Middle East Ticker

The National Security Strategy and the Middle East, Trump's Jerusalem Mess, and Riyadh's Nuclear Plans

By J. Dana Stuster
Thursday, December 21, 2017, 7:00 AM

What the National Security Strategy Means for U.S. Policy in the Middle East

The Trump administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS) earlier this week. In a speech about the report at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, on Monday, Trump stressed that the strategy is based on four U.S. national interests, first among them security—which seems appropriate, if redundant, for a national security strategy. For U.S. policy in the Middle East, Trump said the strategy “calls for us to confront, discredit, and defeat radical Islamic terrorism and ideology and to prevent it from spreading into the United States.” He also called out Iran as a particular concern and praised his administration for issuing sanctions against the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and not recertifying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in a congressional review in October.

Trump concluded by saying that “our strategy is to advance American influence in the world, but this begins with building up our wealth and power at home.” If this is the goal, the administration’s scorn for diplomacy has set itself up for failure. The Trump administration’s rogue action to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement has limited U.S. influence on the issue and isolated Washington from its European partners in the deal. Even close allies in the Middle East have felt empowered over the past year to disregard U.S. concerns. Rather than use diplomacy to guide and, to some extent, constrain the policies of U.S. allies, President Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May was perceived by the Gulf states as carte blanche to act unilaterally and without concern for U.S. policy. Saudi Arabia and its allies promptly started an ongoing feud with Qatar, another U.S. partner in the region, that has weakened regional cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State and other extremist groups and now threatens to unravel the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Trump administration, for its part, responded with mixed messages for months and now seems content to ignore the spat altogether. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have also continued their intervention in Yemen with reckless abandon, bringing new threats to Saudi Arabia’s borders. When the Trump administration condemned Saudi Arabia’s blockade of humanitarian aid to Houthi-held territory earlier this month, Riyadh barely batted an eye. (The condemnation itself was more a response to Saudi Arabia’s criticism of the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than the sort of principled concern for human rights eschewed by the new NSS.) Relations with Turkey and Egypt have soured in recent months, despite Trump’s warm embrace of Erdogan and Sisi. The void in diplomatic leadership has opened up opportunities for other countries to take the lead, and from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, to climate change, to Lebanese politics, to the Qatar feud, French President Emmanuel Macron seems eager to fill the gap. If the Trump administration is so feckless that it cannot guide its allies, how is it supposed to deter its adversaries?

The NSS document itself is more circumspect than Trump’s speech, which often sounded more like a defense of the first year of his administration’s policies than a strategy for the future. This would be some cause for solace if there was any hope that the administration would abide by the report it produced. But, as Roger Cohen wrote for the New York Times, “On any one issue, President Trump and his team have several contradictory positions.” And when presented with a range of potential courses of action, what Trump is feeling or being told in the moment will win out over coherent policy guided by the NSS’ organizing framework. In this regard, the Trump administration is not unique. “[E]very NSS published since Congress mandated them under the Goldwater-Nichols defense reorganization legislation of 1986 was either quickly forgotten or never implemented in any meaningful way,” CFR’s Micah Zenko wrote this week for Foreign Policy. “Foreign policy always proceeds at its own idiosyncratic pace.” The Trump administration is nothing if not idiosyncratic.

Trump Administration Isolates Itself amid Fallout from Jerusalem Decision

Two weeks after President Trump’s announcement that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy from Tel Aviv—a decision that catered to his evangelical base without a clear diplomatic benefit—the administration is grappling with the implications of its actions. As Scott Anderson noted for Lawfare and Foreign Policy, the new U.S. policy is ambiguous: It claims to preserve negotiating options in the peace process while also tilting an advantage towards Israel. The result has been to offend just about every country other than Israel. Even U.S. partners like Jordan, the Vatican, and European allies on the U.N. Security Council have sharply criticized the decision.

For a brief moment, it looked like the Trump administration might shift to damage control. Vice President Mike Pence changed his itinerary for planned trip to the Middle East; rather than traveling to Israel and then on to Egypt, Pence’s staff said he would fly to Cairo first and try to smooth things over with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But on Monday, with acrimony building at the United Nations, Pence’s staff announced the trip would be postponed at least until January.

