Navigating the Gulf’s Waters

Navigating the Gulf’s Waters


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Conducting foreign policy and national security policy has no resemblance to buying a casino or building a hotel. President Obama and numerous other presidents worked at this task. Unlike President Trump, they were generally ready and willing to study and consider diplomatic and strategic options. Donald Trump admits to not reading, to watching television, and to relying on his own personal chemistry with foreign leaders to conduct international relations.

The situation, which is escalating in the Gulf between Iran, its neighbors, and the West, as tanker fleets traversing the Straits and the Gulf are attacked, underscores precisely why Trump’s type of policy making is so dangerous. It is unclear or at least not certain whether indeed Iran was the major cause of the recent attacks in the Gulf of Hormuz. What is known is that the Iranian leaders and now the Saudis are becoming very irritable, while the White House engages in warmongering.

From the policy making perspective, at this point President Trump appears to be annoyed that the desires of the American president are not being heeded. Trump expects everyone to heel to his command. This may work with most of the Republicans in the Congress, but it is ridiculed and despised as a global strategy. The foreign service officers at Foggy Bottom, the military officers in the Pentagon, and the intelligence specialists in Langley must be tearing out their hair both as to his style as well as his lack of substance.

From a policy perspective they observe the virtually total absence of conventional negotiating practice. They are witness to an Administration which is violating all the operational and procedural norms which are taught in basic classes in the Foreign Service Institute. Meanwhile, the military brass is unable to engage in planning as they see their own superiors largely out of the loop. As for the intelligence community they have been frustrated and fearful of the decision-making system since they observed the President’s dismissive attitude towards briefing books, daily intelligence briefs, and his cavalier attitude at protecting classified information.

At the same time there are the Administration hawks including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton who would like to see the U.S. adopt an aggressive activist policy against Iran. They face a President who actively engages in being the tough guy on the block and yet is war averse.

As if this situation was not sufficiently complicated, President Trump suffers from a grossly inadequate understanding of foreign cultures and norms. European states for the most part can brush off the irrational and mercurial behavior of the President. His actions fit into one of their stereotypical portraits of Americans; albeit not the most favorable ones. In dealing with China, North Korea, Japan, the Arab leaders in the Middle East, and to say nothing of Vladimir Putin, President Trump repeatedly demonstrates his lack of experience at how to bargain or interact with foreigners. If these problems exist for a knowledgeable president trying to negotiate with friends, how much harder is it for Trump to seriously interact with adversaries.

The President’s confrontation with North Korea’s “Rocket Man” was chicken feed compared to the potential dangers presented by the challenge in the Gulf. The Saudis and the Israelis as well as the Iranians are nervously watching how Trump will respond, should this conflict escalate.

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