It has now been a year since Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States, and the question on many lips is whether America can recover from what has been a humiliating fall. Its President has been denounced as “vulgar”, “racist”, “ignorant” and “childlike”. Questions are being asked about his mental health as well as the health of US democracy itself.
How has a man with such a chequered history and lack of political experience; a man who publicly incites violence and promises to pass racist and discriminatory laws; a man who denounces entire continents as “sh**holes”, come to occupy the most powerful office in the world? Is Trump a symptom of the disease that will end global US pre-eminence? These questions will continue to occupy historians and analysts for decades to come.
If Trump is to be indicative of America’s Lucius Aurelius Commodus moment — that period which some historians mark as the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire — then perhaps the Middle East, in this historical parallel, will be remembered for the US overstretching itself and overspending, bringing its nascent empire to an end.
Trump’s escapades in the Middle East, despite his promise to be a non-interventionist President, have not only led to chaos, mayhem and instability, but have also permanently damaged America’s soft power in the region. On taking office exactly a year ago, he would have had a number of items in his in-tray concerning the Middle East: “degrade and destroy” Daesh, end the war in Syria and restart negotiations between Israel and Palestine. This most unconventional of Presidents made a rod for his own back by also promising to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, introduce a “complete and total shut down of Muslims” (the so-called Muslim travel ban), annul the nuclear deal with Iran and make what he called “the deal of the century” between Israel and Palestine.
The first months of the Trump Presidency presented the most challenging stress test for the pillars of US democracy. Religious freedom is enshrined in the US Constitution, and yet Trump led an open attack on this vaunted pillar of the secular democratic principles of the United States. The nation’s courts withstood the pressure from the newly-elected President and struck down his racist Muslim ban.
In the early months, Trump was also given an opportunity to fulfil another election pledge; to “kill” the nuclear deal with Iran. On this front, Trump seemed to start a fight that he could not win. The seven other signatories to the deal — Iran itself, the EU, Russia, Germany, France, China and Britain — insisted on full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was agreed in 2015. Despite threats to decertify the deal, Trump failed to do so.
His influence on such issues is minimal, which possibly explains the initial slap down of his policies. Where there was no resistance, though, Trump turned out to be the harbinger of chaos and instability.
The Trump doctrine
It wasn’t without a sense of irony that chaos and instability became the distinguishing qualities of what came to be known as the Trump doctrine. In the Middle East, the doctrine’s almost childlike simplicity incited the region’s worst diplomatic crises last year. Michael Wolff explained this new thinking in his book “Fire and Fury: inside the Trump White House”: “There are basically four players (or at least we can forget everybody else) — Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The first three can be united against the fourth. And Egypt and Saudi Arabia, given what they want with respect to Iran — and anything else that does not interfere with the United States’ interests — will pressure the Palestinians to make a deal. Voilà.”
In the bestseller, which confirms much of the dysfunctional and chaotic accounts of the first year of Trump’s administration leaked to the media, the President is said to have decided on a new set of presumptions about the Middle East and adopted very different sets of ideas on how he was going to remake it. Past administrations understood that the region demanded a nuanced approach. They would calculate the “infinitely complex multilateral algebra of threats, interests, incentives, deals and ever evolving relationships to reach a balanced future,” wrote Wolff, while explaining Trump’s determination to do things differently.
The Trump doctrine “was to reduce the board to three elements: powers we can work with, powers we cannot work with and those without enough power whom we can functionally disregard or sacrifice.” It was, said Wolff, “cold war stuff.”
“Game changing” visit to Riyadh
Trump entrusted his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a complete unknown within foreign policy circles, with implementing the doctrine; his orders were to remake the Middle East. Kushner, claimed Wolff, “became one of the significant international players in the administration — indeed, in the world.” So significant, in fact, that it seemed as if he would play a major role in the blockade of Qatar and Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Both fit neatly into the Trump worldview.
In his first overseas stop in the quest to “make America great again” Trump visited Riyadh last summer. Although many thought that this was a peculiar choice, Wolff disagrees. There was something “curiously aligned,” he explained, between the Trump family and the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman. Both, he pointed out, were seeking to make sweeping changes in their respective countries; their alignment suited the new kids on the block.
Bin Salman and Kushner were convinced that the Saudi establishment was not up to the challenges of the 21st century. “Knowing little,” wrote Wolff, “made them oddly comfortable with each other.” Kushner was said to be pleasantly surprised at how quickly the two became fast friends. It was, he remarked, “like meeting someone nice at your first day of boarding school.”
For Trump, the meeting with the Saudis was a “game changer”. It’s alleged that he was telling people that “the Saudis were going to finance an entirely new military presence in the kingdom, supplanting and even replacing the US command headquarters in Qatar. And there would be ‘the biggest breakthrough in Israel-Palestine negotiations ever.’ It would be the major game changer, which has never been seen.”
Saudi-US quid pro quo
Team Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia struck a deal. The quid pro quo was, at least in Trump’s eyes, quite straightforward and a win-win for the US. In exchange for supporting Bin Salman’s bid to become the Crown Prince and giving up Qatar, the US was promised billions of dollars in Saudi investment and a willing partner in implementing the “deal of the century” between Israel and Palestine. Both plans required a coup of some sorts and Trump was more than happy to play along. The US President is reported to have boasted in June that, having deposed Muhammed Bin Nayef, the former Crown Prince replaced by Bin Salman through a bloodless coup, he had put his own man in charge in Riyadh.
