An American president’s maiden voyage to the Middle East is a harrowing high-wire act under the best of circumstances. Suffice it to say: this ain’t that.
Rarely if ever has a new president undertaken his first major trip so damaged. But if Donald Trump’s myriad scandals won’t remain at the water’s edge, waiting politely for his return, he may find a good chance to change the subject.
And make no mistake: Trump is likely to receive a warm welcome from Arab and Israeli leaders. They project their deepest hopes onto each new American president. And, unlike their citizens, leaders in the region are willing to overlook serious trespasses for an American president who shares their hostility toward Iran, political Islam, and lectures on human rights. America’s partners want Trump to succeed.
In traveling to 20-plus countries as a staffer to former Vice President Joe Biden, I saw firsthand the ever-present risk of diplomatic mishap and the headlong rush to produce “deliverables.” Undoubtedly, Trump’s trip will feature its share of these, including talk of an “Arab NATO” (an old idea whose details will determine whether it’s anything more than arms sales and a press release) and apparently an “inspiring” Trump address on Islam (a morbidly fascinating prospect given that the most ardent defender of Trump’s travel ban, adviser Stephen Miller, has the pen).
But beneath the storm of controversy that follows the president wherever he goes, how is Trump’s policy toward the region actually taking shape? Four months into a presidency is too soon for verdicts—and even the most seasoned, grounded presidencies (and again: this ain’t that) open with a period of fluidity, jockeying, and experimentation. But it’s not too soon to consider the tendencies animating Trump’s approach to date.
Despite his bombastic rhetoric, Trump’s initial approach has not marked a wholesale departure from the broadest strokes of former President Barack Obama’s policies. While this week’s limited U.S. strike inside Syria could portend a bigger shift, Trump’s earlier strikes against a single Syrian air field are the exception that proves the rule: While marketed as a repudiation of Obama’s unwillingness to intervene militarily, Trump afterwards rushed to reassert his predecessor’s restraint. Notwithstanding the strikes that lit up the Thursday night sky, Trump’s policy on Friday looked suspiciously like the one he inherited.
That’s not to say their respective policies are remotely the same. Beneath these continuities lie significant shifts in emphasis that, unless corrected, risk doing serious damage to America’s interests and position. As Trump embarks on his first trip to the Middle East as president and the region wonders what to expect, I see four trends—one encouraging, and three worrying—that have emerged:
First, encouragingly, the Trump administration is reckoning with reality and grasping its constraints. In several key policy areas, Trump is setting aside, at least for now, the most disastrous policy proposals he honed on Twitter and the campaign trail. The Iran deal he promised to shred remains in force. The American Embassy he pledged to move to Jerusalem, risking a firestorm, remains in Tel Aviv. Torture remains banned. The hyper-politicized scheme to designate the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists under U.S. law seems spiked, at least for the moment. Obama’s much-derided anti-ISIS military plan for Iraq and Syria is still essentially in place. The many instances in which Trump has trashed and then embraced Obama’s policies call to mind the old joke: “Waiter, this soup is terrible ... and such small portions!” The glaring exception, the travel ban from Trump’s first days in office, is tied up in court.
The second major theme of Trump’s policy approach is an uptick in military operations across the region and a loosening of White House oversight—without a corresponding effort to connect them to a diplomatic strategy. For example, in one week in Yemen Trump reportedly launched more airstrikes than President Obama did in any year of his presidency. But largely absent has been any meaningful pressure on Gulf countries to end a conflict that has fragmented Yemen, starved millions of its people, and empowered Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, a troubling rise in civilian casualties risks angering local populations. Syrian jets once again torment civilians from the airbase Trump bombed. Fighting continues close to where the “Mother Of All Bombs” shook the ground in Afghanistan. It is hard to conclude that the untested solution to the region’s politico-military-economic-societal thickets is more and bigger bombs.
