Analysis |

Achieving the Impossible, Trump May Leave the Middle East Worse Than He Found It

With his business-minded approach, the president positioned the U.S. as a shadowy, barely-there presence that was not only unable to resolve conflicts, it actually helped prolong them

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Palestinians protesting in the southern Gaza Strip against Israeli normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, hours ahead of a signing ceremony at the White House on September 15, 2020.
Palestinians protesting in the southern Gaza Strip against Israeli normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, hours ahead of a signing ceremony at the White House on September 15, Credit: SAID KHATIB / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

One thing you can’t accuse President Donald Trump of is being boring. He knows how to put on a show, enthrall global audiences, evoke tragic laughter even when speaking broken English, and create tsunamis on social media better than any other leader. And he scrupulously avoids telling the truth.

In the Middle East, he stormed into a junkyard, searched for and found all the parts that don’t fit together, and used them to build a horse with nine legs and five heads.

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Trump made friends with dictators and believed they were the only people he could and should do business with. Business, incidentally, is the term with which he replaced policy – as befits a man who termed himself a champion businessman, until it became clear he was mired in debt and “forgot” to pay his taxes.

He burst into the Middle East with a much-ballyhooed “agreement” dubbed “the deal of the century,” which was signed by just one party: Trump himself.

He dreamed of a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arabs, tens of billions of dollars flooding the desert sands and Trump Towers sprouting up in Gaza City, Hebron and Amman. No such vision had ever been seen before in this bloody region.

Trump deserves praise for brokering normalization accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and Sudan is the latest to join the list. In exchange, each country received a gift package suited to its needs: the UAE got F-35 fighters; Sudan was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism; and Bahrain will get what’s left over.

But Israel is the biggest winner. This was indeed a historic turnabout – a paradigm shift that created a belt of Arab support for Israel without it having to pay any ideological, territorial or financial price. This is the achievement of the century.

But a deal of the century that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it isn’t. Trump didn’t work any miracles; he didn’t resolve a bloody conflict between Israel and any Arab state. He’s neither Jimmy Carter nor Bill Clinton – the U.S. presidents who presided over Israel’s agreements with Egypt and Jordan, respectively.

He gave a seal of approval to the continuation of the occupation and the annexation of the Golan Heights. He moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. And he destroyed Washington’s status as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and thereby any hope of a diplomatic horizon for both Israelis and Palestinians.

In the Middle East, Trump conducted a corporate strategy based on the view that state leaders are like CEOs who are subordinate to neither boards of directors nor workers unions. In this region, he thought, public opinion, national feelings, history and culture don’t matter. All you need to close a deal is a good personal relationship with the leader.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan posing for a photo.Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

He may be the only leader in the world who sees Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an appropriate ally. “I get along with him and he listens,” Trump said last August. Even when this friend stuck a toothpick in his eye by buying Russia’s S-400 antimissile system and attacking the Kurds (America’s allies in the war against the Islamic State), Trump gave Erdogan his full backing. He even justified the S-400 purchase on the grounds that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had refused to sell Turkey advanced missiles.

No wonder Erdogan is anxious about the result of this week’s presidential election. He’s never before met a U.S. president he can yell at.

Business is business

But the crown jewel of Trump’s business doctrine was actually a liquidation: his withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018. He was certain his policy of “maximum pressure” would force Iran to bow its head and accept all his terms.

Two years on, Iran is still alive and kicking. Its situation isn’t good; it’s experiencing one of the worst economic crises in its history. But it’s still supporting Hezbollah, funding Shi’ite militias in Iraq, training and funding the Houthis in Yemen, and holding Syrian President Bashar Assad’s hand. Oh, and it’s also increased the amount of uranium it enriches and restarted the centrifuges it had shut down.

Trump is now convinced he has a new winning deal to offer Tehran, and that if only he’s reelected, he’ll show the world how to deal with the Islamic Republic. But this is the same Trump who didn’t rush to respond to Iranian rocket fire on American, Saudi and UAE targets. And when Saudi Arabia asked for help, he was willing to give it – but only in exchange for payment. Business is business.

Unlike Obama, Trump did attack Syria after it used poison gas against civilians. But recently, he’s been negotiating with it over the release of imprisoned Americans. Who said you can’t negotiate with terrorists?

Thrice, Trump promised to withdraw U.S. forces from the Mideast – one of his flagship policies. Once was in Afghanistan, where he signed an agreement with the Taliban, an organization responsible for killing thousands of Afghani civilians. The second time was when he announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria; and the third was when he agreed to pull American forces out of Iraq.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan still hasn’t happened. The pullout from Syria melted away. And he’s negotiating over a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq while leaving a string of bodies behind him.

Afghan government forces are still fighting the Taliban, and the Kurds in Syria have lost faith in the president who protected them during years of fighting there. Even though the U.S. withdrawal from Syria was put on hold, the Kurds have started cozying up to Russia and are even willing to negotiate with Assad in order to survive a Turkish onslaught.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.Credit: Pool Presidential Press Service

The Kurds, Trump declared after announcing the planned withdrawal, are not America’s problem. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there,” he said. “So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

Iraq, which initially demanded that American forces leave, is now afraid of being left alone against a reviving ISIS in its northern provinces. And Turkey is already conducting S-400 tests.

Shadow presence

In short, Trump turned the United States into a shadow in the Middle East – a barely-there presence that’s not only incapable of resolving conflicts, but nourishes them and thereby helps prolong them.

America’s most important Arab partner, Saudi Arabia, is ruled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, became persona non grata in the United States. He hasn’t set foot there for over two years, despite having promised to buy $110 billion-worth of U.S. arms and planes.

But Trump is the only leader who has refrained from accusing the crown prince of direct responsibility for the murder, in defiance of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions. Furthermore, he personally thwarted a congressional decision to prevent arms sales to Riyadh.

He did force the Saudis to negotiate with the Houthis in Yemen, but Saudi forces are still using American arms to attack populated areas of Yemen, in a war that has gone on for more than five years and killed over 100,000 people.

Trump’s efforts to heal the quarrel that pitted Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE against Qatar, which hosts the largest U.S. base in the Middle East, also failed. The economic blockade that the Gulf states and Egypt imposed on Qatar resulted in the latter forging closer relations with Turkey and Iran, which have formed an alliance that seeks to replace the pro-American Arab axis.

In the Libyan civil war, which pits the recognized government against the separatist Gen. Khalifa Haftar, Turkey and Qatar are spearheading the government’s forces, facing off against an alliance that includes Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. In this theater, as in Syria, the United States is making do with the status of an onlooker, as if this war didn’t affect it.

American apathy on both the Syrian and Libyan fronts has given Russia a monopoly on the Mideast playing field. It has used this smartly and even expanded, as evidenced by its military ties with Egypt and economic ties with Saudi Arabia. There’s no doubt that Russia would like more of this American largesse.

On Tuesday, American voters will decide whether to end a chaotic period that has bequeathed a flawed, strife-ridden inheritance. Yet as Trump himself has proven, there’s no such thing as an irreversible policy and no decision that can’t be corrected – or, alternatively, made even worse.

We can only hope that the next U.S. presidential term will be a boring one, devoid of passions and without a clown running the world.