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By Robert Clark
On October 18th 2017, the Henry Jackson Society were honoured to welcome to Parliament Dov Zakheim, former US Under Secretary of Defense and current Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, to discuss US National Security Policy in the Middle East under President Trump. Chairing the event was Lord Trimble, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his efforts in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and the Henry Jackson Society’s Tom Wilson, Fellow at The Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism.
Dov Zakheim has held a number of prominent government positions during his extensive career, including as Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer for the Department of Defense under President George W Bush’s first term, and was complete with anecdotal whims regarding the finer points of international diplomacy. Zakheim began his talk discussing in what state US foreign relations had been left to President Trump from the outgoing Obama administration at the beginning of 2017, and his assessment was rather bleak. Criticising from the start the pullout of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, Zakheim made the point that it was this shift in toning down commitment to the Middle East which ‘let the door open’ for an increasingly aggressive Iran and expansionist Russia. With the Shia government in Iraq managing to tenaciously cling onto power in the face of Islamic State, and a recently revived Kurdish independence movement, there is now a ‘Shia Crescent’ which has formed across the region. Stretching from Iran in the east, into Iraq, supported by Assad and the Syrian regime, into Lebanon and the Mediterranean in the west, with pockets of indirect control in Yemen and Gaza with its proxy Houthi allies and Hamas respectively. This is an influence which Iran has previously not experienced, and is a direct threat to American national interests in the region, particularly the further destabiliation of Iraq and attempting to draw Saudi Arabian security interests away from state based energy exports into border clashes and a civil war on its southern border.
This security vacuum caused by the Obama administration, aided immensely by the JCPOA (otherwise known as the Iran Deal), has caused another regional power to exert its influence further; Russia. Not even in the Soviet era during the Cold War did the county (as it was back then) enjoy such freedom of maneuver in the Middle East. Back then, America’s sole interest in the region was keeping the flow of oil away from the Soviets. Whilst Russia today is less dependent on Middle Eastern oil (thanks in no small part to a large decrease of its manufacturing base combined with a modernisation of its own natural resources capability), it nonetheless sees the region as a geo-strategic objective, argued by Zakheim for two reasons. First, as a means to counter US hegemony in the region, and second, to use the ongoing civil war in Syria as a means of consolidating its power (by the build-up of permanent naval bases at Tartus and elsewhere) and testing its new military capabilities, demonstrating to the world (and the US in particular) that Russia is indeed a military power to be respected. This, Zakheim states, can be easily evidenced by increased arms sales by Russia to both Turkey and, in a further demonstration of dwindling US influence in the region, Israel.
So what is to be done if the US wishes to reverse this increasing lack of power in the Middle East? A great deal will depend, Zakheim suggests, on the relationship between President Trump and his Secretary of Defense, General Mattis. So far a very productive relationship between the two, Mattis has managed to have the ear of President Trump in a manner few administration officials have managed. Mattis has managed to persuade his Commander in Chief towards his views regarding the Middle East peace process, the civil war in Syria, the fight against Islamic State and the Yemeni civil war. As anyone who has experience of working in the Middle East knows, as Zakheim notes, forging relationships based on trust is absolutely paramount in achieving what one desires. Mattis has long been involved in this region during his extensive military career, including as Commander CENTCOM. Mattis knows this region, and knows its people, and the trust placed in him by President Trump is clearly evidenced by the lack of departmental shuffles and replacements, as seen elsewhere in the administration. By acting as a check to perhaps some of the US President’s bolder policies, General Mattis can yet reverse the loss of US influence suffered in the Middle East by the Obama years.