Trump flails at home, but steady as she goes, surprisingly, on the national security front abroad
The Trump administration appears at home to be flailing about, and in a state of upheaval in its transition, but that is not the case on the national security front, General Flynn’s departure aside. Observers have to remember that there are differences between Candidate and President Trump’s political rhetoric and the actions that the administration is taking abroad on the security front.
Today, Vice President Pence visited NATO and reiterated his country’s support for the organization at a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg who himself stated he appreciated President Trumps commitment to the organization and understand the Trump administrations concern that Europe uphold its spending and security targets. The United States covers seventy percent of NATO’s costs. Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom are not without financial resources, nor is Canada for that matter.
Meanwhile U.S. Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, is now in Iraq after visiting the United Arab Emirates to reassure allies in the Persian Gulf region. This visit follows Secretary Mattis’ trip to Europe to reassure NATO allies and his first overseas visit to South Korea and Japan to shore-up support in the Pacific. This appears as conventional defense diplomacy where the United States reassures key allies in the face of aggressive military threats, North Korea, China, Russia and Iran. All are non-status quo actors ‘chomping at the bit’ for expansion and further strategic influence and power some within a region and some around the globe.
The UAE visit is interesting because it was clearly focused on Iran and likely on the proxy war in Yemen. Several U.S. allied Gulf States have Sunni led governments in the form of their Royal Families with either aggressive Shiite majorities or significant minorities heavily influenced by Iran. It is important to keep in mind that the United States has labeled Yemen a ‘key’ state. The Saudis and several Gulf States are directly or indirectly backing the government of Yemen while Iran is supporting the Houthis rebels. By all accounts the Saudis are getting their back-side handed to them and Iranian influence is growing. Then there is the presence of Al Qaeda, and now the Islamic State in Yemen furthering the fractured nature of what is a now described as a ‘key state.’ You might ask yourself why Yemen matters, why is it a key state?
Yemen matters for two reasons. The first is that Iranian power and influence in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf region needs to be checked. Should the Houthis succeed Iran would have a foot-hold on the Arabian Peninsula and a base of operations to settle old accounts with Gulf States and the home of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia. There is no love lost between Persian Shia Iran and Saudi Arabia. If Iran had a base of operations in Yemen it could position itself to challenge shipping in the Red Sea coming out of the Suez Canal in the same way it is positioned to close down the Persian Gulf in the event of hostilities. Without doubt the Iranians would get hammered by the United States and its allies if it was alone but it is not. Sadly, Iran is not alone in the world.
Second, Iran and its strategic cooperation with North Korea and Russia are matters of concern. Remember back several months ago when Russia sortied its aircraft carrier group into the Atlantic and then the Mediterranean as a show of force, and then almost comically, could not sustain their battle fleet and had to almost beg regional states for refueling. Russia is looking for overseas support hubs just like Western powers are in regions that they have not operated before or for a long-time. Yemen’s port and airport facilities could be one of the hubs that Russia wants and strategic cooperation with Iran makes it a potentially done deal if the Houthis take Yemen. It is the fear of an emboldened Putin getting a real warm water port on the Indian Ocean with an ability to move into the Red Sea or Persian Gulf that has the United States concerned about the disposition of Yemen. After all, Soviet warships were in and out of Yemen occasionally during the Cold War.
While the Trump transition is not running as smoothly as one would have hoped in Washington, D.C., on the national and international security front it appears to be moving forward on very traditional grounds. Russia made a huge mistake by deploying a naval force that they could not sustain and showed Trump’s national security team strategic weakness. Now the United States is returning to its role of global leadership, virtually abandoned by the Obama regime, and shoring-up its regional alliances in the face of threats by regional powers or great powers that do not accept the status quo. Secretary Mattis is quickly becoming the Trump administration’s principal diplomat.