Since his election, Donald Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East has grown increasingly erratic. Last year, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated under Obama. In June of this year, the conflict with Iran nearly escalated into open military conflict after the U.S. alleged that Iran was behind the bombing of Saudi oil fields. Then in September, Trump dumped his National Security Advisor John Bolton, one of the chief architects behind his hawkish foreign policy. In October, Trump withdrew troops from Rojava, the Kurdish region in Northeastern Syria, and allowed Turkish and allied forces to enter.
But the wider crisis of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East has deeper roots which go far beyond Trump. The overreach of the Bush Doctrine (America as the world’s police), the effects of the global economic crisis, and the increased imperialist role of China and Russia have resulted in a decline in the U.S.’s ability to dictate economic and military policy in the region. This crisis predates Trump and will continue after him.
Crisis of U.S. Imperialism
Trump’s “America First” isolationist policy is part of the wider growth of nationalism around the world. Amid a global economic contraction, it is in large part a reaction to the view which exists among ordinary people, a section of the military, and a smaller section of the establishment that the U.S. has gained little from the massive expenditure of economic and military resources in the Middle East. Trump defended the withdrawal of troops from Syria as part of his promise to get the U.S. out of the “endless wars” it has been embroiled in since the Bush administration. However, the withdrawal of troops from Syria was quickly followed by new deployments of troops to Saudi Arabia to defend that country’s oil infrastructure after it was crippled by drone strikes in September. Troops were also recently sent back into Syria to defend oil fields there from a potentially resurgent ISIS! The result is a net increase of U.S. troops in the region.
In reality, U.S. capitalism cannot afford to withdraw from the Middle East due to ongoing economic and military interests in the region. This was demonstrated by Trump’s attempts to reinforce the U.S.’s relationship with key oil-supplier Saudi Arabia, which have entailed not only new troops but oil and weapons deals, as well as Trump publicly defending the Saudi government over its role in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In Israel, Trump reversed decades of precedent by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital, recognizing the annexation of the Golan Heights, and pledging a formal military alliance with the country.
Despite these measures of support, questions remain about the ability of the U.S. to provide effective protection for its Middle East allies in today’s world. The declining U.S. influence in the region has been accompanied by a frantic scramble by Russia and China, as well as regional powers, like Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, to try to fill the vacuum. Vladimir Putin has long leaned on Iran and Syria as bases of support to counter U.S. imperialism. But he recently did a tour of the Middle East where he visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, traditional U.S. allies and competitors to Russia, in the oil market and is trying to negotiate a new trade deal with Israel and Egypt.
Russia’s intervention in the Middle East has been very public, trying to present itself as a guarantor of peace, similar to the image the U.S. presented under Bill Clinton. Chinese imperialism has been quieter, but has made its economic presence felt, becoming the largest trading partner for eleven countries across the Middle East and North Africa. However, Russian and Chinese imperialism are no more qualified than U.S. imperialism to bring stability or democracy to the Middle East.
During the “War on Terror” under former president George W. Bush, military intervention was justified under the guise of “defeating terrorism” as well as laying the basis for new “democracies”. Most ordinary people in the region understood very well that the U.S., which had defended anti-communist dictatorships in the region for decades, was first and foremost intent on controlling the region’s oil supplies as well as on its own prestige. Obama initially talked about democracy (in Iran for example) before defending the Egyptian military during the mass uprising of the “Arab spring.”
Trump doesn’t bother pretending to care about “defending democracy,” an excuse which is wearing thin as grassroots pro-democracy movements continue to develop across the Middle East. These movements stand in stark contrast to the chaos that has resulted from years of U.S. imperialist intervention. Trump’s betrayal of the Kurdish fighters in Rojava, Syria further reinforces that U.S. imperialism can’t be counted on as a legitimate ally for these movements.
Unlike any of the imperialist countries competing for influence in the region, the working class in the Middle East has the power to unify across sectarian divisions and establish genuine democracy. This was seen in Iran’s 2009 “Green Revolution,” the 2011 “Arab Spring” movements across the Middle East and North Africa, the 2013 Gezi Park struggle in Turkey, and the ongoing general strike movement in Iran. The October 21st general strike in Lebanon, a country long suffering from institutionalized sectarian divisions imposed by French imperialism, has seen the working class unite against the corrupt government of Saad Hariri. New workers’ struggles have broken out in Iraq and Egypt.
The potential for international working-class solidarity is stronger than ever. There are mass movements breaking out from Hong Kong to Haiti, from Chile to Catalonia. Through building of independent working-class organization we can defeat the dictatorships and institutionalized sectarian divisions throughout the Middle East. And we can end the whole capitalist system which serves as the basis for the “endless wars.”