US President Donald Trump has had an eventful six months in office. If his own domestic exploits were not enough to fill the headlines, his policy towards the Middle East would certainly have compensated. When not sacking, hiring, shuffling and reshuffling his staff, his official visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and meetings with delegations from Palestine, Jordan and Egypt have allowed him to carve out his own foreign policy path.
In an enduring irony, before the election Trump frequently referenced the region and its peoples negatively, as shown by his call for a ban on all Muslims entering the US, and his declaration in a television interview that “Islam hates us”.
Having moved beyond the rhetoric, the Trump administration’s policy to the Middle East seems erratic, and has been mostly met with criticism. Only time will tell whether such censure is warranted, or if a grander US strategy is in play. However, one thing that can be said is that for his part, Trump is staying true to his promise of “America first”.
Saudi Arabia and Trump against the world?
Trump was infamous for his strong statements in regards to Saudi Arabia during his election campaign. Between accusing it of being responsible for 9/11 to promoting the “jihadi ideology”, he was unrestrained in his criticism. Yet not only did he choose the Kingdom as the destination of his first foreign visit as president, but upon arrival photos emerged of him happily engaged in a traditional sword dance alongside Saudi officials.
His speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit the day after featured not only an absence of the rhetoric he had previously espoused, but in fact advocated the total opposite:
We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.
Instead, he went on to emphasise that the fight against terror “transcends every other consideration” and the need for Arab countries in particular to unite and “drive them [the terrorists] out”; a message gleefully met by the range of autocrats present, including Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
Trump also used his speech as an opportunity to announce trade agreements with Saudi Arabia amounting to almost $400 billion, promising the creation of thousands of jobs in the US.
The Kingdom’s bolstered confidence was shown upon Trump’s departure. Days later, it increased its offensive on Yemen and it swiftly moved to lead a diplomatic boycott with Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain against Qatar, accusing the small Gulf state of supporting terrorism. Qatar denies all allegations.
In an embarrassing U-turn having discussed the purchase of “lots of beautiful military equipment” with the Emir of Qatar weeks before, Trump took to Twitter to commend Saudi Arabia’s decision, expressing hope that this would “be the beginning of the end” of terrorism.
During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
…extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
However, the US president’s secretaries of state and defence scrambled to limit the diplomatic damage done, given Qatar plays host to the largest US military base in the Middle East. The division in the US administration was quick to appear as the US state department rebuked Saudi Arabia’s decision and have since praised Qatar’s efforts at countering terrorism.
Trump’s allegiance with the Saudis caused his cabinet to split again last month, when he differed with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in attempting to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and place new sanctions on Iran. When Tehran approached the international body that supervises the pact’s implementation, he was forced to relent on his plans. During his trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump had directed much of his criticism towards Iran, blaming its “rising ambitions” for instability in the region. In the ongoing struggle for domination between Iran and Saudi Arabia, for the most part he seems to have sided with the latter.
Trump’s performance in the Gulf mainly revealed the extent to which his own ignorance has led him to overrule himself and his cabinet members. But it is unlikely that Trump’s opinions that he so vehemently expressed on the Kingdom have changed. What is more likely is that in a return to traditionalist American policy, Trump has set aside his grievances, on the conditions of defence cooperation and trade, against Iran, which he deems a more potent threat.
‘Peace’ for Israel
Trump possessed a confident arrogance as he approached the longest running conflict in the Middle East, stating in May that a solution was “maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years”.
He seemingly pushed ahead with the promise of peace talks, sending senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is also a family friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to kick start the process. But Kushner proved inexperienced and the talks quickly fell apart. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman later rendered US special envoy for the peace process Jason Greenblatt useless, when he advised him not to broker peace, but help Israel build relations with other Arab countries instead. Meanwhile Tel Aviv progressed ahead with its settlement programme, despite a weakly worded request from Trump to hold back on construction.
Last month Trump and Netanyahu revealed their “deal of the century”: one in which, unsurprisingly, no Palestinian state existed; the regions currently under some form of Palestinian control would merely be handed to either Egypt or Jordan. This week, the plan was undermined even further following leaked audio of Kushner doubting whether the conflict was solvable.
As expected, Trump’s presidency has already failed the Palestinians. His half-hearted attempt at a peace deal seemed only to be for the sake of appearing to keep his campaign promise and the pro-Israeli stance of some of his closest and most senior officials have empowered Israel more than it has been in years. Whilst Israel’s security has always been top priority for the US, Trump has abandoned all attempts to appear to care about the fate of the Palestinians.
Relinquishing the Syrian opposition
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be the longest running conflict in the region, but the Syrian civil war has undoubtedly developed into the most complex. With at least six different nations attempting to protect their vested interests in the region and numerous other players on the ground, no one expected Trump to be able to solve the crisis quickly.
What most did not expect however, was for the Trump administration to cut CIA funding to “moderate” Syrian opposition groups in the hope of appeasing Russia. To many this seemed a catastrophic decision that would only increase the strength of Daesh on the ground.
Yet for others, this position seemed diplomatic, sensible even; the US seemed to have recognised that propping up certain rebels was proving unsuccessful from an economic and political perspective, as subsidised weaponry fell into the wrong hands and opposition groups failed to further American aims. As with Saudi Arabia, Trump prioritised securing a national geopolitical interest, over a chance to supposedly engage in democracy promotion.
A return to conventional US interference
As with everything, Trump has dived, tweets first, into the complexities of Middle Eastern relations. Yet despite his inability to comprehend the varying dynamics of the region, the advice of his staff and often which side he should be on, there seems to be one distinguishing factor between Trump and previous US presidents: the absence of rhetoric promoting democracy in the Middle East.
Since former US President George Bush’s call for a “global democratic revolution” in 2003, American policy has largely referenced the need to export such principles to the region. Whilst history shows that their intervention, often by armed invasion, has never been successful, the US needed to justify such interference as promoting democracy in order to maintain its image as the leader of the free world. Trump, who is incapable of thinking of the US as anything but the “land of the free”, has no such concerns and as promised in his election campaign wants to put American interests unashamedly first.
Trump is unafraid to openly align himself with dictators, regardless of the impact on the peoples of the region, for the sake of business and security. To some who have abandoned all hope of achieving democracy in the Middle East, this is the right strategy; to others it seems woefully hypocritical that the principles so valued at home are disregarded abroad. Such an approach is by no means new, having been used consistently throughout US history, including under Obama; Trump is merely more forthcoming about it. His approach no longer involves chiding allies over their numerous domestic political failures, but solely unifying on common threats.
Trump’s haphazard foreign policy may be the result of pure ignorance, or may have some rationale that will eventually emerge. Regardless, although the new president’s meddling seems set to bring further chaos to the region, it makes a change not to have US interference justified as a pathway to peace.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.