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US power is back

Washington feels good about the week before 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency. It “reset” its entire foreign policy and reasserted US leadership in the Middle East and the world, to the delight of its allies and the concern of its opponents. Despite insisting that its foreign policy review is not finished yet, the administration seems to be reclaiming a traditional Republican policy of keeping allies closer and opponents guessing.

It all happened in a week of rebalancing inside the White House, in line with a president that a senior US official described a few days ago as someone who does not “hew to a fixed approach” and is “not a doctrinaire about very many things,” but rather someone who “sees possibilities where many others would see difficulties.”

The official described the week after Trump met with China’s president, and after he responded to a Syrian regime chemical attack with 59 Tomahawk missiles, as successful on the international stage.

The missile strike reasserted US leadership in the world, and the summit with China rebalanced relations and succeeded in isolating Russia at the UN Security Council by convincing Beijing to abstain instead of voting with Moscow. It sent a strong message to the Middle East that US power is back. The strongest messages came in the form of the missile strike on Syria, and the largest non-nuclear bomb on a Daesh target in Afghanistan.

This coincided with the toughest talk directed at Tehran from Washington since former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn put Iran “on notice.” Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo, talking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies about how to push back on Iran in the region, urged Tehran “to take note” of the missile attack on Syria.

There was much analysis this last week about the message that the Trump administration intended to send to the region and the parties involved. But it seems Iran was front and center on everybody’s mind when the decision was taken. The new administration wanted Iran to know that there is a new sheriff in town. The US position is based on assessment and concern about the expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence in the region.

The missile strike against Assad regime reasserted US leadership in the world, and the summit with China rebalanced relations and succeeded in isolating Russia at the UN Security Council by convincing Beijing to abstain instead of voting with Moscow.

Dr. Amal Mudallali

Pompeo said Iran is “on the march. Whether its enormous increased capacity to deliver missile systems into Israel from Hezbollah, their increased strength in and around Mosul with Shiite militias, the work they’ve done to support the Houthis to fire missiles against the Saudis, the list of Iranian transgressions has increased dramatically” since the nuclear deal was signed.

The most alarming assessment Pompeo gave about Iran was when he told the audience: “The Shiite crescent is close to being developed. It isn’t in America’s best interest to permit that to happen.” Washington sees the effort to stop Iran’s march as a collective one with its partners, including in the Gulf and Europe. The US hopes Iran noticed the attack on Syria with missiles that flew over Lebanon and Hezbollah’s bases.

Critics in Washington described the missile attack as “an emotional response” after Trump saw photos of dead children — which is a legitimate reason to act — and accused the administration of attacking without considering the implications and without a plan for the next stage. Some even questioned Trump’s seriousness when taking the decision “over the most beautiful piece of cake” with China’s president.

But Pompeo revealed a more strategic and deliberate approach, and presented a set of strategic elements and considerations that framed the administration’s move in Syria. “We had someone violate the chemical weapons treaty, right? This isn’t insignificant,” he said. “So the Iranians ought to take note of the fact that this administration is prepared to engage in activities that are different from what America has been doing these past few years.”

The administration is aware that its allies in the region and the world are looking to the US “thirsty for leadership,” said Pompeo, and searching for clues as to where its foreign policy is headed. This last week pointed to a break from the last eight years, to renewed and assertive US power and a rebalancing of great-power relations. This is aimed at talking and reaching a deal, not starting a new conflict. The hope is that the administration stays the course.

• Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.