WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump became U.S. president exactly two years ago, most Arab governments expressed optimism and hope. Leaders in the Gulf were described in articles as counting down the minutes to the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rise of Trump, who promised a tough line against Iran, the main enemy of the Sunni Arab world.
Unlike Obama, who stressed the promotion of human rights and democracy in the region, Trump made clear that his main priority was stability, and if that meant strengthening autocratic leaders, all the best. For some Arab leaders, it seemed like a match made in heaven.
Two years later, the optimism has been replaced by confusion and concern. Current and former Arab officials, as well as experts on the region, describe Trump’s policies in the Middle East as incoherent, confusing and even alarming.
“Many people still think that he is preferable over Obama, who openly aligned with Iran,” said one Arab official who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity, “but we have no idea what he’s trying to achieve – and I suspect that neither does he.”
A recent example of the bewildering policies was on display this week as administration officials commented on a Middle East summit planned for next month in Poland. The summit was originally framed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as an effort to help counter Iran; then, the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jonathan Cohen, said the gathering would focus on promoting peace in the region, not on one country.
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Russia, probably the most influential power in the Middle East these days, announced that it would not take part; the participation of key European and Middle Eastern countries isn’t certain either. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that “some European diplomats speculated that Mr. Pompeo might even cancel the conference last minute due to low attendance or attendance by junior-level officials.”
Middle Eastern diplomats who spoke with Haaretz mentioned the uncertainty around the Warsaw summit to illustrate the difficulties of working with Trump’s team. One source said it had become “almost impossible” to make long-term policy plans because of the volatile administration.
A region without ambassadors
Another obstacle for Arab countries is that key diplomatic posts related to the Middle East remain unfilled two years into Trump’s tenure. Earlier this month, when Pompeo visited nine Mideast countries to address concerns in the region over Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, Foreign Policy magazine noted that in five of those states there was no full-time U.S. ambassador at the time of the visit. These countries are Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt.
In the absence of Senate-confirmed ambassadors, the top diplomatic posts in these states – which are all close and influential U.S. allies – are temporarily filled by career diplomats who weren’t chosen by Trump or Pompeo, and don’t necessarily have their ear.
In addition, the candidate for the top Middle East position at the State Department, David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has become the victim of partisan battles on Capitol Hill; his nomination has been stuck for months. The appointment of Schenker, who previously served in senior positions at the Pentagon, is being blocked by Sen. Tim Kaine; the Virginia Democrat disagrees with the administration over Congress’ role in approving military action in Syria.
“This is not the fault of the Trump administration, they don’t control Tim Kaine,” one diplomat told Haaretz. “But the fact that this has been dragging on for months, and that it hasn’t been solved in some kind of backroom deal, says something about priorities.”
In the first months of Trump’s presidency, governments all over the world tried to overcome the administration’s staffing shortages by fostering close relationships with the president or his closest advisers, such as his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Some leaders, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were more successful than others.
But Trump’s Syria withdrawal proved that even those leaders could be blindsided by the hectic and mismanaged administration. For leaders who haven’t built such close relationships with the president’s closest confidants, the absence of effective mid-level U.S. officials to work with, such as ambassadors, is even more frustrating.
Arab NATO? ‘It’s a nonstarter’
One of the grand policy ideas the administration has floated a number of times is the creation of an “Arab NATO” – a joint Arab military force that would strive to push back against Iran and its proxies in the Middle East. Such an alliance could even, theoretically, work with Israel against the common Iranian enemy.
The only problem is that a year and a half after Trump’s first foreign trip as president, which took him to Saudi Arabia and Israel, these two countries appear to be the only ones in the region that actually like the idea. Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister, told The New York Times last week that the idea is “a nonstarter” for the majority of Arab countries, which don’t want to enter a full-scale military conflict with Iran.
“I also don’t see a small country like Jordan, with limited resources, participating in a military alliance,” he said, adding that “Iran is not seen in a good light among many of the countries of the region, but that is different from participating in a military alliance against it. I don’t think this is an idea that will gain a lot of traction in countries other than Saudi Arabia.”
An Arab official who spoke with Haaretz expressed a similar sentiment: “There is mistrust between different countries in the region on security affairs. No one would be willing to involve other countries in decisions of when to go to war.”
Another complication has been the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which has created a division in the Sunni bloc since the summer of 2017. The administration’s reaction to the Saudi blockade of Qatar has been a mixed bag. Trump initially expressed support for the Saudis, while a number of senior officials who no longer work in his administration, such as previous Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and previous Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, stressed the importance of the U.S. relationship with Qatar, which hosts a large American military base.
