Michael Flynn’s Sacking Alters The Course Of Trump’s NATO Policy

Volatility in the administration's staffing places Trump's relationship with the United Nations on shaky ground.
02/20/2017 03:25 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2017
Carlos Barria / Reuters

The Trump administration seems to be reassuring European countries that a more rational attitude by the U.S. toward NATO is on the horizon after Trump himself described the trans-Atlantic alliance as obsolete.

Europeans are also reassured by developments that have shone a more scrutinizing and politically realistic light on US-Russian relations. The two issues are linked because weakening the American weight and undermining the White House’s faith in NATO serves as one of the most important priorities for the Kremlin. The European powers were thus justifiably worried by the news of an anticipated intimate relationship between Trump and Putin, which would bypass the shared interests of the Western allies on both sides of the Atlantic, and challenge the foundations of the alliance that can otherwise stand up to a more assertive Russia, as it had done the Soviet Union before it.

This reassurance occurred after the sacking of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who concealed his conversations with the Russian ambassador in Washington about sanctions on Russia,

This reassurance should not be enough for European countries if they want to restore their status with the United States in the era of Donald Trump. Repairing the old flaws in NATO’s structure is needed, and there are other steps European nations could also study to help polish the policies of the Trump administration on Russia and infuse its decisions with a renewed sense of trans-Atlantic partnership. Time and again, Europe hides behind U.S. policies to justify its own dereliction; we’ve seen this in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. So it is time for Europe to step into the light, because there is a great need for communication and candidness, as well as practical plans for issues concerning Europe’s internal politics, where populism is on the rise against a backdrop of centrifugal forces pushing the European Union toward possible disintegration.

This also applies to the Arab countries, which have in turn obfuscated, whether out of fear of their obligations or in denial of the failure of their policies. The Arab countries’ reassurance over Trump’s attitudes on Iran must not turn into complacency, because what is happening in the United States is unusual and what comes in terms of American-Russian relations will have implications for the Middle East. Instead, this is a time to think profoundly about how to align themselves in light of either rapprochement or further divergence between Moscow and Washington; that is, in both the event their rivalry continues or there is a grand bargain.

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has been reading between the lines of the American-Russian relation. He has been walking a tightrope, because he is aware of the implications of any maturation in cordiality between the Trump and Putin. But despite all his caution, Americans still vetoed the nomination of former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad as envoy to Libya, as the secretary general wanted.

[T]he Trump administration appeared reckless and prone to turning its back on moderates and friends."

That astonishing move gave the UN a clear idea about what the Trump administration intends to do at the international organization. The move was astonishing for many reasons. First, a superpower objected to the appointment of a qualified person for the sole reason that he is Palestinian, disregarding a fundamental American idea about equal opportunities for all. Fayyad also worked for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, with U.S. and European support, and commands international and even Israeli respect. Thus, the Trump administration appeared reckless and prone to turning its back on moderates and friends. Guterres quickly withdrew Fayyad’s name because he had no choice, but he made his frustration with the U.S. clear during his Gulf tour that took him to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Oman before heading to Egypt.

On Iran, Guterres understands it is best to wait and see and not go above the White House, which is in the process of reassessing relations with the Islamic Republic. Otherwise, he would face censure and obstruction. This is interesting because former secretary general Ban Ki-moon had closely trailed the U.S. on relations with Iran, while the new UN chief is set to closely watch what will transpire with America’s relations with Iran and Russia to calibrate his next moves. For this reason, perhaps, Guterres renewed the term of undersecretary Jeffrey Feltman, an American, for another year, bearing in mind that Russia is determined for the post to be a Russian choice.

Everyone is waiting for the development of American-Russian relations, especially in the wake of Michael Flynn’s sacking. Flynn was very close to Moscow and Putin himself. His departure is a blow to Russia, but another blow could come when Congress interrogates Flynn and new investigations are launched into alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

The U.S. intelligence community is up in arms about these abuses, especially since members of the Trump administration are deliberately belittling the intelligence agencies. True, revealing what Flynn had hidden from the vice president was not the work of the CIA or FBI, but the intelligence community appears relieved that the new president and his administration have been prevented from making any moves that threaten national interests as set by the long-standing establishment and not the newly elected administration and its friends in Wall Street.