This brings us to the third trend: reassurance without responsibility. You don’t have to share Arab leaders’ critiques of Obama’s policies—on the Arab revolutions, on Syria, on Iran’s nuclear program—to recognize that Trump has an opportunity to repair relations with longtime U.S. partners that grew frustrated with Obama. In contrast to his reputation as a hardnosed dealmaker, and to the shabby treatment of democratic allies like Australia and Germany, Trump has offered reassurance to Arab authoritarians. But he has not challenged them to address their contributions to domestic and regional instability. Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been conspicuously silent on domestic repression in the region—when not actively endorsing it or questioning America’s moral standing to object.
Repairing ties to Arab regimes is worthwhile. But warmer ties are not an end in themselves. What matters is the leverage they unlock and how Trump decides to use it. What is Trump asking for? An “Arab NATO” is a slogan until you can articulate what Arab countries will do to make it real. Will Trump convince Gulf countries to do their part to resolve destabilizing proxy wars that have polarized the region? Will he ask them to bring into the daylight their quiet intelligence cooperation with Israel? To address the discrimination, economic stagnation, and societal divisions that make Iran’s low-cost, high-yield regional meddling possible? Or will Trump simply sell more American weapons to a region awash in them but in dire need of jobs, institutions that work for citizens, and voices of progress and reconciliation? The success or failure of any “Arab NATO” will depend on the answer.
To a striking extent, Trump has looked past the people of the Middle East to speak directly to their leaders—though the people have heard plenty. Given Trump’s comments on the region’s people to date, that may be for the best.
Making everything else harder is the fourth major trend, which is Trump’s evisceration of civilian power in foreign policy. Trump’s approach seems to put defense first, diplomacy last, development never—and don’t even ask about democracy. From huge proposed budget cuts, to a glacial appointment process, to the president’s unfortunate habit of describing his foreign policy team as “my generals,” it’s clear how little Trump values the civilian institutions of foreign policy. A massive exodus of talent and institutional memory has already begun from the State Department. It will take decades to recover.
Worse still, these are the very tools America will need to assist a region in sustained upheaval. The widespread crisis of political legitimacy that sparked revolutionary protests in 2011 is unlikely to stay cryogenically frozen no matter how much Trump and Arab rulers may wish it to. As Vice President Biden often reminded his team, “Reality has a way of intruding.” When it does, the hollowing-out of America’s diplomatic capacity will look like unilateral disarmament in the face of turmoil.
Americans cannot help but view this trip through Trump’s presidency-threatening crises and the pathologies that launched them. That’s fair. But anytime a U.S. president ventures to the Middle East—even this president, even now—it represents a significant opportunity to help or harm America’s interests. In mid-1974, as his administration crumbled, a shaken President Nixon visited Anwar Sadat and helped orchestrate Egypt’s flip from the Soviet camp into the four-decade U.S. partnership Trump now seeks to resuscitate. It’s a reminder that, even when an administration looks impossibly wobbly to us, the region still looks for U.S. leadership. For all our shortcomings, the post-American Middle East remains a myth.
This trip is an opportunity to at least attempt to put forth a coherent underlying approach. Foundational questions remain unanswered. How does Trump expect to curb Iranian influence without provoking a war or shattering divided societies like Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon? Can he and America’s partners, with their capacity challenges, integrate one-off gestures into a long-term plan that meaningfully shifts the regional balance of power away from Iran? And what are Trump’s plans to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS? The closest thing to a Trump strategy to rebuild Middle Eastern societies ravaged by civil war is to close America’s doors to their people. To understate the obvious, that falls short of the mark.
Fixing Trump’s problems at home requires a team of lawyers, psychotherapists, and maybe a few priests, in case political last rites are required. A successful foreign trip, in contrast, is a more achievable goal. If Trump wishes to channel favorable optics into successful policy, he needs to look more deeply at the region’s problems, recognize that personal charm backed by military might is no substitute for a strategy and a working State Department, and ask for more from America’s partners than a lavishly friendly welcome.