Has Trump Become a Realist?

America finally has a president who grasps the basic logic of offshore balancing in the Middle East.

Donald Trump attends a roundtable discon April 16, 2018 in Hialeah, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Donald Trump attends a roundtable discon April 16, 2018 in Hialeah, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

There’s reason to think Donald Trump is becoming a closet realist or even — dare I say it? — an offshore balancer.

Admittedly, it’s hard to credit him with having a coherent strategy of any kind, given the recurring contradictions in what he says and his penchant for reversing course without warning or explanation. But in the Middle East, at least, one could argue that Trump is trying — in his own ill-informed, impulsive, and erratic way — to return to the strategy of offshore balancing that the United States pursued more or less successfully in this region from 1945 to 1992.

To review: After World War II, U.S. leaders recognized that the Middle East was of increasing strategic importance. Oil and natural gas were fueling the world economy, and the Middle East contained enormous and readily accessible reserves. Accordingly, preventing any single power from dominating the region and gaining effective control of these critical resources became a central U.S. objective. But the United States didn’t try to protect Middle East oil by colonizing the region or garrisoning it with its own troops. Instead, it relied on Great Britain (until the late 1960s) and a variety of local clients to maintain a regional balance of power and prevent the Soviet Union from acquiring excessive influence.

When the United States did intervene with military force — as it did in Lebanon in 1958 — it kept its presence small and didn’t stay long. Concerns about a potential Soviet grab for the Gulf led the United States to create a new Rapid Deployment Force after the 1979 Iranian revolution, but Washington kept it offshore and over the horizon and didn’t bring it into the region until Iraq seized Kuwait in 1990. Because that invasion posed a serious threat to the regional balance of power, it made good sense for the United States (and many others) to intervene to expel Iraq and demolish much of its military machine.

The United States abandoned this sensible strategy after the first Gulf War, however, opting first for dual containment and then regional transformation. The first approach helped produce 9/11; the second brought us the debacle in Iraq and played no small role in the emergence of the Islamic State and the wider chaos we see there today. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Trump was critical of past U.S. involvement and promised to act differently as president.

In that light, consider what Trump has done since he took office.

First, as his recent actions in Syria remind us, he has shown no enthusiasm whatsoever for an expanded U.S. role in that conflict and especially not if it might involve a major U.S. ground force presence. Remember that a couple of weeks ago he was talking about getting out entirely, to the horror of nearly everyone in the foreign-policy mainstream. Like his predecessors, he’s willing to order missile strikes on thugs such as Bashar al-Assad — earning the usual cheers from liberal interventionists who never saw a military action they couldn’t find some rationale for supporting — but he’s not going to do more than that, and there’s no sign of a U.S.-led diplomatic initiative (such as the one Aaron Stein has proposed) that might actually move that brutal conflict closer to a solution. Blowing things up from a safe distance is all Trump seems willing to contemplate, even when it won’t affect the situation in Syria in the slightest.

The rest of Trump’s approach to the Middle East has been to let America’s local clients — Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Syrian Kurdish militias, etc. — do more to counter various regional opponents (Iran, Syria, and increasingly Russia), as well as nonstate troublemakers, including al Qaeda and offshoots such as the Islamic State. Hezbollah and Hamas fall under that bad guy umbrella, too. To aid these efforts, the United States will sell or give its allies lots of sophisticated weapons (which helps reduce the trade deficit) and provide them with diplomatic cover at the United Nations. Washington will also turn a blind eye to whatever foolish cruelties its regional partners decide to inflict on mostly helpless victims and forget about trying to promote democracy, human rights, regional transformation, or any of that idealistic sob stuff.

Isn’t this more restrained approach what I (and other realists) have been recommending for years, to little avail? The United States stays out of the region and lets the locals duke it out so long as none of them comes close to winning it all. Over time, it can worry less and less about the entire Middle East as the world weans itself off fossil fuels (and the country’s own shale gas production provides whatever residual it needs). In the meantime, the United States can focus its attention on regions that matter more, such as East and Southeast Asia. Shouldn’t I be cheering (and claiming credit) for Trump’s handling of these issues?

Not quite.

There’s no question that Trump is appropriately wary of what he sees as open-ended military quagmires, and that’s a step in the right direction after the follies of the past 25 years. But that wariness hardly makes him unique at this point. No sensible leader starts a war if he or she knows in advance that it will be an open-ended and costly affair, and for the United States, the more demanding challenge is getting out of the endless wars of choice it has stumbled into by mistake. And here Trump has visibly failed.

Tweeted misgivings and sometimes sensible rhetoric aside, the cold, hard truth is that Trump has done next to nothing to reduce the U.S. footprint in the greater Middle East. In addition to sending more troops to the unwinnable Afghan war, he has authorized the Defense Department to ramp up U.S. counterterrorism activities in several places and sent more troops to do the job. By one estimate, the U.S. military presence in the region has increased by about 33 percent on Trump’s watch, to a total of roughly 54,000 troops and civilian support personnel.