“Mattis was the last person in the administration who truly cared about this issue,” another source said. Three weeks after Mattis’ resignation over the Syria withdrawal, another retired general, Anthony Zinni, quit the administration as well. Zinni was appointed by the State Department to handle the Qatar dispute; his resignation was interpreted in the region as a sign of despair.
Weakening Iran – then giving it a prize in Syria
The main reason that Arab rulers, especially in the Gulf, were optimistic about Trump’s presidency was his tough election-campaign rhetoric against Iran. After Obama’s tenure, which included the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal and a sense of a renewed (if limited) relationship between Tehran and Washington, countries in the region that consider Iran a threat were happy to see a president who views the Islamic Republic as a sworn enemy, not a potential partner.
“The beginning of his administration was very encouraging for everyone in the region who is threatened by Iran,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who defected from the Syrian Embassy in Washington at the beginning of the Syrian civil war and became a voice for the Syrian opposition.
“Trump promised to leave the Iranian nuclear deal and warned Iran to stop interfering in other countries in the region. He bombed targets in Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons. It was clear that this is not the Obama administration anymore, and a lot of people were happy about that.”
Barabandi, who said he still appreciated “many of Trump’s steps against Iran over the past few months,” expressed concern that the withdrawal from Syria will empower Iran and reverse months of effective American pressure on Tehran.
“This is giving Iran and Assad the upper hand, unfortunately,” he said. “The administration is right to identify Iran as the source of the problems in the region, but the day-to-day managing of the policy, especially when it comes to Syria, could be better.”
During Obama’s presidency, a peculiar alliance emerged in Washington between the organizations broadly described as “the pro-Israel lobby” and key Arab states, based on a shared opposition to Obama’s Iran policy. One part of the unofficial alliance, the pro-Israeli groups, came out swinging against Trump’s Syria withdrawal, attacking him for “abandoning” regional allies and warning that he was harming his own anti-Iran strategy.
The Arab states, as much as they dislike the decision, have been much more cautious in their criticism. And as an Israeli official told Haaretz, “nobody wants to appear in an early-morning tweet.”
Arab officials noted that a similar dynamic took place in 2015 when Obama was about to sign the nuclear agreement: Pro-Israel groups were much more vocal in their opposition to the deal, while Arab countries usually saved their criticism for behind-the-scenes conversations and closed-door briefings. Still, the sense of disappointment is clear – not just over the decision, but also over the lack of credible information on the timeline and scope of the withdrawal.
The missing peace plan
Confusion and uncertainty are also prevalent regarding the administration’s mysterious plan for Middle East peace, which was supposed to be presented to the world this winter but has been delayed until after Israel’s April 9 election.
The peace plan is more concerning for countries that share a border with Israel, the West Bank and Gaza such as Egypt and Jordan; countries in the rest of the Middle East have their own problems to handle. But the Trump administration has been hinting for almost two years now about a plan to improve Israel’s relations with much of the Arab world and unveil a secret alliance between Israel and the Gulf states hitherto focusing on clandestine intelligence ties.
But officials in the region shrug about that possibility, noting that it’s impossible to asses whether the plan will bring Israel to close contacts with the Gulf states, because no one has any idea what the plan includes. Pompeo said this week that the administration would soon begin sharing details of the plan with allies in the region. One source noted that similar headlines about “sharing the details” were already published last summer before a visit to the region by Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy.
Eventually, that visit didn’t lead to any breakthrough because a number of Arab leaders said their ability to move forward on peace was limited as long as the Palestinian Authority continued to boycott the Trump administration over the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Hady Amr, a former State Department official who worked on Middle East policy in the Obama administration, said Arab countries viewed Trump’s Middle East policy as a continuation of his internal politics.
“It took these countries time to reach this conclusion, but they realize today that policies in the Middle East, whether it’s the approach towards Iran, the withdrawal from Syria or the peace plan, are heavily influenced by domestic political considerations, and not by actual national security goals,” he said.
“In the beginning of the administration, you could hear diplomats from the region look for a certain logic behind the decisions and the statements. People would say ‘there must be a reason behind this. There must be some hidden goal.’ Today these countries realize that’s not the situation. Trump sends out a tweet and the government runs after him to adjust the policy. The result is an incoherent strategy.”
Amr cites as examples the decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem while trying to forge a peace deal, and the decision to withdraw from Syria in the midst of a campaign against Iran.
“It doesn’t make sense, but it’s not supposed to make sense,” he said. “It’s supposed to appeal to his voters, and the leaders in the region have now realized it.”