Amidst increasingly heinous accusations of Russian election interference, growing dissidence amongst the domestic United States, and the ever-enduring Rodman-Kim romance saga hailed as soft diplomacy, President Trump finds himself beset on all sides by both danger and opportunity. None are more apparent than the growing regional tensions in the Persian Gulf.
To achieve an early-term masterstroke of foreign policy acumen, Trump will not find success in playing the conventional role, but in playing wei qi.
Let’s rewind a bit:
On June 5, 2017, a joint action was issued by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and the Maldives to sever diplomatic ties with the small gulf-state of Qatar.
The move was, at surface level, taken with shock considering the active role that the Qatari military played in Saudi Arabia’s coalition intervening in the Yemeni Civil War.
Most would view this as the first piece on the board. However, Qatar had begun encirclement far before the Saudi’s could have caught on.
The official listed reasons behind the breakup were media and intelligence reports alongside growing public opinion that Qatar was failing in its counterterrorism duties while continuing as an active source of funding for terrorist operations in the Arab world, most specifically the Muslim Brotherhood in Sisi-controlled Egypt and in regards to the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
Further intricacies exist in this complicated relationship, and there are doubts regarding the validity of both the Saudi-backed claim of Qatar’s malice, and the Qatari defense of pursuing its own national security interests. That’s where President Trump and the United States come in: A continued active geopolitical presence requires input on all matters concerning regional disputes, chiefly in an area that continues to harbor American troops and where military operations have been considered a potential flash point for World War III.
Initially, Trump delivered strong words for Qatar, going so far as to say that it was “unfortunate” that “the nation of Qatar … has been a funder of terrorism, and at a very high level,” and continued on to add that “the time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding.”
Because of this, many were surprised to hear that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Defense Minister of Qatar met to put the finishing touches on an arms deal exceeding $21 billion dollars, a purchase of 36 American-made F15s.
However, it was not Trump’s administration that made this deal, but rather Barack Obama’s in Nov. 2016 accompanied by notifications to Congress. Prior to escalating tensions, such a deal not only behooved American business and industrial incentives, but also made sense from a force projection standpoint considering the location of US Central Command within Qatar’s borders.
Realpolitik determines that we must view the current geopolitical scenario objectively: A regional power backed by the United States, potentially undermined by a smaller power hosting a major military installation of the United States, is cause for concern in the continued operations that are internally and externally viewed as national interests for America at large.
In his 2011 book “On China,” former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger mentions the ancient Chinese strategy game that emphasizes encircling the opponent, and creating natural attrition or attrition by intervention therewith.
This aspect was the bedrock for normalization of relations with China in the early 1970’s amidst Russian aggression in the Far East, and it has transitioned over time to play a role as an augment to American foreign policy in terms of soft diplomacy and force projection.
With the most powerful naval force in human history, an ever-expanding global arms industry, and control over the most prominent financial institutions and private-public asset management systems in the world, no one does encirclement quite like the United States.
Obama has gifted the Trump presidency with an economic stimulus in an arms deal that he need not claim as his own, as a rebuke to public opinion on hypocrisy following a similar pursuit with the Saudis.
It also solidifies the assumption that President Trump and the Pentagon will retain US Central Command in Qatar for the foreseeable future, and is seen as a symbolic decline of offers from the Emirates for a transfer in position. After all, Qatar exists as the gulf state with the closest possibility to joining in efforts to support long-time American and Saudi rival Iran.
Dr. Kissinger once said, “The aim of wei qi is relative advantage; the game is played all over the board, and the objective is to increase one’s options and reduce those of the adversary. The goal is less victory than persistent strategic progress.”
Instead of viewing the Qatari arms deal as a handshake, instead view it as a headlock: a determined effort to ensure Qatar plays by the rules, a persuasion to exclude Tehran from regional politics, an economic boon for the United States manufacturing industry, a balance of power to prevent further escalating conflict, and a retainment of existing, stable military efforts in the Middle East at large.
American foreign policy remains to be persistence at play.