April 25, 2018
With endless displays of camaraderie underling a special relationship between the two leaders and the two countries the Trump-Macron summit was a rather unconventional one, at least in terms of body language. But President Macron’s desire to forge such a relationship has a past.
On August 21, 2013, chemical weapons were used against civilians in Ghouta. This was the moment when President Obama’s “redline” was crossed. On August 31, the British Parliament rejected a government motion to join US-led strikes against the Assad regime. Some said at the time that the “special relationship” between Washington and London was not so special anymore.
As for Germany, Chancellor Merkel had been consistent in her opposition to external military interventions in the Middle East.
Thus, President Hollande seized the opportunity to launch France’s own special relationship with Washington. He advocated military response. He said that each country has the sovereign right to participate in an operation or not and that was true of both the U.K. and France. Contrary to President Hollande’s expectations, however, President Obama decided to seek Congressional approval for military action. And, following a brief meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin on the margins of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, agreement was reached on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.
President Macron, like his predecessor, seems willing to forge a special relationship with Washington. However, he and Mr. Trump do not see eye to eye on every issue.
On top of the summit’s agenda was Iran. Until now, President Trump has only reviled the JCPOA of 2015. During the joint press conference (*) it became clear that President Macron, eager to save the JCPOA, has suggested a new approach resting on four pillars:
- Leaving the JCPOA intact to block any nuclear activity of Iran until 2025;
- Making sure that, in the long run, there is no nuclear Iranian activity;
- Putting an end to the ballistic activities of Iran;
- Generating the conditions for a solution — a political solution to contain Iran in the region — in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, and in Lebanon.
This means a follow-on deal with Iran on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as regional issues, prominently among them the Syrian conflict. There can be no doubt that during the talks President Macron also drew attention to the contradiction in Mr. Trump’s attitude towards Iran and North Korea.
As for resolving regional issues he mentioned the need to work with Russia, Turkey and Iran. And alluding to the invasion of Iraq if not the French-led intervention in Libya Mr. Macron said, “…we do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Each time we tried to unilaterally replace the sovereignty of the people, we brought about some more terror…”
President Trump underlined the need to prevent Iran from reaching the Mediterranean and his desire to leave a strong and lasting footprint. How Washington intends to do that will be a topic of interest for regional countries among them Turkey.
President Trump’s final words regarding his guest’s broad approach including the JCPOA were, “I think we will have a great shot at doing a much bigger maybe deal, maybe not deal. We’re going to find out, but we’ll know fairly soon…”
Thus, the uncertainty regarding the JCPOA and the Syrian conflict continues.
Gulf countries were not happy with President Obama because he particularly wanted Saudi Arabia to do more to combat extremism. Thus, they embraced his successor with open arms. This is what President Trump said in the context of the fight against ISIS:
“As we drive these ISIS killers from Syria, it is essential that the responsible nations of the Middle East step up their own contributions to prevent Iran from profiting off the success of our anti-ISIS effort. Very rich countries are in the Middle East. They have to make major contributions. They have not been doing it as they should. A major topic that we discussed a little while ago: They have to step up tremendously — not a little bit, but tremendously — their financial effort…
“And if I might add, the states and, as I alluded to — and countries that are in the area, some of which are immensely wealthy, would not be there except for the United States and, to a lesser extent, France. But they wouldn’t be there except for the United States. They wouldn’t last a week. We’re protecting them. They have to now step up and pay for what’s happening, because I don’t think France or the United States should be liable for the tremendous cost… we have spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, and we’ve gotten nothing for it. Nothing. Less than nothing, as far as I’m concerned. That’s over an 18-year period…
“The countries that are there that you all know very well are immensely wealthy; they’re going to have to pay for this. And I think the President and I agree very much on that. And they will pay for it. They will pay for it. We’ve spoken to them. They will pay for it. The United States will not continue to pay. And they will also put soldiers on the ground, which they’re not doing…” (emphasis added)
These remarks which could not possibly be part of his prepared statement must have caused profound shock and consternation among the Gulf countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia whose Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was Mr. Trump’s guest at the White House only a month ago. They also imply the recognition of Iran as a major regional power as opposed to the Gulf states.
President Macron must have seen his visit as an opportunity to project himself as the new and energetic leader of Europe at a time of growing internal dissatisfaction. How much the visit has served that purpose remains to be seen. President Trump’s guest on Friday will be the more businesslike Chancellor Merkel. Coming one after the other, the two visits will inevitably lead to comparisons and further speculation regarding Washington relations with Europe.