100 days of President Trump and Saudi Alliance


As President Trump is fast approaching his 100 days in office his foreign policy has started taking shape. At the start of his presidency, I had predicted that President Trump will pursue the Obama doctrine of pivot to Asia – but on steroids (Launch of Cold War 2.0, Pakistan Today Jan 22nd, 2017). I still hold that view but there is a substantial difference in the approach between President Obama and Trump. Obama relied on experienced diplomats and political allies Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to lead policy implementation. President Trump, on the other hand, is relying on retired and serving soldiers while his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is acting more like a glorified trade representative. This means that foreign policy is now firmly in control of Secretary of Defence General (Retd) James Mattis, National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt. Gen H. R. MacMaster and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F Dunford. Gen Mattis has been preceding Secretary Tillerson on most foreign visits to key allies Japan, South Korea, and the UK. He also held meetings with Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in Washington DC. Gen Dunford took the son-in-law of President Trump Jared Kushner with him to the Iraq visit to make him an ally. Secretary of State Tillerson was further handicapped by being unable to fill key positions in his team at the state department. Experienced foreign policy hands prefer to join the teams of the NSA or the Secretary of Defence.


It seems that establishment has spun such a web around President Trump that he can’t even move a finger without their consent. This web is a combination of placing key people around him, as well as developing pressure points. Russian ties of President Trump’s former campaign staff is an equivalent of Panama leaks for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. We can say that American foreign policy just got Pakistanised whereby military controls foreign policy. The problem with soldiers as diplomats is that they believe the most effective tool in foreign policy is weapons and brigades. So far they have employed this tool in Syrian strikes; dropping the mother of all bombs (MOAB) in Afghanistan; and sending an aircraft carrier to Korean waters. To facilitate them further President Trump announced jacking up military budget while curtailing it for diplomats. Now let’s analyse the effect of these aggressive moves around the world.


Syrian strikes were meant to send a message to three different stakeholders that are European Union, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Before the strikes, EU lead by Germany and France were comfortable with the peace efforts initiated by Russia in collaboration with Turkey and Iran. They preferred peace because continued wars would have meant relentless waves of new refugees that have already changed their cultural and demographic landscape substantially. Extreme right is already labelling it invasion of Europe by Islam in their election campaigns. After the strikes, the message to Germany and France seems to be to take responsibility for managing the rise of Russia as they have a long history of dealing with her. If they fail to stand up there could be more strikes to force them to do it even at the risk of destabilising the region.


For Russia the Syrian strikes and dropping of MOAB in Afghanistan are meant to set the negotiations table from the position of strength. In their view, Russian President Putin understands the language of aggression better than words. America would prefer Russia to remain restricted in a balance of power in Central Asia and East Europe. Russia understands the strategy and decided to test the resolve of America by drawing a red line through the release of a joint statement with Iran and Syria that any further strikes on Syria will be retaliated. This is a dangerous situation because if the USA tested the breach of this red line then President Putin has to retaliate or lose his credibility both internationally and domestically where he enjoys high approval rating.


For Saudi Arabia, the Syrian strikes are meant to suggest that ambitions of Iran in the Middle East will be checked. The USA would prefer Saudi Arabia to manage the Middle East as they shift their focus to Asia. The Islamic Military alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) seems to be a reincarnation of Baghdad Pact (later renamed CENTO) of the bygone era. China may also accept it as the stable Middle East is in her interest for the steady supply of fossil fuels.


The second aggressive move of dropping of MOAB on Afghanistan was meant to send a message that America intent to stay in the region in a big way. In this incident again soldiers took lead over diplomats as the decision to drop the bomb was taken by local commanders. It is not clear at what point President Trump or Secretary of State Tillerson were informed about it. In my view, American continued engagement in Afghanistan is not sustainable and they should plan a gradual departure from it.


The third aggressive move of sending an aircraft carrier to Korean waters has a message for allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, and India as well as for adversary China. I still believe that a security platform, like NATO for Europe, for Asia is in the making and rising tension with North Korea is to create justification for it. Sending aircraft carrier is to show resolve and commitment to the region but it is not a permanent solution. The permanent solution will evolve in the form of a security alliance.


Apart from sending an aircraft carrier to Korea, the Syrian strikes were initiated while the food was served to Chinese President in Florida. To plan President XI visit Chinese worked hard to ensure there were no embarrassments during the visit but the strikes did precisely just that. The message for China is that its hegemony in Asia and South/East China Sea will not be allowed.  China cannot afford rising tension in the region as it still has almost half its population near the poverty line. Military tension is like a poison for an economy and impacts it severely. A declining economy could cause major social upheaval. Chinese always take the long view of a situation so they would prefer to play it out by retracing some symbolic steps to stall aggression of USA while work to raise tension between Russia and USA.


What should Pakistan do? It is not yet clear whether the aggressive posture of America will yield dividend as her traditional allies Europe and Japan are still unsure about the new administration. Pakistan has to abandon its past practice of relying solely on one power and pursuing a zero-sum foreign policy. Pakistan should join the Saudi alliance but with certain conditions attached to it.


First: that the alliance will not have a standing army rather evolve as a platform to combat international terrorism.


Second, that alliance should not be used as a tool to create a sectarian divide of the Muslim Ummah.


And third: that Pakistan will participate in the regional security arrangement with Iran, Russia, and China to stabilise Afghanistan and Central Asia.


When a major power starts using its military to pursue diplomatic objectives then that is one of the signs of its desperation to claim superiority. There may be a temporary success from it before the final collapse. American collapse will be bad for the world so I hope that diplomacy will be left for diplomats to pursue and military should be used as a last resource rather than first.