Trump’s unpredictability factor in the Middle East
For a young presidency beset by endless controversy, self-created crises and failures, Donald Trump’s recent Middle East trip was a welcome respite from domestic woes and a highlight of his administration thus far. But how close are we to seeing the emergence of a coherent, distinctive Trump policy in the region?
Several core themes have certainly emerged that distinguish Trump’s Middle East approach from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, while continuing and somewhat intensifying existing policies on, say, counterterrorism.
The most obvious is his emphasis on rebuilding ties with traditional regional partners, especially Gulf Arab countries and Israel. Both had become alienated by Obama’s risk aversion and outreach to Iran and both are now clearly hoping that Trump’s policies will strengthen their hands, as he is essentially promising.
Key to rebuilding ties with both is Trump’s emphasis on opposing Iran’s regional ambitions. Trump has clearly made Washington’s tone towards Tehran more confrontational. He is maintaining the nuclear agreement, albeit with new non-nuclear sanctions, but, at least rhetorically, taking a much harder line than Obama.
He also appears to be much more willing to use military force, particularly in Syria where US forces struck regime targets three times in six weeks, including in support of rebel groups on the ground. Strikes in Yemen have greatly increased as well.
Trump is determined to re-engage in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, taking a level of personal ownership of the issue Washington has not seen since early in Obama’s first term. Trump’s idea to add an outside-in Arab regional component to the peace process mix tries to build on Washington’s restored regional relations to find a way forward between Israel and the Palestinians.
Finally, the administration’s calculated downplaying of human rights, insistence that Washington will no longer lecture its partners and that there will be little criticism of their internal policies changes the optics, if not the substance, of Washington’s traditional stance on American values on the international stage.
The Trump administration prides itself on being transactional, not judgmental, and it claims that behind-the-scenes, quiet diplomacy will get more results, at least for detained Americans, than public pressure, especially when decoupled from any real policy consequences.
So there are clearly emerging themes that are distinctive to Trump’s Middle East policies but do they add up to a new or coherent approach? A number of core problems suggests not, or at least not yet.
None of this really adds up and most of it is still rhetorical. The level of policy incoherence remains overwhelming. Trump administration officials — particularly US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley — have contradicted themselves and each other so often it is dizzying.
In the space of a few weeks the administration flipped from allowing that Syrian President Bashar Assad was a “political reality” in Syria they must accept to insisting that he must, after all, be removed. That is an improvement but also a whipsaw.
There is also a real danger that the administration’s “tough talk” could box it into avoidable conflicts by raising the stakes beyond what is needed or intended.
The claim that military actions in one theatre, such as Syria or Afghanistan, signal a credible threat to, or intimidate, different adversaries in another theatre — North Korea or Iran — is far-fetched, although they might hearten allies.
Transactional, realistic and America-first approaches may look hard-nosed, nationalistic and tough but they can also be interpreted as reflecting a lack of American leadership more than a reassertion of it. There is a strong argument they amount to a capitulation to existing regional realities without any effort to push back against or reshape them, resulting in an American approach that is shallow, opportunistic and, in its own way, effectively passive.
Washington remains deeply hampered, if not in some ways crippled, by the institutional and administrative weaknesses of this administration, particularly the lack of second- and third-tier leadership in key institutions, and extreme demoralisation, particularly at the State Department.
Finally, Trump has introduced, perhaps deliberately, an unheard-of level of unpredictability in American policy in the Middle East. He is said to value unpredictability and he clearly revels in chaos. That is nice for him but the United States seeks to serve as the quintessential status quo power and guarantor of regional security and stability in the Middle East.
Unpredictability might create certain unexpected opportunities and keep adversaries on their toes, but, very quickly, diminishing returns set in. Very quickly unpredictability destroys any agenda of maintaining order.
Unpredictability can work for disruptive, anti-status quo powers such as Iran or North Korea but it is devastatingly self-defeating for status quo powers.
Unless Washington completely redefines its role in the Middle East, Trump’s personal, political and policy unpredictability will continue to undermine, if not sabotage, the American regional agenda.