Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, recently made a stunning concession. He declared in a mid-January interview that the U.S. is “in a worse place today than we were before [Trump] came in.”
Tillerson lambasted Trump’s "very limited" understanding and broader handling of foreign policy, some of which he himself helped shape. But nowhere do his remarks ring more true than in the Middle East, where President Joe Biden is inheriting a patchwork of crises and dysfunctional relationships.
While Trump vowed to end America’s "endless wars" in the region, the U.S. still has troops or advisers in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. While his administration scored historic successes, brokering normalization deals between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, his broader legacy in the Middle East, including the transactional politics that led to those deals, is far more dubious.
From Iran to Israel, Damascus to Dubai, here is a look at how four years of Trump impacted the Middle East.
Locked and loaded: Assassination and near wars with Iran
The aim was to weaken Iran’s economy through a "maximum pressure" campaign, in order to force Tehran to agree to a deal that would constrict further both their nuclear and ballistic capacities. But despite raining down sanctions, Iran is marching faster than ever toward a bomb.
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- Israel’s Gulf coup: How Palestinians lost their Arab allies
France warned last week that, in the wake of the U.S. exit which lost the quid pro quo dynamic and a united international front, Tehran’s repeated breaches of the deal meant the 'breakout time' to a bomb has now contracted to well below a year.
If Trump’s exit from the 2015 JCPOA was his real legacy on Iran, it will be short-lived, overtaken by the Biden administration’s stated interest in returning to the negotiations table.
Perhaps the biggest surprise and risk of his Iran policy was the June 2020 assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. While it won him praise from both sides of the aisle in D.C., in Israel and among many foreign policy analysts, (despite its questionable legality), Soleimani was immediate replaced, Iran’s retaliation is still pending, and Trump didn’t have a consistent follow-up for the strike.
Trump had no solid center on Iran: He was constantly being pushed and pulled, and his policy vacillated according to who had managed to influence him on the day.
After bringing on board the Iran hawk John Bolton as National Security Adviser, and claiming on Twitter in the summer of 2019 that he was "locked and loaded" to directly attack Iran in retaliation for provocations in the Persian Gulf, which included the downing of a U.S. drone and attacks on Saudi shipping and infrastructure, Trump backed down.
That u-turn won his praise from the self-identified "anti-war" right-wingers like Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who reportedly helped talk Trump out of striking Iran, praised Trump for avoiding another "stupid war" incited by "neo-cons" and who welcomed Bolton’s departure a few months later as a "great day for America."
Trump’s May 2017 exit from the deal has not resulted in the policy achievements he had promised; instead, tensions have ramped up surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Hardliners in Tehran are now in the ascendent, the decade-long UN arms embargo has expired and the Revolutionary Guards are stepping up military exercises and unveiling new, enhanced ballistic missiles.
Why it matters: Trump’s approach to Iran epitomizes his scattershot approach to foreign policy. It also exemplifies the role that pandering to his political base played in his foreign policy decisions: exiting the Iran nuclear deal and allowing Iranian military aggression to go unchecked played well but did little to strengthen regional security or America’s position in the region.
Biden and his designated Secretary of State Anthony Blinken now find themselves at a crossroads: both want to reenter the deal, extend Iran’s ‘breakout time’ and return to a carrot-and-stick dynamic for lifting sanctions. At the same time, Biden also wants a better, stronger deal, and has committed to integrating the responses of Middle East allies like Israel and the Gulf states in his administration’s formulation of policy.
Syria pullout: Vexing the Pentagon and the fight against ISIS
In Syria, Trump managed to betray a key U.S. regional ally, lose the confidence of his national security team and set back the multilateral fight against ISIS.
In the first two years of his presidency, Trump largely handed policy making over to the Pentagon, maintaining the fight against ISIS and checking President Bashar Assad without expanding the conflict.
He twice greenlighted limited action against Assad, air strikes in response to chemical attacks against civilians, and used U.S. ground troops to push back ISIS fighters, while bolstering America’s Kurdish allies.
That all came to an abrupt stop in December of 2018, when Trump announced both a unilateral withdrawal from Syria and America’s premature and specious "victory" over ISIS. Trump then gave Turkey a clear path to effectively occupy Kurdish parts of Syria and Iraq, establish a form of ethnic cleansing and hunt down those it considered in league with its domestic opponents.
The about-face on the Kurds led to the swift resignation of Jim Mattis, his first defense secretary, followed by the resignation of Trump’s special counter-ISIS envoy, Brett McGurk.
Their replacements feared for the integrity of Trump’s decisions on Syria: McGurk’s replacement, Jim Jeffrey, stated that he would hide actual U.S. troop numbers in Syria from Trump so the president would still think they were withdrawing. In any case, Trump reneged on his "all troops out" position: some stayed to guard oil fields, others were redeployed to Iraq.
Trump’s Syria policy had left Assad unbowed, Iran further embedded, Erdogan emboldened and Kurdish autonomy betrayed.
Why it matters: Trump’s erratic behavior in Syria shook the faith of U.S. allies and led to grave dissent within his national security team. ISIS has still not been defeated in Syria or Iraq and the U.S.’s waning presence in Syria boosted the interventions and adventurism of Russia, Iran and Turkey in the region.
Syria will undoubtedly be one of Biden’s most pressing foreign policy challenges, and has presented the U.S. with few good options, as Obama discovered to his peril. But Biden is more likely to try and keep the military option open to bolster an invigorated U.S. human rights agenda and U.S. influence in the region, and to rebuild trust with allies.
