Voice

Trump’s Middle East Legacy Is Failure

The president has had a handful of successes—but never anything approaching a strategy.

President Donald Trump with Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pose for a group photo with other leaders of the Muslim world during the inauguration of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh on May 21, 2017.
President Donald Trump with Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pose for a group photo with other leaders of the Muslim world during the inauguration of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

My very first column as a regular contributor to Foreign Policy ran under the headline “Trump’s Middle East Policy Is Totally Boring.” The point of the piece was not to imbue the White House’s foreign policy with an intellectual framework but rather to show how banal it was. Stripped of all the theatrics and peculiarities associated with President Donald Trump—who had been in office a little over a year—U.S. policy in the Middle East resembled what was once a bipartisan consensus: support for Israel, tough on Iran and others outside America’s coalition of regional partners, and support for those partners regardless of the character of their regimes.

At the time, one of my friends who is a sophisticated observer of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, sent me an email that read: “Dude, I think you are imbuing way too much coherence to the administration’s thinking on these issues.” In retrospect, my buddy was spot on. A couple of years since that debut column appeared, and almost four years after Trump took the oath of office, the only way to describe U.S. policy in the region is “strategic incoherence.” Every White House has trouble being consistent in its foreign policy. The problem with Trump’s approach to the Middle East is not actually inconsistency but rather the scattershot quality of his encounters with the region.

This is what you get when the president trusts his own instincts over all else, undermining what is supposed to be a deliberative foreign-policy process. The situation is made worse by Trump’s Lazy Susan approach to the world. To the uninitiated, Lazy Susans were often found in 1970s-era Chinese restaurants (and sometimes still are). Dishes would be placed on a large circle in the middle of a table that was spun to move the food around to different diners. As a kid, I enjoyed turning the Lazy Susan as hard as I could and spooning onto my plate whatever dish happened to stop in front of me before turning the wheel again. This is the way the president approaches his foreign policy: One spin and he gets Syria, an issue that occupies his mind for a day or two before he spins it again to land on Venezuela; another spin, NATO; another spin, Iraq; another spin, North Korea. It goes on and on and on.

Of course, Trump is not alone in Washington at being unable to articulate what the United States wants in the Middle East, but he is the most consequential member of that group. His wading in and out of conflicts and issues seemingly at random has risked further destabilizing the region. The president says he wants to get out of forever wars, and toward that end, he has greatly reduced the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, he has pursued a maximum pressure campaign on Iran, which is a never-ending spiral of more and more pressure. The risks of escalation and conflict in such an approach seem clear, suggesting that perhaps this is what the president or officials in his administration want. Then again, Trump did not respond to Iran’s provocations in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2019, though he deployed thousands of troops there for a time.

Although the president studiously avoided confrontation with Iran in mid-2019, he seemingly spun the Lazy Susan in early 2020 resulting in a drone strike on the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Suleimani, in Baghdad. Foreign-policy analysts, columnists, editorial boards, Democrats, and Republicans praised the killing of the almost mythic Suleimani, who had copious amounts of blood on his hands, but the hit was untethered from an actual strategy. Predictably, the Iranians responded both with a big show—missile strikes on Iraq—and a more sustained lower-profile effort to drive the United States from Iraq.

Then there was the “deal of the century,” which was supposed to do what no other U.S. president has ever done before—produce a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. I don’t spend as much time on this issue as others, but it has been a few months since I’ve heard about what came to be known as the Trump/Kushner peace plan. The plan went nowhere because it demanded that the Palestinians negotiate a final, ignominious surrender, something that anyone with even the mildest curiosity about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians knows that they will not do. Resistance to Israel’s occupation and steadfastness under the duress of that occupation are important components of Palestinian identity. When it became clear that the Palestinians were not interested in such a one-sided deal, the president lost interest.

Team Trump has touted its record on “defeating” terrorism, and as a result, the president has vowed to bring U.S. forces home. Well, they are still there, albeit in smaller numbers. A modest contingent remains in Syria, for example, but it is not clear why. They are there, in the president’s words, to “protect the oil” or keep an eye on the Iranians or gain leverage over the Russians—or some combination of all three. It is important to remember that these forces are still in Syria despite Trump twice promising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that they were leaving. Yet by promising to leave, the president signaled his implicit assent to Turkish attacks on America’s Syrian Kurdish allies despite the critical role they played in the fight against the Islamic State. When the Turks rolled into northeastern Syria, the leading edge of their forces comprised Syrian militiamen, some of whom were linked to extremists like al Qaeda. It was irony piled on top of irony, but by that time, Trump had spun the Lazy Susan and was on to some other issue.

It hardly seems worth it to raise human rights because it is the one issue that does not seem to be on the wheel. Throughout the last four years, Trump has remained uniquely indifferent to the suffering of others at the hands of his friends. To be sure, a U.S. president’s policy options are limited when it comes to preventing or stopping human rights violations, especially among U.S. partners and allies. Yet the person in the Oval Office has the world’s biggest platform from which to be a moral voice in global affairs. Instead, Trump has called Egypt’s leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, his “favorite dictator.” The most generous interpretation of that episode was a president being inappropriately cheeky, but such off-the-cuff remarks are hardly funny given the scale of repression in Sisi’s Egypt. What is Trump’s excuse for offering to the media that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, should come up with a better cover story for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi? When it comes to the multiyear purge that has destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Turks, Trump administration officials lamely shrug their shoulders given what they freely admit is the president’s personal fondness for Erdogan. It is one thing to understand that U.S. interests may dictate working with authoritarian leaders and understanding there is little Washington can do about the quality of politics in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, but it is quite another to befriend, run cover for, and stay silent over their considerable violations of human and political rights.

To be fair, in this mess, there have been accomplishments of sorts. Trump has used his relationship with Middle Eastern dictators to secure the release of some Americans abroad who had languished in the region’s jails. The Abraham Accords between the United Arab Emirates and Israel and the possible normalization of ties between Israel and Sudan have happened on Trump’s watch. Of course, when it comes to the former, the role of the White House is really about paying the bill for the agreement in the form of weaponry delivered to Gulf Arab states. The latter seems to be normalization through coercion, with the United States managing to change Sudan’s behavior by threatening to withhold economic aid. (Yes, normal Israel-Sudan relations is a Trump success but not an edifying one.) The U.S. State Department has also pushed for maritime boundary talks between Israel and Lebanon, which may set the stage for broader talks down the road, but the Lebanese willingness to hold talks may have more to do with their direct economic situation than anything else.

It may be too much to ask for success—however defined—in the Middle East. But the president of the United States owes the American people a strategy. After four years, the Trump administration has failed on that count. It has offered just episodic attention to whatever issue stops in front of the president before the next turn of the metaphoric Lazy Susan atop the Resolute Desk. There’s no reason to think another four years would offer anything better.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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