It seems that a perverse contest has been taking place among the last three presidents of the United States, with each vying for the dishonor of having the worst Middle East policy.
George W. Bush, of course, still has the edge with his catastrophic, profoundly misguided and destabilizing invasion of Iraq. Barack Obama takes the special jury prize for fecklessness, offering high-minded speeches and largely ruminating himself into indecision amid the alienation of all of America’s allies in the region.
But Donald Trump has only been in office two years, and with his recent decision to ignore the advice of his advisors and the national interest of both the U.S. and our allies in the region combined with his pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and kowtowing to despots, tyrants and wannabes from Putin to Erdogan to MBS to Benjamin Netanyahu, he seems like he is positioning himself for a run for the title.
Bush’s catastrophe was redeemed somewhat by his ability to learn from his errors, get rid of the members of his team that were the most wrong-headed and make some progress in restoring relations with allies in the region during his final years in office.
Obama, of course, built on efforts that took place under Bush and finally got Bin Laden, and despite the failures of his Syria policies and his bungled diplomacy in Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Libya and the Gulf, he did fashion the Iran nuclear deal which, although imperfect, reduced the immediate nuclear threat from Tehran.
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Both also had a healthy skepticism of the motives and actions of Russia and a broader sense of America’s strategic interests. They also had policy processes that while flawed, had them listening to their advisors and weighing decisions in a relatively thoughtful manner (Iraq aside.)
But what makes Trump so different and potentially so much worse is illustrated in his mercurial decision on Syria - one that caught his State Department, Defense Department, Intelligence Community, and allies by surprise.
In the days before the decision was announced on Wednesday, Trump advisors had repeatedly pledged a commitment in Syria until the job was done—the Islamic State was defeated, a political settlement was in place, and a de-escalation of the conflict (the goals that were enumerated by Trump’s Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey a month ago.) Jeffrey repeated the point as recently as the beginning of this week. Behind the scenes, they also all urged the president not to pull the troops out suddenly.
But then in true Trump style with a tweet, the president announced he was done. He said that the only reason he had troops in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State and that work was completed.
Quite apart from the bizarre personalization of the announcement (it was about him rather than about the country), it was also not only inconsistent with the views of his team, it was based on a lie. The Islamic State is not defeated. They are still active in Northern Syria and there is no doubt that the pull out of U.S. troops will create conditions that might actually lead to their regaining strength.
Reporting suggests that Trump had decided to do this as part of an agreement with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the many despots in the region for which Trump has a warm place in his heart - and one from whom he would like help suppressing further investigations into the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But Erdogan was hardly the only big winner from the decision. Trump’s patron Vladimir Putin also was a winner with Russian influence in Syria and the Assad regime it has supported now left firmly in control. Iran too, a stated nemesis of Trump’s, is also a winner, but that seems only to illustrate how half-baked the move was.
The New York Times reported that in the U.S. Defense Department there was immediate speculation Trump was doing this to try to distract from the maelstrom of scandals currently swirling around him.
And of course, that was a prime motivation. Trump is flailing. In the best of times, everything he does is motivated by self-interest. But as he reaches crisis that malignant narcissism only grows worth. He will do anything to change the subject or to save himself.
That is what puts Trump in the position to go from bad to much much worse in his Middle East policies (and I use the term loosely: they are more like impulses or fits.)
Trump has already thrown his lot in with the cruel, autocratic and destabilizing regime in Riyadh - pitting himself not only against what is right but against many of the people of the region who are chafing under the leadership of such regimes. He has lit the fuse for a conflict with Iran, egged on by his buddy Bibi. He has given Bibi carte blanche to behave as brutally as he likes with regard to the Palestinians.
Further, he has shown absolute disregard for the human costs of the wars in Syria and Yemen, of Saudi or Turkish or Egyptian abuse of dissidents, of the harshness of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people or the likely Erdogan crackdown on the Kurds.
It is a formula both for the further empowerment of bad actors like the Russians, Assad, Iran, MBS and of extremists of every stripe from Israel and across the region. It raises the possibility of further brutality in Syria, war with Iran, and political unrest.
And at the same time, because Trump is so polarizing a figure at home and his ties to the worst figures in this world are so caught up in scandal and compromise, those allies he has chosen will find themselves under political attack in the U.S. and their cases viewed - largely by their own choice - in highly partisan and damaging terms.
Suddenly pulling out of Syria without any rhyme or reason is not an error on the scale of Iraq. But Trump is an especially bad president: not just the most corrupt in American history, but the least competent. And so this move should not be seen in isolation, but rather as a harbinger of potentially very unhappy events to come.
David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and host of the Deep State Radio podcast