraq for six months. Military allies of the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, have been exempted from the ban. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the U.S., are most responsible for the current carnage in the region and the consequent refugee problem.

The killings and the refugee crisis started escalating after the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. Subsequent interventions in Libya and Syria have made the humanitarian situation only graver. It is also well known that support from Saudi Arabia and its wealthy Gulf allies initially sustained and nurtured the militant groups that later morphed into terrorist outfits such as the Daesh (Islamic State) and Al Nusra. Most of those involved in the 9/11 terror attacks on America were from Saudi Arabia. The others were from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. The Trump administration cited the 9/11 attacks to justify the ban. Interestingly, there have been no protests from countries exempted from the ban, such as Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Just days after taking over, Trump issued a scathing indictment of the United Nations, vowing to cut funding to key agencies engaged in humanitarian work. His ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, also issued threats in her maiden speech. She said that the U.N. would have to change the way it did business and issued a warning to members to follow U.S. diktats. “Our goal with the administration is to show value at the U.N. and the way we will show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies and make sure our allies have our backs as well,” she said.

Trump did not waste much time in publicly reiterating that he wanted to implement many of his controversial election pledges, including shifting of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though he has yet to give a timetable for this. The Palestinian Authority, along with all the different political factions, have warned that such a move would mean the definite end to the peace process and the two-state solution to end the conflict. Within a fortnight of taking over, the Trump administration raised military tensions with Tehran after Iran conducted a short-range ballistic missile test in the last week of January. Iran has been conducting such tests periodically since the signing of the nuclear deal.

After Iran made significant concessions on the nuclear front, its only form of credible self-defence against foreign military aggression is missile technology. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s National Security Adviser, dramatically announced that the Trump administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” with immediate effect for its missile test and for Tehran’s alleged military support to the Houthi forces fighting Saudi Arabian aggression in Yemen. A Houthi attack on a Saudi naval ship was falsely attributed to Iran by the Trump administration. Before taking up the high-profile job, Flynn had said that he considered Iran “more dangerous than the Daesh”.

Flynn had also described Islam as a “cancer” that “has to be excised”. The Trump administration, borrowing from Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, has chosen to portray “radical Islam” as an existential threat. But in the Trump world view, even groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Houthis in Yemen, along with countries such as Iran that are helping the U.S. fight the Daesh in Iraq, are all part of a radical Islamist grouping. Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s closest advisers and a member of the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), has said that the “Judeo Christian West” was facing an onslaught from “Islamic fascism”.

Under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which ended the international sanctions on Iran, Tehran is not prohibited from testing ballistic missiles. The Obama administration had tried to include a ban on ballistic missile testing in the resolution, but this was opposed not only by Russia and China but also by America’s European allies involved in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. But this did not stop the Trump administration from imposing additional unilateral sanctions on Iran targeting firms and individuals allegedly involved in the country’s missile programme and the banking sector. Flynn said that Iran “continues to threaten the U.S. and its allies in the region”. However, James Mattis and the new Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson, have said that the nuclear deal with Iran was good from the U.S.’s point of view.

The Iranian leadership was already chafing at the U.S. after Trump included Iran in the list of seven countries whose citizens were barred from entering the U.S. The country’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qassemi, said it was regrettable that “instead of thanking the Iranian nation for their continued fight against terrorism, [the new administration] keeps repeating unfounded claims and adopts unwise policies that are effectively helping terrorist groups”. Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian Foreign Minister and close adviser of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Iran would continue with its tests of ballistic missiles and characterised Trump’s remarks on Iran as “hollow rants”.

Khamenei himself reacted strongly in the second week of February and dismissed the Trump administration’s threats. In his first public speech since Trump took over, Iran’s Supreme Leader said Iran was thankful to the new President “for showing the real face of America”. Trump, he said, had confirmed “what we have been saying for the last 30 years about the political, economic, moral and social corruption in the U.S.”.

President Hassan Rouhani described Trump as “a political novice”, while Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran “was unmoved by threats” and that his country would “never initiate a war” but at the same time “would rely on our own means of defence”. Iran has no long-range missiles, unlike Israel. In the last week of January, Iran’s central bank announced that it would no longer be using the American dollar “as its currency of choice” in financial and foreign exchange activities.

The Trump administration has also started talking about establishing “safe zones” inside Syria, an idea the previous administration had briefly flirted with. The so-called safe zones idea came in for considerable criticism as soon as it was mooted. If implemented, it would mean the establishment of a “no-fly zone” over Syrian airspace and the possible deployment of American troops on the ground. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told the U.S. Congress last September that if the U.S. wanted to control Syrian airspace it would have to go to war not only with the Syrian government but also with Russia.

