Middle Easterners first had to deal with an American president who employed military power in the region, trying to advance “regime change” and “nation building.” Then came a president who was hoping to reduce military intervention in that part of the world, allowing the Arab Spring’s “winds of change” to blow there freely.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama advanced different strategies in the Middle East. But they both left it with less freedom and more instability, while harming the interests of the U.S. and its allies.
As he begins to design the outlines of his administration’s strategy in the region, President Donald Trump is intent on replacing the Wilsonian approaches that guided both his predecessors with the Realpolitik road.
Bush and Obama assumed that helping transform the political realities of the Middle East would help stabilize the region and strengthen U.S. influence there. Bush counted on an outside pressure in the form of the Freedom Agenda, including the ousting of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the holding of elections in the Palestinian territories. Obama expected the change to come from within, riding on political revolutions that led to the collapse of pro-American regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and the downfall of an accommodating dictator in Libya.
President Trump recognizes that these policies ended up removing a strategic barrier to Iranian expansionism in the Persian Gulf while leading to the electoral victories of radical Shiites in Baghdad, of the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and of Palestine’s Hamas, to the eruption of civil wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, and eventually to the surge of the Islamic State (IS).
Instead, President Trump has decided to deal with the Middle East as it is and not based on either fantasies concocted in Washington or wishful thinking ignited by the protesters in Tahrir Square. From that perspective, he is a counter-revolutionary figure, who is re-embracing the strategy that guided Washington for most of the post-1945 era, of aligning U.S. interests with its monarchs and autocrats in the Middle East.
It was a strategy that worked quite well in terms of advancing U.S. interests in the region: Maintaining Western access to the oil resources in the Persian Gulf and of trying to forge peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, while maintaining some level of stability in the region during the Cold War and its aftermath.
Those policies helped contain Soviet expansionism in the Middle East and protect the security of the pro-American regimes and of Israel. They led to the collapse of Soviet influence in Egypt, U.S military victory in the first Gulf War, and the peace accords between Egypt, Israel and Jordan. The policies that replaced them gave us the second Gulf War, a more powerful Iran, instability in the Middle East, and the IS.
By accelerating the military from Iraq and reaching a nuclear deal with Iran while giving the cold shoulder to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, Obama hoped to lower the military and diplomatic costs resulting from the failed policies that he and Bush have pursued, only to face the growing threat of the radical Islamic terrorism in the form of the IS and a more assertive Iran.
In response to the mess in the Middle East, the strategy outlines by President Trump during his visits to Saudi Arabia, reflects a return to first principles of U.S. foreign policy: Instead of a quest for regime change and nation building, an effort to support regimes willing to cooperate with the United States in advancing its interests in the region, and to re-establish a stable status-quo and contain the radical Sunni and Shiite forces that threaten it.
And instead of engaging in make-believe “peace process” that involve bullying Israel, President Trump is urging the moderate Arab states to provide incentives to the Palestinians to take the route towards co-existence with the Jewish State. That could eventually lead to peace deal, and create the conditions under which an Arabs and Israelis work together to advance their common interests.
At the same time, recognizing that the Cold War ended a quarter-century ago, and that Russia now shares American interest in defeating Islamist radicalism, President Trump is trying to engage Moscow in diplomacy that could allow both powers to establish spheres of influence in the Middle East, under which the Russians would be obliged to discipline their client state, Syria, and pressure Damascus to distance itself from Iran.
Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists will bash this strategy as “cynical” and to argue that engaging the autocratic Arab regimes and cooperating with Russia run contrary to American interests and values. But then Washington has tried their policies for the last 16 years and it now has to deal with their disastrous consequences.