Election 2020

Middle Eastern Leaders Are Getting While the Getting’s Good

Sensing Trump is on the way out, Israel, the UAE, and Turkey are trying to squeeze as much out of the United States as they can now.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept. 15.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept. 15. Doug Mills/Getty Images

In the months and weeks preceding Tuesday’s presidential election, there was an unmistakable effort among the United States’ partners in the Middle East to get while the getting’s good. Sensing that U.S. President Donald Trump was running out of time, the Israelis, Emiratis, Turks, and others sought new agreements with the White House or to consolidate newfound regional gains before a potential change in power.

The United Arab Emirates, for example, wanted to lock in its promised F-35s (which it did). Israel was hoping to secure more F-35s and other goodies for agreeing to allow the Emiratis to acquire the planes (also successful). The country, too, won an agreement that will expand U.S.-Israeli scientific cooperation to the West Bank and Golan Heights. Meanwhile, Turkey has been pressing its advantage to insert itself further in the Eastern Mediterranean and Nagorno-Karabakh without fear of a response from the United States.

One has to have a certain amount of respect for the shrewd cynicism of regional leaders, although if folks in Washington’s foreign-policy community are disturbed, they have a right to be. At the same time, though, Americans have left themselves open to being played because over the last few decades, foreign policy has become domestic political warfare by another means. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that regional allies are locking in what they can.

In the months and weeks preceding Tuesday’s presidential election, there was an unmistakable effort among the United States’ partners in the Middle East to get while the getting’s good. Sensing that U.S. President Donald Trump was running out of time, the Israelis, Emiratis, Turks, and others sought new agreements with the White House or to consolidate newfound regional gains before a potential change in power.

The United Arab Emirates, for example, wanted to lock in its promised F-35s (which it did). Israel was hoping to secure more F-35s and other goodies for agreeing to allow the Emiratis to acquire the planes (also successful). The country, too, won an agreement that will expand U.S.-Israeli scientific cooperation to the West Bank and Golan Heights. Meanwhile, Turkey has been pressing its advantage to insert itself further in the Eastern Mediterranean and Nagorno-Karabakh without fear of a response from the United States.

One has to have a certain amount of respect for the shrewd cynicism of regional leaders, although if folks in Washington’s foreign-policy community are disturbed, they have a right to be. At the same time, though, Americans have left themselves open to being played because over the last few decades, foreign policy has become domestic political warfare by another means. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that regional allies are locking in what they can.

Since the George W. Bush administration reversed much of the Clinton administration’s approach to the Middle East by invading Iraq, declaring the Freedom Agenda, and passing on the Oslo peace process, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been a series of 180-degree swings. After Bush, President Barack Obama wanted to get out of the Middle East and negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran in part to achieve that goal. Trump also wanted to get out of the Middle East, but he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. A President Joe Biden would likely alter his predecessors’ approaches to Iran as well and take a tougher stand on the human rights violations of Washington’s regional friends. Some of these shifts were prudent foreign policy, but some of it was also politics.

It was always a myth that politics ended at America’s shores, but once upon a time, there seemed to be a consensus about the United States’ role and purpose in the world: to serve as the anchor of the liberal world order. No longer, and leaders in the Middle East (and elsewhere) have taken note. They have sought to leverage the whiplash between Democratic and Republican foreign policy—as opposed to U.S. foreign policy—to their advantage, at least temporarily. That is why they are now hedging, making deals and moves that will make it harder for a Biden administration to reverse course.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and 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. Twitter: @stevenacook

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