Donald Trump espoused inaccurate and incoherent claims about Russia and Iran at a January 2 cabinet meeting that call into question whether he should be making foreign policy decisions for the United States.
Trump defended the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and seemed to support Soviet domination of Eastern Europe:
Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia … the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.
Russia invaded Afghanistan to try to support a pro-Soviet government. But Trump either has no idea what the Soviet Union was or actually thinks the Soviet Union was justified in colonizing Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, and imposing its will on the satellite states. By saying, “Russia used to be the Soviet Union,” Trump is in fact making no distinction between Russia and the component states of the USSR. He’s saying that Ukraine was itself part of “Russia.”
Next, Trump blames Iran for the war in Yemen—even as the United States provided bombs for Saudi Arabia to drop on Yemen and logistical assistance for most of Trump’s two years in office. In fact, Trump blames Iran for every single conflict in the Middle East:
Iran when I became president, I had a meeting at the Pentagon with lots of generals, they were like for a pry, better looking than Tom Cruise and stronger. I’ve had more I said this is the greatest room I’ve ever seen. I saw more computer boards than I think that they make today.
And every part of the Middle East and other places that was under attack was under attack because of Iran. And I said to myself, wow, I mean, you look at Yemen, you look at Syria, you look at every place, Saudi Arabia was under siege, they were all — I mean, they wanted Yemen because of a long border with Saudi Arabia. That’s why they’re there, frankly. But every place was under siege. I actually asked a question. They had plenty of money. President Obama had just given them $150 billion. He gave them $1.8 billion in cash. I’m still trying to figure that one out, Mick, opinion plane loads of cash, I cash from my different countries.
Beyond some of the rambling Trumpian incoherence (a Tom Cruise reference and hyperbole about military technology) and his anti-Obama lies (“Obama gave Iran $150 billion,” in reference to Iranian funds that had been withheld in U.S. bank accounts before Iran agreed to limits on its nuclear program), and what is most worrying here is how Trump misperceives the nature of the conflicts roiling the Middle East.
He said, “Every part of the Middle East … was under attack because of Iran.”
In fact, Saudi Arabia is the country that was and still is waging war with Yemen. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and others all support factions in the Syrian Civil War.
The Houthis took control of Yemen in 2014 on their own volition. It has been alleged by their critics that they have received some degree of Iranian support. In fact, Iran’s influence was limited. But now that the Saudis have been attacking the Houthis, Iran has began providing them weapons to defend themselves. Freelance journalist and 2014 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism Iona Craig <a href=“https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-03-25/if-yemens-houthis-werent-iranian-proxies-they-could-be-soon”>says, “The longer this war goes on, the likelihood is of more Iranian involvement rather than less.”
So rather than resisting Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia has exacerbated Iranian influence in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are regional powers, and they will continue to fight each other for influence in the Middle East. Does it really matter to the U.S. which side has the most influence over Yemen’s government?
Trump buys wholeheartedly into the Saudi narrative of foreign policy (something he has in common with neo-conservatives). While American foreign policy in the Middle East has long been generally aligned with that of the Saudis, Trump’s business ties to the Saudis add another dimension. At the very least, there is a perception of conflict of interest, given that Trump <a href=“https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-and-saudi-arabia-deep-business-ties-spark-new-scrutiny/”>sells a lot of property to Saudi elites and allows his DC hotel to be used as a petri dish for influence peddling.
Trump’s Iran narrative also sounds like a dumbed-down version of John Bolton’s, and his story about Russia reflects the Russian chauvinist narrative of Vladimir Putin. Since Trump is so ignorant about policy, the voids in his knowledge can easily be filled by what he hears (and doesn’t entirely understand) from others. American foreign policy with Trump as commander-in-chief will either be under the control of Trump’s own fantasy or that of his confidants.