To be clear, that’s not exactly what people like me mean by “offshore.”

Second, the central goal of offshore balancing is to prevent any hostile power from dominating a critical strategic region and, if possible, to get others to bear most of the burden of that effort. Well, as Trump (or George W. Bush) might say: “Mission accomplished.” Preserving a balance of power in the region is easier today than it has ever been because the Middle East is already as divided as it has ever been and there’s no outside power (like the old Soviet Union) that might aspire to such a goal. (Russia’s role in Syria is limited to keeping Assad in power — full stop — and that’s a very modest objective.) The idea that any single power is going to dominate or control the entire region is presently remote and likely to remain so for decades. The United States couldn’t do it when it was the uncontested unipolar power, and China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, or Iran wouldn’t be able to do it if they tried.

Yet Trump’s headlong support for America’s present clients rests on the assumption that the regional balance of power is actually quite delicate. Poorly informed and easily bamboozled, he has swallowed the Saudi/Israeli/Emirati view that Iran is a rapacious potential hegemon that is on the brink of establishing a new Persian Empire. In Trump’s mind, therefore, the United States has little choice but to give its local allies uncritical and unconditional support. (One suspects the equally gullible Jared Kushner had a role in this feverish vision, too.) At the same time, Trump inexplicably thinks walking away from the nuclear deal with Iran will make containing the country easier because he fails to grasp that sabotaging the deal will make it more likely that Iran ends up a nuclear weapons state like North Korea. The United States could launch a preventive war, but that possibility has quagmire written all over it and is hardly what offshore balancers would recommend. America’s local clients may be delighted if it took this fateful step (and if it worked, of course), but that would only prove that Washington’s allies were better at passing the buck to it than it was at passing the buck back to them.

Needless to say, Trump’s uncritical embrace of U.S. allies’ self-interested worldview is at odds with the sober realism that offshore balancers recommend. And as I’ve already explained in an earlier column, paranoia about Iran is badly at odds with reality and just gets in the way of a more sensible Middle East strategy.

Furthermore, giving present allies unconditional support while ostracizing Iran reduces America’s leverage over everyone’s behavior and thus limits its ability to shape events in positive ways. It encourages allies to take U.S. support for granted — and why shouldn’t they, given the fawning adoration on display for leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — and gives them little incentive to do what they can to stay in America’s good graces.

Even worse, such an uncritical stance encourages what Barry Posen, a security studies expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls “reckless driving,” meaning the tendency for allies to take unnecessary risks and pursue foolhardy policies because they believe their powerful patron will bail them out if they get into difficulties. That overconfidence explains why the Israeli government thinks building settlements poses no risks and helps us understand why Mohammed bin Salman is waging a costly and inhumane war in Yemen, trying (and failing) to ostracize Qatar, and interfering in Lebanon and Syria to no good purpose. It is partly because he is headstrong and impulsive but also because he’s confident that America has his back now no matter how badly his initiatives fare.

If the United States were truly acting like an offshore balancer (i.e., the way Great Britain did in its great-power heyday), it would have diplomatic relations and businesslike dealings with all countries in the Middle East, not just the ones that have successfully convinced it to back their agendas and ignore its own interests. Offshore balancers want U.S. diplomats talking to everyone pretty much all of the time and to drive a hard bargain with friends and foes alike. That’s the luxury America’s providential position in the Western Hemisphere affords it, and you’d think a selfish guy like Trump would understand it easily. The United States should have regular dealings with its adversaries not because it likes them or agrees with them but because that is the best way to advance U.S. interests. Frequent interactions with both friends and (current) foes give Washington the opportunity to explain how it sees things, make it easier for it to understand what others are thinking, and facilitate devising strategies that will get them to give the United States most of what it wants.

Lastly, talking to everyone reminds enemies that they might become friends if they play their cards right and reminds current friends that they aren’t the only game in town and that they shouldn’t take American support for granted. When U.S. officials meet with their counterparts in in Riyadh or Tel Aviv or Cairo, I want everyone in the room to know that some other U.S. officials are busy discussing regional affairs in Tehran and Moscow, too. And vice versa, of course. That’s how other great powers do it: Why shouldn’t the United States?

To sum up: Trump has a ways to go before he can be considered a true offshore balancer. He seems to grasp part of the logic — it’s better to let others contend than to do the heavy lifting yourself — but he lacks the knowledge, skill, and subtlety to make a sophisticated strategy like this work. I’m not expecting him to improve either, because he may not have that much time left. And even if he does, learning on the job just doesn’t seem to be in his skill set.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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