The Trouble Before the Storm
The past year gives no indication that Trump is ready for a military crisis in the Middle East.
The Trump presidency passed its one-year mark last month, presenting a logical opportunity to take stock of the administration’s Middle East policy. One year is long enough to begin discerning some of the systemic implications of the new administration’s policies. It may seem a quixotic task to evaluate President Donald Trump against his campaign rhetoric, given his notorious message indiscipline. But for all of his flip-flopping during the 2016 presidential campaign, he nevertheless offered, even if he never fully articulated, a series of fairly consistent positions regarding the Middle East.
As with many of the president’s policy positions, the underlying philosophy can best be described as “anything but Obama.” Trump derided his predecessor’s Middle East policy as a “disaster” and accused President Barack Obama of “appl[ying] pressure to our friends and reward[ing] our enemies.” In this vein, Trump strongly criticized the previous administration’s support of the Arab Spring, saying that he would pursue “regional stability, not radical change” in the Middle East. He viewed Obama’s nuanced approach to friends and enemies alike as a strategic miscalculation.
For Trump, crafting a successful U.S. policy in the region is simple: Provide unstinting support for friends and unremitting hostility to adversaries. As part of this muscular, black and white approach, Trump emphasized four concrete goals:
- A quick defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
- Strengthening America’s traditional regional partnerships.
- Checking and rolling back Iran’s growing regional role.
- Negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the “ultimate deal.”
These thematic goals appeared in the president’s May 2017 Riyadh speech, arguably his most comprehensive exposition on the Middle East yet. A review of how he has fared in these areas is a fair test of the success of his policy toward the region.
So, how did the new guy in town do?
On the Islamic State, the administration’s efforts to expedite defeat may have borne fruit. Under Trump, the U.S. military increased the pace of airstrikes in Syria by as much as 50 percent, and the administration’s decision to empower local commanders has likely increased their ability to respond in real time to battlefield shifts. With the important caveat that these changes led to an increase in civilian casualties in Syria, the anti-Islamic State coalition has retaken 93 percent of once-occupied territory and ousted the group from its last major strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Nevertheless, it is not clear that Trump’s actions actually hastened the Islamic State’s demise, as the Obama administration’s 2014 campaign plan suggested victory by late 2017. Veterans of the Obama administration (myself included) will also rightly point out that Trump did not have a “secret plan” to defeat the Islamic State (as he claimed to) and simply continued Obama’s strategy of supporting local partners with airstrikes and special forces. But the new administration deserves credit for staying the course.
Similarly, the Trump administration successfully repaired strained ties with some traditional U.S. partners, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. This was low-hanging fruit, but the combination of a warm public embrace, silence on longstanding points of contention in bilateral relations (human rights, Yemen, settlements), and select policy positions (Jerusalem, Iran) have restored the intimacy of these relationships. Gone are the bitter recriminations of the Obama years. Saudi Arabia’s tacit approval — and even quiet support — for Trump’s Jerusalem decision, and its agreement to temporarily lift the blockade on Yemen’s Hudaydah port, show that these good feelings have bought Washington additional influence.
Nevertheless, this charm offensive has not been universally successful, as demonstrated by Egypt. In spite of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s White House visit and Trump’s effusive praise, the Egyptian government remains deeply distrustful of the United States and American diplomats have been frustrated by Cairo’s reluctance to address U.S. concerns over Egypt’s relationship with North Korea, among others. The Trump administration’s August decision to withhold or reprogram over $200 million in assistance to Egypt is a clear demonstration of the limits of a warm embrace.
By contrast, Trump’s attempts to halt and push back Tehran’s activities in the region have failed, though the Obama administration also struggled in this area. Iran’s support for its militant proxies has not declined, and Tehran occupies the same positions it did a year ago. Iran’s presence in Syria, moreover, creeps closer to the Israeli border. The Iranian-backed Houthis remain a powerful force in Yemen and have come close to hitting major sites in Riyadh.
With Iranian support, the Iraqi government and aligned militias pushed the Kurds out of Kirkuk and other areas in northern Iraq, seizing oil fields and distracting from the fight against the Islamic State. Recent protests against the regime in Iran, while welcome, were not prompted by U.S. policies. And Trump’s threats to scrap the nuclear deal could jeopardize the one plank of U.S. strategy toward Iran that appears to be working.
Trump’s foray into Middle East peacemaking is an unmitigated disaster, confirming suspicions that his team is out of its depth. While Jason Greenblatt, the special representative for international negotiations, initially received positive reviews for his patient listening tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories, Trump’s refusal to endorse the two-state solution eroded trust with the Palestinians. It also played into the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, a majority of which opposes a Palestinian state and has no interest in a resumed peace process.
Even before Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and pledging to relocate the U.S. embassy, the administration’s effort to restart talks derailed. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, denied the importance of history in the conflict, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman legitimized settlements, and rumors that the U.S. final-status proposal did not envision a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem were apparently confirmed. With the president’s Jerusalem decision, the “ultimate deal” quickly became for Palestinians the “slap of the century,” and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas now refuses to accept U.S. mediation.
