The US pivot from the Middle East will continue

December 11, 2016

Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States has created global uncertainty about the direction of US foreign policy. US allies in NATO are anxious about whether America will remain committed to European security and US trading partners in Asia are reassessing their relationship with Washing­ton in light of Trump’s pledge to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.
Even neighbourly Canada and Mexico, the United States’ biggest trading partners, are considering the potential consequences of Trump’s vow to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Middle East states also face uncertainties in terms of specific policies and relationships but at the most fundamental level, Trump’s foreign policy is likely to continue the strategic pivot away from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region that began under US President Barack Obama.
The difference — and it is an important one — is how this pivot is carried out.
Obama entered office in 2009 determined to end a decade of costly and ineffective US engagement in the Middle East, an engagement that was primarily military in nature and that aimed to establish democratic, pro-Western governments.
In the 1970s, the United States cut and ran from South-East Asia following military failure, resulting in a North Vietnamese victory, the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and a migration crisis as hundreds of thousands of boat people fled the region.
US strategic interests in South- East Asia, however, were never as vital as are US interests in the Middle East and Obama never considered a similar cut-and-run strategy. Rather, he wanted a negotiated US withdrawal from the region that would leave behind a level of stability that would continue to protect US interests.
Obama’s strategy involved 1) an agreement with Tehran to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and induce the Islamic Republic to become a responsible regional actor; 2) a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians; and 3) a multilateral response to crises so the United States did not bear the sole burden.
Obama’s strategy may have worked except for one huge unforeseen event: The “Arab spring” that erupted in 2011. Suddenly, Washington was faced with crises in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. The ensuing chaos helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and provided Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu the perfect excuse to dig in his heels on the peace process.
Despite the growing disorder, Obama signalled clearly — perhaps too clearly — that direct US military involvement would be minimal — consistent with the disengagement strategy — thus opening the door for Russia’s Vladimir Putin to insert Russian forces in Syria and become the region’s most important external player.
The fact that Russia, with its feeble economy, declining population and lack of a blue water navy, is the most powerful external actor in the Middle East says a great deal about the consequences of US disengagement.
Obama’s one success — the agreement with Iran — was a partial one, in that it was fiercely opposed by US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the verdict is still out on whether it will constrain or embolden Iran. One thing is undebatable: Tehran is a more powerful regional actor today than it was in 2009.
There is no reason to believe that President Trump will reverse Obama’s policy of disengagement from the Middle East. Like Obama, he opposes direct US military involvement and supports expanded domestic energy production to lessen dependence on imports.
What will differ is the way Trump carries out the disengagement.
Trump seems more amenable to Russia’s key role in the region and has advocated for closer cooperation with Moscow in Syria and in fighting ISIS. Indeed, Putin must have been smiling when the results came in after the election November 8th but he was not the only one: Syria’s Bashar Assad surely sighed with relief when he learned that Hillary Clinton, who had spoken of no-fly zones over Syria, had gone down in defeat.
Netanyahu was smiling, too: Although Trump told the New York Times that he wanted to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, he suggested that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would be a good potential mediator. Kushner is publisher of the fiercely pro-Israel New York Observer, a newspaper that has called Israel’s occupation a “false notion” and published articles equating pro-Palestinian student activists on US campuses with “Nazi Brown Shirts”.
Trump’s newly named national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is a big fan of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, along with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, also woke up happy on November 9th.
So where is the strategy in all this? It appears that Trump intends to continue the policy of US disengagement from the Middle East by outsourcing the region’s stability to a coalition of strong local actors, plus Putin.
Trump condemned Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran but is unlikely to abandon it; he should be able to grasp that if he does, Tehran will be strengthened, not weakened. He had criticised Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council view earlier this year.
There is no doubt that Trump, like Obama, will face unforeseen events in the next four years. Given his volatile temperament, no one can wager how he may respond to any specific surprise.
One thing, however, seems clear: The US pivot away from the Middle East will continue.