Uncertainties in the Middle East after Trump’s first 100 days in office
Washington - US President Donald Trump has used his first 100 days in office to reassure partners in the Middle East about Washington’s renewed commitment to that part of the world but he has done little to offer substantial policies to tackle the numerous problems the region is facing.
In a sign of Trump’s increased attention to Middle East partners after the policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama, left some US allies feeling abandoned by Washington, the new administration has hosted a series of key players from the region since it took over in January.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz have been among Trump’s guests at the White House.
King Abdullah met with Trump twice. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is expected in Washington soon and a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled for mid-May.
Trump’s meetings with Middle Eastern leaders were accompanied by vows to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq and by harsh words against Iran, seen by Washington as the biggest troublemaker in the region. At the same time, Trump signalled that his administration was less concerned with human rights issues than Obama. The most obvious sign was Trump’s decision to invite Sisi to Washington, a gesture Obama avoided because of alleged rights violations in Egypt.
As Trump marked his 100th day in office on April 29, a symbolic marker used to measure successes and failures of a new administration in US politics, the record on Middle East issues is mixed.
Reassuring US allies has been a “significant change” under Trump after the Obama years, said David Mack, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs and former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who works for the Middle East Institute in Washington.
That reassurance has not been followed up by new visions for the region. Trump has been following many policies pursued by Obama, despite Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric that promised big changes. “So far, he hasn’t kept any of his promises,” Mack said.
The Trump administration is sticking to the international nuclear agreement with Iran, even though the president said he would tear it up. The United States has not moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite Trump’s pledge to do that. The policy to confront ISIS still relies on US air strikes and limited support for local forces on the ground, a strategy largely unchanged from the one under Obama.
Even Trump’s missile attack on a Syrian airbase in response to the reported use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces was not much of a departure from Obama’s line, Mack said. “Obama would have done the same thing if they had tested him again. They thought they could get away with it under Trump,” he said about the Syrians.
Some observers said Trump’s often undiplomatic style and Twitter outbursts can hide the fact that his administration is not straying far from the beaten path. Trump has kept close “to the policies of his Democratic predecessor and the Republican establishment,” despite his “unsettling personal style, impulsiveness and bracing tweets,” Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and Richard Sokolsky of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in Politico, a Washington publication.
Top Trump aides in Middle East matters, such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster or Defence Secretary James Mattis, are representatives of the traditional US policy in the region and have helped to push the administration’s approach to the centre. That move was made easier by the fact that “Trump is not fixed on specific policies,” said David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
A newcomer to the world of foreign policy, the president has adapted to realities in his first 100 days and has found it relatively easy to jettison some of his more radical campaign pledges, Mednicoff argued. “We have actually learned that Trump can change,” he said. He added that the Trump administration was more flexible on Middle East issues than other new governments because it did not come into office with a fixed set of ideas on what to do in the region.
As the president and his team feel their way forward, that lack of strategy can lead to confusion. “US Ambassador to the [United Nations] Nikki Haley declared that peace in Syria would require [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s departure while [Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] stated that Assad’s fate was up to the Syrian people to decide,” Miller and Sokolsky wrote. “The mixed signals sow further confusion and doubt about who’s speaking for the administration on foreign policy.”
Even when Trump is speaking, things are not always clear. In February, he suggested that the United States was no longer backing a two-state solution to solve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict but Haley stated only a day later that Washington remained committed to the two-state model.
There is even less clarity when it comes to the future of the region. No US vision for Syria beyond the aim of defeating ISIS is known. Mack said the Trump administration would probably be reluctant to pay for the reconstruction of war-torn Syria once a political solution became possible. The president has expressed his objection to nation-building in other parts of the world. As with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the way forward is unclear.
“I don’t think Trump himself knows,” Mack said. “He is kind of making those things up as he goes. We simply don’t know.”