Trump’s advisors seem to believe Palestinian pique will pass and Abbas will return to the table, perhaps in response to U.S. financial pressure. However, Palestinian participation is unlikely if Jerusalem is off the table. With Trump grousing that the Palestinians “disrespected” the United States by not meeting Vice President Mike Pence on his Middle East trip and threatening to withhold assistance until they “sit down and negotiate peace,” the United States is settling into a prolonged impasse. The real damage is not in sabotaging the already faltering process, but in discrediting U.S. mediation in the conflict and bringing closer a one-state solution that benefits no one.
So what should we make of Trump’s record in the Middle East after one year? At first blush, this review does not paint the disastrous picture many of us feared when Trump was elected. With the notable exception of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement (and the Muslim ban), the administration has avoided most of candidate Trump’s ill-advised campaign pronouncements. The United States has not started to “take out” the family members of terrorists, nor has Washington tried to seize Iraq’s oilfields. The United States has not designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization. And, despite decertifying the Iranian nuclear deal in October 2017, Trump has not yet withdrawn from the landmark agreement.
While this is all reassuring, it is also unfortunately misleading. If Trump’s performance in the Middle East is passable in the short term, its lasting impact on U.S. interests will be far more pernicious. This is because not only his short-term failures, but also his successes, are apt to produce unintended consequences that will weaken the U.S. position in the region. Much like a CEO undertaking unsound measures to temporarily prop up his company’s stock price, Trump has achieved a few short-term victories at the expense of future U.S. interests and influence in the region. This could play out in at least three ways.
First, Trump’s eagerness to embrace traditional U.S. partners has enabled reckless behavior by their leaders at home and abroad. This is most apparent in the case of Saudi Arabia, where Trump and Kushner’s close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have encouraged the young, inexperienced royal’s adventurism. Mohammed bin Salman rapidly initiated a foolhardy blockade of Qatar, arrested dozens of his political rivals in a clumsy extortion attempt, and kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister in a counterproductive effort to undercut Iran.
These steps occurred shortly after visits by Trump and/or Kushner. Whether or not they provided explicit approval for Mohammed bin Salman’s schemes, it seems likely that the crown prince felt emboldened by these encounters. As a result, U.S. interests in a united Arab front against Iran and the Islamic State have suffered.
Second, Trump’s Middle East policy has neglected to build ties between the United States and the people of the region, leaving U.S. foreign policy with a much shallower and unstable base of support. The president has almost exclusively prioritized his personal relationships with the region’s mostly authoritarian leaders, making little effort to reach out to their publics. Cutting deals with strongmen can pay short-term dividends, but when these arrangements lack popular support they are subject to rapid reversal. For instance, while Riyadh has accepted Trump’s moves on Jerusalem, continued Saudi support for the U.S. peace plan appears to be wholly dependent on the continued influence of a single person, which is not a recipe for enduring success.
Worse, when Trump is not ignoring the people of the Middle East, he is antagonizing them. His Jerusalem decision, the Muslim ban, and a leaked State Department memo indicating plans to use human rights as a cudgel against opponents — while ignoring misdeeds by allies — have undoubtedly undermined U.S. credibility in the region at the popular level. Washington has always struggled to improve its reputation in the Middle East, but these unforced errors have made it nearly impossible. If change does eventually come to the region, Trump’s policies drastically increase the likelihood it will be anti-American in character.
Third and finally, if Trump has succeeded to some degree in rebuilding traditional partnerships in the region, he has had the opposite effect on our European allies, whose support is a force-multiplier and a source of international legitimacy. For instance, threats to kill the Iran nuclear accord have both led Europeans to consider going their own way on the deal and undermined other parts of U.S. Iran policy. During the recent round of protests in Iran, the administration was unable to persuade Europe to take a stronger stand in favor of the demonstrations — which owing to Europe’s closer relationship with Tehran could have been more impactful — because they suspected ulterior motives were at play. In needlessly alienating America’s European allies, Trump’s Middle East policy is making it harder for the United States to pursue its interests.
Looking ahead to Trump’s second year, there is little cause for optimism. Civil servants effectively checked some of the president’s worst instincts in his first year, in part because they were the only ones who knew how to operate the machinery of state. Over time, political appointees who either genuinely share or merely indulge Trump’s views are likely to develop a better understanding of the foreign policy process and therefore become more skilled at advancing the president’s priorities, increasing the probability of reckless moves by the administration.
And, for all of the tumult of the last year, the Middle East was relatively crisis free. It is in moments of crisis — particularly those involving a military dimension — that an administration is most free to act. Without minimizing the Gulf crisis or Jerusalem situation, Trump remains untested in a military emergency. How will the administration respond if Iranian proxies in Syria kill U.S. soldiers, a Houthi rocket hits a major target in Riyadh, or Israel launches a new war in Lebanon? Nothing in this analysis instills confidence in Trump’s capacity for managing such situations. Ultimately, however bad you think the last year has been, it can, and perhaps is likely to, get worse.