After stirring up Middle East, Trump now wants NATO’s help? - GulfToday

After stirring up Middle East, Trump now wants NATO’s help?


Donald Trump

Ivo Daalder, Tribune News Service

President Donald Trump has come up with a new solution for the Middle East, a region that has embroiled the United States for decades in conflict and war. “I think that NATO should be expanded, and we should include the Middle East,” he told reporters last week. “And we can come home, or largely come home and use NATO.” He even had a name for it. “You call it NATOME” — NATO plus the Middle East. “What a beautiful name. I’m good at names.”

There is just one problem. NATO isn’t going to take over in the Middle East. White House officials were quick to clarify that the president didn’t mean for NATO membership to be extended to Middle Eastern states, but they underscored that he was eager to see NATO play a much greater role in the region.

NATO is, in fact, involved in the Middle East and has been for more than 15 years. It has been training Iraqi security forces and assisting in building security institutions for more than a decade. Its early warning and surveillance aircraft are part of the US-led coalition against Islamic State. And it also has partnership arrangements with states throughout the region.

But as an institution, NATO has never been involved in any combat operations in the Middle East. Its mission in Iraq is explicitly limited to noncombat training and capacity-building. Its surveillance aircraft only fly within Turkish airspace, and while they help provide an overall picture of the airspace over Syria and Iraq, they’re not involved in coordinating airstrikes by coalition forces.

NATO’s immediate reaction to the escalation of tensions in the region last week was to suspend its training mission in Iraq and move personnel out of the country. And after an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council to discuss the situation, the allies urged restraint and de-escalation. And NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reacted cautiously to Trump’s call for a larger NATO role, saying only that the allies were “looking into what more we can do” while emphasising that NATO is not involved in any combat operations.

There is very little appetite among America’s allies for NATO to deepen its engagement in the Middle East. While they have long condemned Iran for its destabilising behaviour in the region, including its support for terrorist groups, most allies blame Washington more than Tehran for the recent escalation of tensions.

To many allies, the core problem was Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal — an agreement long championed by Britain, France, Germany and the European Union, all of whom played an essential part in its negotiations.

As worrying, however, was Trump’s penchant to act without consulting or even informing key allies, even though they have their own forces deployed in the region. The president’s decision last October to withdraw US troops from Northern Syria blindsided Britain and France, both of whom had troops deployed nearby. And his decision to target and kill Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and risk an escalation to war, also came without any notice to the allies.

The only way Washington might convince its 28 NATO allies to take on a larger role in the Middle East would be if it starts behaving more like an ally itself. That would mean fully involving them in the deliberations on strategy, consulting closely with their leaders before making major decisions, and committing to working together to address common challenges.

That’s not been the Trump way. In claiming to put America first, the president has too often put America’s allies last. That makes it all the easier for the allies to ignore, if not reject, his call for them to do more.