Two overlapping recent events portend what could become a serious blunder in United States foreign affairs.
The first should be a happy one — the reelection of Ayatollah Rouhani as Iran’s president by a substantial margin. Rouhani, a moderate ayatollah, negotiated the 2015 nuclear treaty with the U.S. which moved virtually all of Iran’s enriched uranium out of the country in return for Iranian funds held up in the 1979 hostage crisis. Rouhani had campaigned on the U.S.-Iran deal, which gave the government of Iran, not the Council of Ayatollahs, $400,000 of their own money back.
Rouhani heads the largest political group that, for the second straight time in four years, defeated the forces of the Supreme Ayatollah, Ali Khameni. Rouhani and his forces have a solid chance to pull away from the fanaticism of the past, pull back from its involvement with ISIS, and possibly even restore diplomatic relations with the U.S.
But the Trump administration is heading in a more dangerous and unproductive direction.
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The president’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel focused on building a defacto alliance with these powers to attack ISIS in Syria and by inference, Iran, which supports the Syrian regime. This a recipe for disaster.
Saudi Arabia and Israel have different motives for bringing us together and any active support we give the Israelis will wind up hurting us as ISIS factions change sides and the Saudis quietly slip away. This will almost certainly hurt our regional and greater international interests deeply in the long run when the blame game begins.
Of course, this move was taken without serious consultation within the State Department, which is still crippled by the absence of 2,300 upper-level jobs. Secretary Rex Tillerson, who knows much about oil but very little about complex Arab-Israeli problems, has not even consulted the most experienced folks in the government about the regional complications of these shoot-from-the-hip policy errors.
Recent reports from Washington suggest there are only three career officers in Tillerson’s immediate circle of officials. Longtime Foreign Service friends of mine indicate that the department itself is at a standstill — absent key senior bureau officials, now gone, they have minimal direction on their work and even less incentive, while the upper echelon is focused on meeting random and disorganized requests which seem to have little to do with serious diplomacy.
The State Department is not able to carry the extra load, or even some normal responsibilities, with the energy, intelligence and foresight it needs. The point of having professional diplomatic personnel is to use them to prevent small problems from growing into bigger ones.
History is replete with such mishaps. For example, Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s offhand comment in early 1950 that South Korea was “not in our sphere of influence” is considered one of the major mishaps leading to the June 1950 invasion of South Korea by the North, which was only thrown back after three and half years of fighting against Chinese and North Korean forces.
Mistakes like that in today’s world could bring about an even greater conflict — and perhaps even nuclear disaster. Matters are made worse by the current rising concern over Russian efforts to influence the Trump administration to go along with Soviet policies.
The February dismissal of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the vice president and others about his ties with Russia, and the business deals Trump’s son-in-law has been trying to arrange with Russia are all serious problems.
Moscow’s hacking and leaking emails during the U.S. presidential election was merely a tip of the iceberg. We have yet to find how much more there might have been, and upcoming testimony from CIA and FBI directors will be most revealing. Major issues surround the president’s efforts to stop discussion of his officials’ involvement with Russia. James Comey’s dismissal as FBI chief started a firestorm of inquiries into who asked whom to do what.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats fumbled badly when asked at a recent public hearing if he had ever pressed any of his officers to change a report. Meanwhile, our foreign policy drifts — or plays — into foreign hands. Our State Department is squeezed beyond limits to get the normal work done, let alone cope with a major crisis.
John D. Stempel is senior professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.