Trump’s announcement has prompted protests and scattered violence—including 27 rocket attacks launched from Gaza into Israel—but the most divisive clashes have been at the United Nations. On Monday, the U.N. Security Council voted on a resolution put forward by Egypt reiterating the U.N. policy that the status of Jerusalem should be decided by Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and that states should refrain from establishing embassies in the city until a peace agreement is reached; the resolution, a clear rebuke to the Trump administration, did not mention the United States by name. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley vetoed the resolution, but all 14 other members of the Security Council voted for its passage. The resolution will now be presented to the U.N. General Assembly. On Wednesday, Haley warned that the United States “will be taking names” and President Trump threatened to slash aid to countries that vote in favor of the resolution. “They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars, and then they vote against us. Well, we’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care,” he said at the White House.

The Trump administration has tried to reframe the issue as a matter of U.S. sovereignty—who is the United Nations to tell the United States where it can and cannot put its embassies?—but Washington’s diplomatic defiance is not winning foreign diplomats over. Instead, it has alienated even close allies and incentivized countries to vote not just for the resolution, but specifically against the United States. “The first name that [Amb. Haley] should write down is Bolivia,” the Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations told Reuters. “We regret the arrogance and disrespect to the sovereign decision of member states and to multilateralism.” Others complained about the administration’s “poor tactics” and “blatant bullying.” The Trump administration has set itself up for an ugly diplomatic defeat; that may play well to Trump’s base, many of whom distrust multilateralism, but it will further diminish the administration’s already receding international influence.

Saudi Arabia’s Bid for Nuclear Power

At President Trump’s inauguration, National Security Advisor Mike Flynn sent a text message to a business associate, telling him to get ready to move forward with plans for a U.S.-Russian partnership to build a series nuclear power plants financed by Saudi Arabia. Flynn didn’t last long in his role at the White House and his business plans only came to light earlier this month after his messages were shared with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee by a whistleblower. As Mieke Eoyang and Amb. Laura Holgate wrote last week for Lawfare, Flynn’s business proposal was not only unethical, it runs against the security interests of the United States. The deal would have required that the administration roll back its sanctions on Moscow and promote the sale of Russian and Chinese nuclear technologies that do not come with the same conditions as U.S. technology that ensure compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

Now, almost a year later, the United States is considering new plans for building nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry traveled to Riyadh earlier this month and reportedly discussed easing restrictions on U.S. technology that prevents U.S.-made equipment from being used for enrichment and reprocessing of uranium, Bloomberg reports. The talks seem to be laying the groundwork for potential U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s planned nuclear project. Saudi Arabia’s energy minister said this week that the kingdom plans to sign contracts for two nuclear reactors next year, the opening salvo of an ambitious plan to build 16 reactors over the next two decades as part of its effort to diversify its economy and energy infrastructure and become the hub of a regional power grid. Russian company Rosatom is already eager to bid on the projects.

The implications of the potential shift in U.S. policy on enrichment will depend on what comes with it. In the nuclear negotiations that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian diplomats argued that their country had a “right to enrich” to support its domestic civilian nuclear program. The resulting agreement basically affirmed this and was structured to create a strict monitoring regime to demonstrate that none of that enriched uranium could be diverted to the development of a bomb. That model could be applied to other countries as well, including U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia. Allowing domestic enrichment is probably a recognition of reality, but smart policy will require monitoring and enforcement. The United States cannot keep foreign countries from developing nuclear technology indefinitely, but it can manage its spread and try to ensure that it is used for civilian, not military, purposes.

As Eoyang and Holgate note, a nuclear partnership with Saudi Arabia that allows domestic enrichment would trigger a clause in the U.S. 123 agreement with the United Arab Emirates, allowing them to also pursue domestic enrichment. There are particular hazards to this if the Trump administration follows through on threats to jettison the JCPOA. “Ripping up that deal, as Flynn advocated, and allowing Iran to race for the bomb would have given Saudi Arabia motivation to acquire a large number of civilian nuclear reactors, providing cover for an ostensibly civilian enrichment capacity that could mask a covert weapons program,” they write. “Such a policy posture would guarantee the kind of Middle East nuclear arms race that the Iran nuclear agreement was designed to halt.” It’s a real concern—maybe even with the JCPOA still in place. Research that explains nuclear proliferation as the result of whether states have the fiscal and technical capacity to develop a weapon and feel it is in their security interests points to Saudi Arabia as a dog that didn’t bark; in Nuclear Politics, Nuno Monteiro and Alexandre Debs suggest that Riyadh’s close relationship with Washington has had an outsize influence on its decision not to pursue the bomb. As Saudi Arabia and the Emirates increasingly pursue their own aggressive foreign policy independent of the United States, strong monitoring provisions of a potential domestic enrichment capacity seem like a basic precaution.