“It was, in dramatic ways,” noted Wolff, “a shift in foreign policy attitude and strategy — and its effects were almost immediate. The president, ignoring if not defying foreign policy advice, gave a nod to the Saudis’ plan to bully Qatar.” Despite the fact that Qatar had been a major partner of the US in the region, Trump adopted the line coming out of Riyadh that Saudi Arabia was not involved in terrorism and Qatar was the main funder of terrorist groups. To the consternation of the US State Department, the President apparently gave the green light for a soft coup in Doha. The plan would have succeeded had Turkey not intervened when the Turkish parliament voted to allow troops to be sent to Qatar. The decision put the brakes on any Saudi invasion plans.
With “his own man in charge” in Riyadh, Kushner began moving the pieces to make the “deal of the century”. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was summoned to Riyadh and presented with an ultimatum: he could back Donald Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace deal or resign. A deal was offered just days after Jared Kushner made an unannounced visit to the Saudi capital to meet with Bin Salman. The two are reported to have thrashed out a plan in which Abbas seems to have had no say. The Saudi proposal for a peace initiative between Israelis and Palestinians offered the latter the village of Abu Dis as the future capital of Palestine instead of East Jerusalem.
None of these plans went the way that the new alliance intended. Qatar was not broken and the Palestinians rejected outright the fake peace plan. The fiasco should have derailed Trump’s plan for striking the “deal of the century” and making “America great again”. The US President, though, is nothing if not stubborn. Inexplicably, he announced his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and broke with past administrations as well as international law. The announcement was met with protests and denunciations, with Palestinian leaders insisting that the US had totally disqualified itself — as if it hadn’t done so already — from a role as an honest broker between the conflicting parties.
Jerusalem was and remains central to the two-state solution. Why would Trump decide to strike such a blow to what had been a fig leaf for occupation and ethnic cleaning? It may have had more to do with his vision of the “ultimate deal”, which has no basis in international law, than anything else. Aligned solidly with the Israeli right, Trump seems to have had something else in mind when he spoke about making peace. If Wolff is to be believed, the Trump administration appears to be in full support of the plan proposed by extreme right-wing Israelis. Quoting a senior member of the administration he wrote, “Let Jordan take the West Bank, let Egypt take Gaza. Let them deal with it. Or sink trying.”
Such a deal may sound preposterous but in the eyes of those currently reshaping the Middle East, it is considered to be a realistic scenario; to predatory Trump it is an opportunity, in fact, as Wolff explains: “The Saudis are on the brink, Egyptians are on the brink all scared to death of Persia… Yemen, Sinai, Libya.” Chaos was necessary for the Trump doctrine to drive through a hard-line, pro-Israeli policy and hand Benjamin Netanyahu as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians on the land as possible.
Daesh in Syria
Trump’s Jerusalem announcement and the crisis in the Gulf appeared to dominate the agenda, so much so that Washington’s near two-decade war against terror seemed to have taken a back seat in 2017. On “degrading” and “destroying” Daesh, Trump will claim that he has been more successful than his predecessor Barack Obama. While Iraq has been cleared of Daesh fighters, America’s conflict with radical Islamists has intensified in other parts of the region. In Yemen and Somalia, for example, the number of US airstrikes jumped over the past year, pointing to an escalation of the global fight against terrorism. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the number of operations has shot up under President Trump; airstrikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen.
In Syria, Trump got what he wanted with an opportunity to be commander-in-chief. However, his decision to bomb a Syrian air base after 58 people were killed and dozens more wounded in Khan Sheikhun in Idlib during April, was further confirmation of the President’s erratic take on foreign policy. Events in Syria have not gone the way that the US intended. Rather than accept the new reality, Trump ordered the launch of cruise missiles on a Syrian airfield. It did not stop Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s butchery, nor did it advance US interests. What was required was a swift end to the war, no matter which side won. Trump’s misguided attempt to show strength when Daesh had been defeated in Syria could potentially have made matters worse.
Donald Trump seems to have laid out all his cards in the first year. From the Muslim ban to his Jerusalem announcement, he attempted to push through an agenda that appears to have done nothing other than appease his narrow political base. In doing so he has managed to unite the international community against him.
In trying to fit America into his version of greatness, the US President has provoked others needlessly and undermined America’s standing on the international stage. Breaking with previous US policies and the international consensus did not fulfil Trump’s fantasy of making America great again. In fact, he has diminished it. The UN vote following the Jerusalem announcement and threats to cut aid to the Palestinians were further proof of the decline of US influence and power in the world.
Every item on Trump’s “to do” list when he took his seat in the Oval Office has gone a very different way to what he and the US would have wanted. With America’s reach in the Middle East irreversibly damaged by the President, 2018 looks like being a year of constant firefighting by the Trump White House. A President fighting for his political life at home is hardly likely to have time to deal with the crises that he has helped to create in the Middle East. Despots and tyrants aided by Trump to exercise arbitrary power for their own self-interests need to realise that Donald Trump’s era may be about to end. Having risen so high on the President’s back, they may need to prepare themselves for a long and painful fall.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.