Trump hardly gets an A+ for his Middle East policy

Trump and his team may be out for regime change in Iran but this policy is based on a lot of wishful thinking.
Sunday 16/12/2018
US President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, December 6. (Reuters)
Unimpressive accomplishments. US President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, December 6. (Reuters)

In an interview with Fox News — a media outlet that is often his applause station — US President Donald Trump rated his presidency an A+. For Trump-watchers in Washington, this was not surprising given his delusions of grandeur.

Trump did not distinguish between his foreign and domestic “achievements” but, after close examination, his policies on the Middle East leave a lot to be desired.

To Trump’s credit, he has fulfilled some campaign promises. Unlike previous presidents who said they would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US Embassy there, Trump carried this out. The problem is that doing so did nothing to advance the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In fact, it set the process back.

Trump said he took a contentious issue “off the table” so the parties would concentrate on other issues but that is like saying, in a labour-management dispute, that workers’ wages are no longer going to be discussed.

Trump discovered that his Jerusalem decision, while winning praise from Christian evangelicals and right-wing elements in the Jewish community, is a highly charged issue in the Middle East.

Trump’s strategy was to obtain support for his still-unveiled peace plan from prominent Sunni Muslim Arab countries in the hope they would pressure the Palestinians to accept a deal. However, once his Jerusalem policy was carried out, those countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, distanced themselves from Trump’s peace process policies.

In fulfilling this campaign pledge, therefore, Trump lost buy-in from those countries. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud last summer declared he would not support a plan that does not include a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.

Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century” is thus stuck hopelessly in second gear.

Concerning the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS), Trump partially fulfilled his campaign pledge to destroy the jihadist group. ISIS controls only a few pockets of land in Syria and Iraq.

However, despite his criticism of former US President Barack Obama’s “weak” response to ISIS, Trump essentially continued Obama’s policy of employing US air power against ISIS and supporting local forces in the ground war with a light US military footprint.

Trump’s overall Syria policy, like Obama’s, is confused. Although Trump did order air strikes against Syria in April 2017 and April 2018 for its alleged use of chemical weapons, in large part to contrast his policies with those of Obama, he is nowhere near achieving his stated goal of removing Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.

His initial desire to work with the Russians in Syria has not led to a settlement of the crisis because Moscow continues to strongly back Assad and wants to demonstrate that it is a major player in the Middle East.

As for the Iran nuclear deal, Trump did fulfil his campaign pledge to pull out of the agreement but this policy has little support in the international community and has yet to force Iran to buckle. The European partners in the deal, Britain, France and Germany, all say Trump was misguided in withdrawing, especially because Iran continues to fulfil its side of the bargain.

Although Trump’s economic sanctions against Iran’s oil exports and banks are likely to compel European companies to desist from investing in Iran out of fear that they will be penalised from doing business in the United States, Iran’s leaders are unlikely to agree to a new deal that would bring Tehran’s nuclear programme down to zero. Nor are they likely to stop their involvement in the Arab world, such as support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen.

Trump and his team may be out for regime change in Iran but this policy is based on a lot of wishful thinking. When faced with an outside threat, Iranians tend to rally around the flag.

Trump’s Yemen policy has not gone well, either. His unqualified support for the Saudi-led coalition has not led to significant gains against the Houthi rebels. Moreover, the high number of civilian deaths in Yemen and reports of near-famine conditions have sullied the US reputation.

Indicative of this sentiment, Trump’s nominees to head US Central Command and serve as ambassador to Yemen recently faced sharp questioning from US senators upset over the administration’s Yemen policy. Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, stated: “We don’t like being told we’re not involved in hostilities when bombs that are falling… are made in the United States.”

There is a bipartisan movement in the Senate, even from Trump supporters, to only stop US military involvement in the Yemen war and halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia altogether because of the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

For these reasons, Trump deserves at most a C- for his Middle East policies rather than his self-declared A+.