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Trump’s Middle East Policy: The Good(ish), the Bad, and the Ugly

A look back at what the administration has accomplished in the region in the past year

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

President Donald Trump came into office on a wave of angry populism, vowing to remake U.S. foreign policy to match his “America First” rhetoric. The Middle East has been a testing ground for Trump’s approach. With Vice President Mike Pence heading to the region this weekend, it’s worth taking a look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Trump administration’s policies in the Middle East to better understand where America might be headed in the region in 2018—and just how bumpy the ride could get.

The Good(ish)

It is easy to be consumed by the distractions, the outrages, and the real damage that have defined Trump’s approach to foreign policy. But taking stock also means acknowledging in good faith those places where the administration has indeed advanced U.S. interests in its first year.   

The most strategically significant gain was the retaking of territory from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where the group is in retreat. Working with the coalition and overall policy framework constructed by his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump continued to work “by, with, and through” partners to go after the Islamic State in the region. As a result, there is some good reason for cautious optimism in Iraq. Trump also managed to conduct limited strikes to punish and deter Syria’s use of chemical weapons without sliding into full-blown war. 

In addition to the anti-Islamic State campaign, the Trump team reached out to long-standing regional partners like Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and reassured them with confidence-building gestures. Trump’s first overseas trip in May 2017 took him to the Middle East, where he met with leaders from around the region in Saudi Arabia and then flew to Israel. 

The eight years of the Obama administration strained America’s traditional partnerships in the region. On the most significant policy choices—the 2011 popular uprisings and counterrevolutions that followed, the Syrian civil war and “red line” episode, and diplomacy with Iran that resulted in the 2015 nuclear deal—America’s partners saw the region differently than the Obama administration did. Any successor would have had an opportunity to reset ties with regional leaders. 

To his credit, Trump seized it. His unconditional embrace has had considerable downsides, too—and we would have set the terms for these complex but important partnerships differently—but these steps have boosted the confidence of Israel and several Arab governments in the United States.

“The good” can also be said to include what didn’t happen—dangerous policies that Trump threatened to put in place but ultimately thought better of, such as reinstating torture, stealing Iraq’s oil, introducing a blanket terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood, or unleashing a private mercenary army on Afghanistan. 

But as we learned in 2015, when President Obama finally delivered on campaign pledges he made in 2007 to remake relations with Cuba and Iran and forge an international climate deal, sometimes it takes years to translate campaign promises into foreign policy realities—an ominous prospect where Trump is concerned.

The Bad

Alongside these positive developments, the downsides and shortcomings of Trump’s Middle East policy in the first year were numerous. They offer warning signs of worse things to come in 2018 and beyond.

Over the course of his first year in office, Trump squandered the goodwill and positive leverage he had established with America’s regional partners. This is the glass-half-empty reading: Trump’s charm offensive offered reassurance from the United States without any real demands for greater responsibility from America’s partners for questionable actions that run contrary to U.S. interests and values. 

By offering countries like Saudi Arabia a blank check and telling countries like Egypt what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear, the Trump administration missed an opportunity: They built confidence but squandered U.S. leverage. Instead, the United States should encourage its closest partners to help themselves by advancing reform measures at home and taking measures to increase stability across the region. Trump’s failure to work closely with partners to move towards a resolution to the devastating war in Yemen is a case in point, as is his administration’s incoherent and divided response to the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. 

Also, by consciously downplaying freedom and human rights, the Trump administration has given the green light—implicitly and at times explicitly—to repression at home and adventurism abroad. The ongoing crackdown on basic freedoms in many countries in the Middle East will hamper efforts to win the battle of ideas, where greater openness and wider debate is essential to defeating dangerous ideologies. 

Another major shortcoming of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy is the fact that it escalated military campaigns against terrorist groups without any clear strategy for the aftermath. The Obama administration’s anti-Islamic State strategy also saw battlefield success overshadow and outpace other lines of effort, like plans for post-conflict stabilization.

But the Trump administration’s approach to such campaigns differs from his predecessor’s in two significant ways. First, the Trump administration conducted a silent surge of U.S. troops in many parts of the region, increasing the chances that American troops could get caught in the crosshairs of complicated regional fights and that the U.S. could inadvertently slide into conflict. This Trump shift also appears to have contributed to a sharp increase in civilian casualties.  