Moscow is aware of the gravity of these developments. What happened was not marginal. It was an omen that could put the brakes on any unwise and premature grand bargain sought by Putin. Yet, until an agreement is reached over this grand bargain, there are many issues through which trust can be built, and the European, Arab, and Middle Eastern parties can contribute.

The issue of Ukraine could be more complicated than Libya or even Syria, given its position along the NATO-Russian faultline. But Libya itself s a candidate for cooperation between Russia, the U.S., and European states, as well as Egypt and the GCC. Libya, remember, is a victim of Western reluctance to help rebuild the state, even though it was NATO that toppled the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, stretching the mandate of a UN Security Council resolution that had been endorsed by Moscow. At the time, Moscow protested and accused NATO and some Arab countries of insultingly misleading Russia, which is one of the reasons the Kremlin has sought vindication in Syria.

Russia today appears closely involved in the Libyan issue, which interests Moscow on two main counts: terrorism, which it wants to eliminate in the Libyan source, and oil. The Trump administration is anxious to pounce on the terror dens, especially if this can be done without using any U.S. forces. Europe, as usual, is mainly keen to have a stake in Libya’s oil and gas, contrary to what former French President Sarkozy and his arrogant philosopher Bernard Henri Levy had claimed, that the goal was to liberate the Libyans from tyranny. Egypt is also keen to play a role in Libya, but the Gulf countries, which are directly involved in Libya, appear more focused on Yemen and on forging special ties with the new US administration. In short, should the necessary political will become available, the Libyan issue is a good candidate for multilateral accords.

Lebanon was until recently the focal point of regional and international consensus and optimism. But the optimism has since receded, after President Michel Aoun defended Hezbollah’s armaments and role as an entity parallel to the Lebanese Armed Forces under the pretext of “resistance.” The divorce between Iran and America after the honeymoon between them under Obama has implications in Lebanon. Intra-Palestinian conflicts are undermining security, and the border with Syria remains risky and exposed to terror groups. Yet all this can be contained if the key capitals take radical decisions to prevent war in Lebanon. This also requires local decisions that are up to the level of responsibility, beginning with the president. Lebanon needs intensive care before it is too late, but it is also a candidate for international accords.

Iran has a big say in shaping any decisions on Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. The tension in American-Iranian relations may appear advantageous to the Gulf countries, which have welcomed the change under Trump. However, this does not mean automatically that the Iranian tentacles will be pulled out of these countries. Iran has a long-term project that is hard to contain or tackle, as long as the United States is opposed to a military option against Iran. Yet it’s not impossible, if Washington resolved to see this through, and it will be easier if Moscow lends a helping hand in Syria.

The expected intransigence in Israeli positions not just on Iran but also Palestine will be the ammunition that Iran has been waiting for, since Iran has always used the Palestinian issue as a weapon. In this context, the European countries can play important roles if they insist on opposing settlements and on defending the dying two-state solution.

The two-state solution has died at the hands of Israel, which rejects it in principle despite agreeing to it verbally. Last week, Donald Trump said what everyone has known is true, instead of flogging a dead horse. Perhaps, this could be useful, because it helps everyone stop pretending. However, this also marks a new American position, abandoning the commitment to a two-state solution. Meanwhile, Trump’s remarks about one state requires a lot of clarification. Indeed, a truly democratic one state means equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis and the end of military occupation. However, one state that is exclusively Jewish implies the deportation of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories to Jordan, which Israel wants to become the alternative homeland of the Palestinians. If Trump wants this, then he must tell King Abdullah of Jordan that he will renege on promises of respecting Jordan’s sovereignty.

The Gulf countries may wait before deciding to protest. But they must seek explanations, to avoid appearing as though they have decided to put enmity with Iran ahead of loyalty to Palestine.

If Trump is truly intent to effect a qualitative shift in the Palestinian-Israeli issue with the help of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, then he must quickly explain what he means by abandoning the two-state solution and the one-state as he envisions it. Otherwise, he risks undermining the task of his son in law, and alienating moderates in the Islamic countries, whom he needs to fight radicalism and terror.

Syria remains the gaping wound. There is no clear roadmap yet for what comes after the declaration of the redline with Iran, and American-Russian relations are hitting more difficulties than expected. 

Translated by Karim Traboulsi

 

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