Now the ground realities in Syria have undergone more dramatic changes after the liberation of Aleppo. Russia, along with Turkey and Iran, is trying to broker a peace deal for Syria. The peace talks hosted by the three countries in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in late January were described as a success, with many Syrian rebel groups participating. Under international law, establishing “safe zones” without the authorisation of the host country or the U.N. Security Council is illegal. Many of the top positions in the Trump administration are filled with avowed supporters of Israel. Instituting regime change in Damascus and splitting Syria and the region into small statelets has been a top priority of the Jewish state and its influential neo-conservative supporters in the U.S. Thankfully, the idea of “safe zones”, which was first proposed by Turkey when the Syrian conflict began, is now not getting any backing from America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies.

The Trump administration’s first publicised attack against high-value Al Qaeda targets turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Trump personally authorised a raid on an alleged Al Qaeda safe house in a remote village in central Yemen.

The raid resulted in the death of scores of civilians, including the eight-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was also an Al Qaeda ideologue. The Yemeni authorities put the number of dead at 57. Most of those killed were women and children. The operation also led to the death of a U.S. Marine. Qasim al Raymi, who was the intended target and described as the third most dangerous terrorist in the world, was nowhere in the scene. Al Raymi, who leads the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), later issued a taped message in which he said that “the new fool in the White House received a painful slap across his face”. U.S. military officials have said that the Trump administration ordered the operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate back-up preparations.

Obama had refused to give the green light to the Pentagon to conduct commando raids in Yemen and had left the decision to his successor. The Saudi-backed government in Yemen announced in the second week of February that it would no longer give permission to American special forces to conduct raids on its territory, after grisly pictures of killed and wounded children who died were widely published in the region. Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi said the U.S. raid amounted to “extrajudicial killings”.

However, the White House spokesperson has continued to claim that the raid was “highly successful”. The raid in Yemen, in retrospect, will be seen as an inauspicious beginning for the Trump presidency in West Asia.

Indian cooperation

In South Asia, the strongest ally of the U.S. at the moment is the current Indian government. Trump had said during his election campaign that he loved India and “Hindus” in particular. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to Indian officials, had a detailed telephonic conversation in the last week of January. India’s primary concern is the H-1B visa issue. In his campaign, Trump had promised to drastically cut the issuance of H-1B visas, which are crucial for the Indian tech industry; India is the largest beneficiary of the visa programme. Trump apparently assured Modi that he would take into consideration India’s apprehensions about the proposed move.

The White House, in a statement, said that Trump considered India “a true friend” and that the need to further enhance “economic and defence cooperation” between the two countries was among the issues the two leaders discussed. On the issue of the dangers posed by “Islamic terrorism”, the two leaders are ideologically on the same page. Modi was the fifth world leader Trump called after he checked into the White House. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin and many leaders from European Union states had to wait for a few days for a formal call from Trump.

The Indian government is already cooperating with the U.S. in America’s military pivot to the East. It has supported the American position on the South China Sea issue. India and Japan are the only two countries in Asia that have not signed on to China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative. Both India and the U.S. are not happy with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the growing Chinese influence in South Asia. But India will have a serious problem if U.S.-Iran relations deteriorate further. India has invested heavily in the Chabahar port in Iran and has renewed its economic ties with Tehran after international sanctions were lifted after the signing of the nuclear deal.

Trump also had a cordial telephonic talk with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Trump told Sharif that he was not averse to playing the role of a “mediator or arbitrator” in the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Although Trump made some disparaging comments about Pakistan during his campaign, the American political and security establishment will need that country’s cooperation as long as U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. There is a consensus in the international community that a durable peace in Afghanistan is only possible with the cooperation of Pakistan.

The Trump administration’s focus will be to get jobs and manufacturing back to America. This policy will not be compatible with Modi’s “Make in India” mantra. The Trump administration will continue with the policy of exerting pressure on the issue of pharmaceutical patents. Defence co-production, envisaged during the Obama administration, could also be a casualty. India was designated as “a major defence partner” of the U.S. by the Obama administration. Lockheed Martin had offered to manufacture F-16 fighters in India. The U.S. now sells more than $15 billion worth in armaments to India annually.

The Indian government will have to tread carefully during the Trump presidency as the risk of a worldwide conflagration increases.

The Trump administration, within a short period, has already lit small fires in the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea and eastern Europe. It has declared Muslims worldwide a potential threat and alienated the Chinese by threatening to revive the “two China” policy and go to war over the South China Sea dispute. America’s relations with Russia are unlikely to improve despite the apparent bonhomie between Trump and Putin. Trump is now back-pedalling and has reiterated his support for NATO and its eastward expansion.

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