Khashoggi who? Ignoring human rights abuses
The stark pivot away from a post-World War II policy consensus of promoting democracy was debuted dramatically in 2017 by Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who declared that "America First" meant human rights were a secondary priority, and whenever promoting U.S. values like human rights were an "obstacle" to advancing other interests, those other interests were to take priority.
Trump made no comment on the rolling purges instituted by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the wake of the 2015 coup attempt; instead, he exhibited bonhomie, even deference towards him. Trump said nothing about the escalating crackdowns on dissent, human rights activists, journalists and the LGBTQ community in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi continued to collect billions in U.S. military aid.
But no single incident highlighted with more amoral clarity the Trump administration’s suspension of human rights considerations than the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. When Trump’s own intelligence agency, CIA, indicated that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself ordered the killing, Trump refuted the findings, saying "Maybe he did, and maybe he didn't."
After the briefest of pauses, as a bare nod to international outrage over Khashoggi, the administration and its officials were back on the DC-Riyadh route.
The suspicion that transactional foreign policy had extinguished other considerations, and that those transactional interests were enmeshed with personal or familial as much as national interests, was strengthened by comments like that made by MBS, who said he had Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner "in his pocket."
Why it matters: Trump’s fondness for authoritarian leaders and unwillingness to stand up against human right abuses will be two of the defining traits of his foreign policy legacy.
The Biden administration has promised, in the starkest terms, to "stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur." That new climate has already spurred Saudi Arabia to swiftly ‘clean up,’ superficially at least, aspects of its dire human rights record. Biden is likely to push both the Saudis (especially on Yemen) and Egypt to do more than just lipservice.
And there may be a a multilayer reckoning with Erdogan, including in the context of NATO, as Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system strains the alliance.
The Middle East in Jared’s hands
Trump tasking Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and not-so-successful real estate developer, with "achieving Middle East peace" raised a lot of eyebrows across the world, and especially in the State Department.
Tillerson would later accuse Kushner of "hijacking" U.S. foreign policy and running his own private state department.
Kushner’s much-heralded "Path to Prosperity" grand scheme for Israeli-Palestinian peace fell mostly flat on its face, as the Palestinians outright rejected it, but the preparation of the plan had brought Kushner even closer to the Saudi crown prince and Israeli officials, including the Netanyahus.
While the Trump administration never hesitated to grant Israel’s prime minister political wins, especially close to election time – moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, hinting at a defense pact – this waltz through an Israeli right-winger’s wishlist did at least meet one solid obstacle. The UAE, the first Gulf state to enter U.S.-brokered normalization negotiations with Israel, demanded Israel freeze its West Bank annexation ambitions. And Netanyahu acceded.
However, Kushner’s achievements signally ignored the Palestinians. After the embassy move the Palestinians cut ties with the Trump administration, which led Trump to end all U.S. aid to the Palestinians refugee agency and to the Palestinian security forces, despite Israeli security officials’ objections.
Why it matters: Kushner’s foreign policy legacy includes major, historic shifts in the Middle East. However, he traded away any claim the U.S. could be an impartial broker in Middle East peace. Biden and his team may certainly work to rebuild U.S. credibility but the Palestinians remain skeptical of Biden and remember the poor gains they made under Obama.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan has vowed to build on the "success of Israel’s normalization arrangements with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco": Whether Biden will embrace Kushner’s transactional tactics, including the liberal use of arms deals as sweeteners, is an open question.
Trumpism invades Israeli politics
Although Trumpism has had an emboldening effect on authoritarians worldwide, there are few places where the mutual reinforcement of egos and rhetoric was more blatant than between Trump and Netanyahu.
Netanyahu was an old hand at political incitement and doublespeak long before Trump came on the scene, but as his bromance with Trump intensified, there has been no escaping the Trumpist resonances. In defending himself against his pending criminal charges, Netanyau claims Israel’s "deep state" in Israel is out on a "witch hunt" to get him, that "There’s no democracy here, but a government of bureaucrats and jurists."
Netanyahu has even shared clips with Hebrew subtitles of "Fox & Friends," Trump’s favorite TV show, in which the hosts denounce the charges against him and echo the "deep state" claim, a move straight out of Trump’s playbook.
Netanyahu has even hired Breitbart’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief Aaron Klein, a conspiracy theorist once described as "Steve Bannon’s man in the Middle East," to run his current election campaign.
Netanyahu’s son Yair, who like Trump Jr. is vocal on social media, and who, in the worst traditions of Trumpist apologists like Dinesh D’Souza, recently compared the Israeli kibbutz movement, a hallmark of the Israeli left, to Nazi Germany.
Why it matters: Just as Trump changed the tone in U.S. politics, so has Netanyahu’s dabbling in Trumpism. After four years of embracing Trump and the GOP, Netanyahu will now have to work with Biden and the Democrats. Their debate about the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu actively worked to undermine during the Obama years, is now even more super-charged.
The polarization Trump fostered on Middle East issues paid unconditional dividends for those who ended up on the "right" side: the Gulf states, Turkey and Israel, but they all know there will be a course correction now.
And Biden, despite his pro-Israel credentials, and his team’s long record of backing humanitarian interventions, will have to juggle with an implacable Trumpist opposition, a loud anti-interventionist camp made up of the hard right and left finding common ground, a Democratic base disgusted by the Bibi-Trump bromance and increasingly skeptical on Israel in general, and the overriding need to clean up at home first, from the pandemic to the economy.
But the Middle East, as many U.S. presidents have found, has a nasty habit of demanding attention, whether the administration is in the mood to engage or not.