Elephants in the Room

Trump’s Parting Gift to Biden: A More Stable Middle East

He was successful because only an iconoclastic president could have rejected false assumptions and failed strategies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept. 15.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept. 15. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The indictments of U.S. foreign policy under President Donald Trump are as varied as his critics. The mandarins of the foreign-policy establishment have led the charge by insisting that the norm-shattering president has weakened U.S. alliances and empowered the country’s adversaries. Overlooked is the fact that the Trump administration has pursued a successful Middle East policy. And it succeeded precisely because it challenged entrenched assumptions. In the end, Trump will hand President-elect Joe Biden a region that is more stable than it was four years ago and an alliance network that is stronger than the one Trump inherited. This is a worthy legacy that will be squandered by the Democrats if they are determined to eviscerate all things Trump.
The next pillar of wisdom to fall was the notion that should the United States walk away from the deal, Iran would rush to the bomb.

Among the world’s revisionist powers, none has taken the battering of Iran. Trump’s successes have confounded his critics. At first, many in the commentariat insisted that if Trump were to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Washington would stand alone and be incapable of maintaining multilateral economic sanctions. In the end, the European co-signatories of the deal may have complained—but more importantly, European businesses complied. The next pillar of wisdom to fall was the notion that should the United States walk away from the deal, Iran would rush to the bomb. Tehran has accelerated some parts of its nuclear activities, but the country is still years away from having a nuclear bomb. The sabotage of Iran’s nuclear installations by unconfirmed intelligence actors has moved the atomic goal post further out of Tehran’s reach. And finally, the last notion to fall was that Trump’s killing of Iran’s famed Quds Force commander, Qassem Suleimani, would spark a war. Instead it provoked a missile attack on a relatively unoccupied potion of a U.S. military base in Iraq—with sufficient forewarning by Tehran to Washington that was passed on via the Swiss.

The stark reality is that the clerical oligarchs were prepared to negotiate with either winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. A regime that cannot stabilize its currency or protect its people from the ravages of a pandemic needs relief from sanctions and understands that the pathway to the global economy and financial system runs through Washington. The problem is that the Americans who will show up at the table after Jan. 20 may be so disdainful of Trump’s maximum pressure strategy that they fail to appreciate its many advantages.

For decades, the received wisdom insisted that Israel could not be integrated into the Middle East unless it came to terms with the Palestinians. This curious argument ran counter to Washington’s own experience with Arab-Israeli peacemaking: Former President Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, after all, included only a superficial nod to the Palestinians. Jordan signed its own peace treaty with Israel in 1994 while the Palestinian issue once again remained unresolved. Yet successive U.S. administrations appointed their various envoys and squandered time and political capital on a conflict that always eluded a solution. The notion that the Arab street and its sensibilities were invested in the Palestinian cause was a rare academic truism that found an audience in the halls of power.

To their credit, Trump and his advisors were not burdened by historical memory. They paid scant attention to established precedent and did not shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem in the hope of bending the two sides to their will. Iran’s imperial rampage had created opportunities as Sunni Arab potentates were more concerned about Tehran’s designs than Palestinian aspirations. And a new generation of Arab citizens was not animated by a conflict that had festered for so long. Still, this was an opportunity that only a U.S. president hostile to Iran could have exploited. Enmity toward Iran is the currency of trust in today’s Arab world. The United Arab Emirates led the way in making peace with Israel. And then came Bahrain, the stalking horse for Saudi Arabia.
A new generation of Arab citizens was not animated by a conflict that had festered for so long.

There are many lessons to be learned. More peace treaties are possible unless Biden returns to former President Barack Obama’s path of lecturing the House of Saud that it must share the Middle East with the Islamists on the other side of the Persian Gulf. And once they’ve been deprived of the crutch of Arab solidarity, the Palestinians will come to their senses and return to the negotiating table.

The Middle East, of course, is not just a region of nations vying for influence. It is a place of fierce sectarian conflicts and civil wars. The problems of the Arab world have not disappeared: Syria remains the domain of the Assad family, and Yemen is a humanitarian catastrophe. Paradoxically, these conflicts, as tragic as they may be, seem not to have disturbed the region’s strategic alignments. Iran is not stronger because of Assad’s triumphs, and Saudi Arabia is not weaker because of its futile intervention in Yemen. Indeed, the Saudis have come to appreciate the cost of their Yemeni misadventure and are seeking a way out of their predicament.

In the last decade, the United States and its allies were often menaced by nonstate actors. It was Iran’s Shiite proxies in Iraq that lacerated U.S. forces. It was not long ago that the Islamic State was marching toward Baghdad and Hezbollah was threatening Israel. A president famous for rejecting his predecessor’s inheritance was prudent enough to sustain the Obama administration’s campaign against the Islamic State that finally reduced the caliphate to rubble. And as Iran depleted its treasury, it had to reduce the subsidies to its lethal protégés, including Hezbollah. Although by no means defanged, these militias are less dangerous today than they were before the Trump presidency.

Trump’s shattering of norms may not always have served the United States well. But the Middle East was a land of stale assumptions and failed strategies. Trump’s penchant toward disruption came in handy in a region that needed shaking up. He succeeded because only an iconoclastic president could have stabilized the Middle East.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty (forthcoming).

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