Trump’s Mideast legacy: The good, the bad and the ugly

November 2020
Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

The termination of Donald Trump’s presidency signals the end of an era in US involvement in the Middle East with its attendant good, bad and ugly aspects. The Trump Administration is said to have adhered to Obama White House policy of gradual withdrawal from the Middle East, a correct assessment as far as it pertains to the US presence in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The same cannot be said regarding its diplomatic and economic involvement in several key arenas, among them Iran, the Gulf States, US-Arab relations including the Palestinian problem, Turkey, Libya and more.

The Trump Administration was deeply involved in the Iranian nuclear issue, pulling the US out of the agreement with Tehran, imposing economic sanctions and ordering the assassination of Revolutionary Guards Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Israel and the Gulf States welcomed the aggressive US policy on Iran, rightly perceived as a success story given the country’s economic difficulties. However, freed from the agreement that tied its hands, Iran moved ahead with its nuclear program, amassing additional enriched uranium and developing sophisticated enrichment centrifuges, thereby shortening its breakout time. That is bad.

Iraq, too, remained high on the US agenda given concern over Iran’s influence there. Trump continued Obama’s troop withdrawal policy to a large extent, but Iraqi Prime Minister Moustafa Al-Kadhimi visited Washington in August 2020 and US economic aid continued to flow to Baghdad. Despite the troop drawdown, local protests against the US presence have intensified, especially since Soleimani’s killing. The US has adopted a variety of diplomatic and economic measures to undermine Iran’s influence in Iraq, but the pullout, which appears to include vacating the US Embassy in Baghdad, does not augur well for reducing Iran’s influence. That is bad.

Trump promised to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The “deal of the century”, the pretentious name chosen for his plan, came into the world after prolonged labor in January 2020. It was a unilateral blueprint designed to address Israel’s security problems but offering the Palestinians very little: A mini state bound by impossible borders. Their refusal to consider the plan presented the Palestinians as serial rejectionists. Truth be told, the Trump plan could not have served as a real basis for negotiations because of its one-sided nature. In fact, Trump lost the traditional US role as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians after a series of moves that included closing the Palestinian mission in Washington, slashing US aid to the Palestinian Authority, suspending aid to UNRWA, declaring the Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria “not illegal”, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy there. In moving the embassy, the broker handed Israel an important bargaining chip for free. From the Palestinian standpoint, this was both bad and ugly.

Trump, unlike Obama, restored the historic US alliance with the Gulf States and Egypt in recognition of their political and strategic importance in the Middle East, especially in the campaign against Iran. Strengthened US military ties with the Gulf States enabled the breakthrough in Israel’s relations with the Emirates and Bahrain. The signing of the peace agreements regardless of the Palestinian issue (other than suspending the annexation plan that had become moot in any case) paved the way for peace with Sudan, and perhaps with other states once the Biden Administration is installed. The launch of maritime border negotiations between Israel and Lebanon was also a welcome US initiative. This is all good. However, it turns out that there is something of the bad in this good: The concept that Israel can make peace with Arab states without resolution of the Palestinian problem. The Arab peace agreements with Israel could have strengthened the US hand in promoting a solution to the Palestinian issue. While the US still holds a full deck (with Saudi Arabia and others possibly joining the initiative), its ace has undoubtedly turned into a jack (or less) in the diplomatic poker game.

Trump did not strive for achievements in Syria other than crushing the disastrous Islamic State organization, which he did with considerable success, including the October 2019 killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, Trump’s zigzagging policy on Syria left a vacuum that enabled renewed Russian influence and provided Turkey and Iran with footholds there. The gradual US withdrawal and growing Iranian influence in Syria forced Israel to intervene in order to prevent Iran from turning Syria into a frontline post. Obama shares Trump’s failure in Syria, which in any case is bad.

Trump’s Turkey policy was schizophrenic. On the one hand, he hosted President Erdogan in November 2019, viewing him as a global partner and adopting his policy on the Syrian Kurds, including the military campaign against them. On the other hand, Trump ignored the growing ties between Russia and Turkey and the sale of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey. The US did not respond to this challenge posed by Turkey as a NATO member state, nor did it act to counter Turkey’s aggressive moves in Libya – both its military involvement there and the marking of a maritime border between Turkey and Libya, moves that could threaten the Mediterranean gas energy ambitions of Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus. That is bad.

In the final analysis, Trump’s Middle East policy was a failure, even though some in Israel regard it as a great success. It was not the result of a clear strategy or deep thought, except, perhaps, regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan – but the thinking behind that was biased and flawed.

The election of a new US administration raises concerns of an accelerated US pullout from the Middle East in favor of a US diplomatic and economic focus on Asia. Martin Indyk, a senior adviser on the Middle East in previous Democratic administrations, recently argued that the US no longer has prominent interests in the Middle East since it no longer depends on the region’s oil, whereas Israel is sufficiently strong to take care of itself. If this concern is borne out, that would be bad news. However, such a development could also result in boosting relations between Israel and the moderate Sunni states united by their fear of Iran. It could also provide an opportunity for an Israeli-Emirati-Saudi initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the blessing of the United States.

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