Analysis |

Trump’s First Year in the Middle East: Actually, Not That Bad

This U.S. administration has no real regional policy, but so far it’s no worse than his Obama and Bush's actual policies. And at least Trump has brought clarity

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Trump receiving the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh, May 20, 2017.
Trump receiving the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh, May 20, 2017.Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

To say that President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is a failure would be wrong. He would actually need to have such a policy for it to fail. In the absence of any clear idea – beyond his tweets – of what he hopes to achieve on the world stage during his presidency, and with a State Department depleted of many of its top professionals and scores of key diplomatic positions still unfilled, it’s safe to say Trump isn’t really interested in the outside world.

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Which is bad if you consider the United States to be a force for good – which you should. But as the first year of Trump’s term ends and his vice president, Mike Pence, makes his own tour of the Middle East, it has to be said that, so far, this presidency hasn’t been a unmitigated disaster for the region. Or, to put it more accurately, Trump hasn’t done any worse than his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

While Bush launched wars and tried to change regimes, Obama had grand designs on subtly altering the balance of regional power. Bush’s failure was more spectacular, especially when measured by sheer firepower. But Obama’s failure was no less complete. He achieved nothing on the Israeli-Palestinian front and totally mismanaged the U.S.’ response to every regional development: the Arab Spring; the pro-democracy protests in Iran; the Syrian and Libyan wars; and the rise of the Islamic State group. His one achievement, the Iranian nuclear deal, remains precarious and increasingly limited.

Trump’s only noticeable initiative thus far has been to support the Saudis in their power struggle against the Iranians for regional dominance. It has been mainly rhetorical and, anyway, since the struggle on the Saudi side is being led by the inexperienced Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, its results are at best mixed.

But Obama’s much more coherent plan to encourage the more moderate elements in the Iranian regime to counteract Sunni radicalism in the region was an abject failure, as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, predictably, took the lead in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

It would certainly be a very destabilizing decision if Trump cancels the Iran deal, or at least the U.S.’ part in it. But so far he hasn’t, and whether by design or just his usual bumbling bluster, Trump has served to focus the international community on the shortcomings of the nuclear agreement – especially on the many aspects of Iran’s malign influence in the region the deal did not address.

It’s a positive development that other signatories to the deal are now scrambling to find a way to limit Iran’s sponsorship of proxies in other countries and its ballistic missile development, in the hope they can still convince Trump not to cancel the deal.

For all his tough talk on Iran, Trump’s administration has not actually done anything except to show America’s true colors and its support for one side in the region – the Sunni Muslims. Obama tried to shift toward a more nuanced balance between Sunni and Shi’ite interests. But despite signing the Iran deal and achieving a temporary halt on Iran’s nuclear development, none of his other hopes for the Islamic Republic materialized. If anything, the radical elements in Tehran were emboldened.

Syria, Yemen and (further from international attention) Afghanistan are all bleeding. And the Trump administration – save for one missile strike on the Assad regime and a half-hearted endorsement of Kurdish forces in Syria – has done little. But these are all tragedies he inherited from his predecessors, exacerbated by their action or, in Obama’s case, inaction. The main difference is that Trump doesn’t even pretend to be concerned.

A woman looking at a mural depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kissing, on the West Bank separation barrier in Bethlehem, October 29, 2017Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Neither has Trump done anything on the Israel-Palestine front. In that regard he is no different to the Obama administration, which tried to do a lot but ended up doing nothing. In Obama’s first term, he pressured Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze. But when the prime minister finally acquiesced, the Americans still failed to get the Israelis and Palestinians to enter meaningful negotiations.

By his second term Obama had given up, but allowed Secretary of State John Kerry to try. Kerry visited the region countless times, was constantly on the phone to Netanyahu and Abbas, and, as he put it, “poof” – the negotiations ended in nothing but more acrimony.

Trump has made a meaningless gesture by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; talked of an “ultimate deal” that, if it is ever actually presented to the sides, is already a nonstarter; and threatened to defund UN agencies supporting the Palestinian refugees.

But none of these declarations has any meaning on the ground, except to clarify what was always the truth, going back at least three decades: The United States, even when critical of Israeli policies, remains on Israel’s side, not the Palestinians’.

That was true under Obama as much as it is under Trump. It’s just that with Trump there is no pretence. Now, the Palestinians should finally get around to working out a real policy on how to deal with the situation. If they can. At least they have no illusions anymore.

The same goes for Egypt. In 2009, Obama visited Cairo to make his “A New Beginning” speech, where he promised the United States was no longer in the regime-change business in the Middle East. But then, in January 2011, when Egyptians took to the streets to protest against the Mubarak regime, Obama showed America’s ally the door and announced that the transition of power “must begin now.” Then his administration blew hot and cold over the Muslim Brotherhood government and the subsequent military coup – it wouldn’t call it a coup – in 2013 and the renewed military dictatorship under Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

President Donald Trump greeting Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi as he arrives at the White House, Washington, April 3, 2017.Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP

With Trump, things are very clear. No one is going to bring democracy to Egypt. The United States supports the dictator and that’s it.

The illusion that the Americans can impose any major change on the Middle East has always been a dangerous one. Even when presidents’ aspirations have been motivated by noble intentions, it almost always ended in tears for the people of the region, and for thousands of U.S. soldiers sacrificed on the way.

American influence is not necessarily a bad thing for the Middle East – it’s certainly preferable to the much blunter power projection of Putin’s Russia in Syria – but Trump’s two immediate predecessors failed to work out how to use U.S. power to much effect.

Trump’s Middle East policy is by no means a good one. It certainly isn’t underpinned by any values or long-term vision. But after two presidencies that singularly failed in the region, a zero-expectations administration is not necessarily worse.

The Middle East had eight years of a U.S. president who believed he could achieve regime change there, and then eight years of a president who believed he could bring peace. Both were deluded and their delusions harmed the region. Trump gives us clarity – and that’s not a bad thing.

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