US President Donald Trump presented the latest National Security Strategy on December 18, defining the administration’s view on national security and sketching the main guiding principles for its implementation.
Significantly, the document combines policy on domestic matters with foreign policy, all within the framework of the “America First” strategy that Trump promoted during his election campaign.
While the National Security Strategy does not present a coherent and organized plan of action, it indicates the need for an American-Israeli dialogue in order to formulate a strategy for a coordinated security policy in the Middle East.
According to the document, the international arena is marked by conflict between the United States and three different sets of threats: from the “revisionist” powers – China and Russia; from the “rogue” states of Iran and North Korea; and from jihadist terror groups, such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaida.
In order to win this conflict, the United States must defend its citizens and the assets within its borders as well as promote its interests throughout the world, building on cooperation and strengthened alliances with regional actors who share US interests and values.
Contrary to what has been claimed by some of Trump’s critics, this is not an isolationist strategy, but the product of the desire to influence the international political system based on an understanding that this is an American interest that stems from its historic role.
Nor is this a strategy that promotes war or the use of force, aspiring instead to achieve stability by reinforcing and projecting US power to its global network of allies.
REGARDING THE Middle East, the National Security Strategy refers to three central threats: the entrenchment of terror organizations and the export of terror to the rest of the world; Iranian expansion in the region, including support for terror and subversion; and threats to the stability of the global energy economy.
The document stresses that the United States does not intend to withdraw from the Middle East or reduce its presence in the region. In other words, Trump does not plan to continue the “pivot” from the Middle East to East Asia, the strategy promoted by former president Barack Obama.
In addition, the document states that American policy will also not include an attempt to impose democratic reforms on regimes in the region, as was tried under former president George W. Bush. However, the United States will support regimes that decide to promote independent reforms, and in this context it explicitly mentions Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
According to the document, the current administration rejects the assessment of previous administrations that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a main obstacle to peace in the Middle East. On the contrary, the document adopts Israeli arguments by assessing Iran as the main cause of regional instability and decidedly not part of the solution to the regional problems.
At the same time, it clarifies that the solution to the Iranian threat and the establishment of stability in the Middle East will be in the framework of a coalition presenting a broad united front and a regional balance of power against Iran. According to the document, such a coalition should be based on cooperation between the Sunni Gulf states and include cooperation with Israel. However, these conditions are currently far from being able to be realized, and it is hard to see how they might be fulfilled in the near future.
THE DOCUMENT also has specific implications for Israel.
The National Security Strategy enables the Israeli leadership to assess the opportunities and challenges derived from the American worldview and the ensuing Middle East policy.
The document reveals a gap between the American strategy and the specific steps to convert the administration’s declared strategy into coherent policy. Thus, one source of concern is that the presented approach may not be fully translated into action and, as a result, Iran will be allowed to further broaden its influence in the region without much interference.
This gap will likely be examined in the talks between the various branches of the administration, including on the subject of policies to be adopted based on the document’s principles, particularly in the field of military strategy.
This suggests that in the short term Israel might in fact influence the formation of American policy.
That is why it is crucial that Israel maintain a close, frequent dialogue with the United States. Discussions in the framework of this dialogue can help draft a coordinated American-Israeli strategy against Iran that will ensure the implementation of the principles described in the National Security Strategy, while also protecting Israeli interests.
This joint strategy should include an agreement between Washington and Jerusalem that focuses on the principles for coordinated action in the event of various Iranian breaches of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to which Israel is not a party.
Such a “parallel agreement” should guarantee Israel’s independent ability, as a last resort, to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Issues regarding intelligence efforts, parameters for improving the nuclear treaty, and the Iranian missile program should also be included in the understandings.
In addition, Israel and the United States must coordinate their moves against Iranian threats that are not linked to the nuclear program – particularly the proliferation of terror and weapons in the Middle East, and growing Iranian influence in Syria.
The American response to the Iranian threat as outlined in the National Security Strategy is described in defensive terms – the objective is to neutralize Iranian activity, mainly through a united front to create a regional balance of power.
In other words, it focuses on curbing Iran and containing the damage it causes, and on cooperating with the pro-American players in the region as a precondition for achieving these objectives. But in fact, this approach leaves Israel at the forefront of the struggle against Iran, since the ability to establish a broad regional front depends on the ability of the Gulf states to cooperate, precisely at a time when tension between them is growing in view of aggressive attempts by the Saudi royal household to force its policy on the other Gulf states.
Moreover, in the absence of any progress in the political process between Israel and the Palestinians, the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, are expected to show extremely limited, if any, willingness to deepen cooperation with Israel. Therefore, the American-Israeli dialogue must include an examination of alternatives for joint action, assuming an inability to implement the idea of a regional anti-Iranian front.
Another gap in the American strategy document is the failure to prioritize among the various arenas. There is a concern that notwithstanding the administration’s aspiration not to divert too much attention and resources from the Middle East to Asia, it will in fact do so – due to the growing threat from China, Asia’s rising economic importance, and the nuclear threat from North Korea.
Against this background, Israel must examine the impact of various scenarios on American resolve to implement its policy objectives in the Middle East and share its conclusions from this exercise with the US when discussing strategic coordination.Maj.-Gen. (Ret.) Amos Yadlin is former Chief of the Israeli Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate and Director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Dr. Avner Golov is the Director of Research Programs at Institute for National Security Studies. He previously served on Israel’s National Security Council.
This article first appeared in ‘INSS Insight.’