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech on Syria this week seemed to signal a new phase in U.S. policy toward the conflict there. A small U.S. troop presence will seek not just to stabilize areas liberated from the Islamic State, but apparently to counter Iran, buy leverage to remove Assad via elections, and manage flaring tensions between local partners and Turkey. It’s a tall order, especially given other nations’ larger investments. 

Second, in Yemen and Libya at least, America’s military support and counterterrorism efforts appear to be wholly divorced from a wider strategy for conflict resolution or peacemaking. That diplomatic disengagement might seem like hardheaded realism about the limits of U.S. power. But considering the human toll and how successfully extremist groups have exploited the region’s civil wars to date, it’s actually dangerously shortsighted.  

The Ugly

How the United States seeks to deal with close allies and the way it conducts military campaigns can shift from administration to administration, but Trump has taken some truly unprecedented steps that will have negative long-term consequences for U.S. influence and credibility in the Middle East and, indeed, around the world.

First, Trump’s erratic and extreme rhetoric on a broad range of issues has undermined America’s leadership position and perceptions about its steadiness and reliability. Trump’s engagement in conspiracy theories as a candidate—his accusation that the Obama administration created the Islamic State, for example—plays into the hands of figures like Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who has said the same. 

Moreover, Trump’s first major policy move in office, instituting a travel ban barring people from key Middle East countries from coming to America, sent the message that the United States does not care about the people of the region—in particular, those fleeing terrorist attacks, sectarian violence, and repression in their home countries. Trump’s December announcement that he was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem—seemingly disconnected from any plans for peace—may not have sparked the uprisings some observers feared, but it did put wind into the sails of anti-Israel and anti-American forces such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, at the expense of key partners such as Jordan’s King Abdullah.

There are some signs that leaders in the Middle East have started to adjust to Trump’s bombastic and at times unhinged outbursts. For example, Trump’s position that America should just take Iraq’s oil was dismissed and then ignored by Iraq’s leaders, who continued to work closely with the United States to defeat the Islamic State. But what will the long-term consequences be if governments in the Middle East simply start writing off what the president of the United States says? 

A second unprecedented aspect of Trump’s Middle East approach is the gap between the statements and the actual policies. This gap exists within every administration—speeches and public statements by top officials can get out ahead of actual policy decisions. But with the Trump administration, many important actors in the region are genuinely perplexed. They see a blurry amalgam of the president’s Twitter thunderbolts, the words of his cabinet secretaries, and the actual policies—and are concluding that the United States is not a reliable partner.

Case in point: On Iran policy, the Trump administration is starting to look like the boy who cried wolf. It has been nearly a year since Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn put Iran “on notice.” Yet the Trump team hasn’t presented any meaningful shifts to compete with Iran’s influence, which remains undiminished—and, in some cases, enhanced, as Trump isolates America from Europe over the fate of the nuclear deal. On the plus side, the Trump team wisely resisted proposals to fight Iran by abandoning U.S. security cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces or picking a fight with Iran inside Iraq. Meanwhile, close U.S. partners like Israel are concerned that the United States has allowed Iran to expand its influence under Russia’s umbrella next door in Syria. 

This may change in the second year, as the Trump administration appears poised to make a shift from a Middle East approach whose top priority was the defeat of the Islamic State to one focused on addressing Iran’s destabilizing policies. What this shift will means in practice—and whether it will amount to more than the rhetoric of the first year—remains entirely unclear.  

Lastly, Trump’s gutting and cutting of the State Department, the unfilled positions in U.S. embassies, and the lack of coherent policy coordination have deepened each of America’s challenges. The result has been not just a further militarization of U.S. policy, but a crisis of efficacy when it comes to mission-critical civilian capacity. 

Appetite for More Destruction?

President Trump has placed U.S. policy in the Middle East on a much different strategic trajectory than the one he inherited. But this new direction hasn’t substantially increased America’s power or its ability to influence outcomes. 

On the most complicated regionwide conflicts—Sunni versus Shia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran, monarchies and secular autocrats versus political Islamists, and citizens versus corrupt and brutal states—the Obama administration sought to stay above the fray in the hopes of bridging (or at least narrowing) the region’s glaring divides over time. Unsurprisingly, this caused friction.

By contrast, the Trump administration has decisively picked sides. It is firmly with the Sunni powers against Shia Iran; with the governments seeking to crush political Islam; and, with the glaring exception of Iran, they have sided entirely with the prerogatives of states over the rights of individuals. These are unenviable choices, with compelling arguments on both sides. And picking sides has genuine advantages in reducing the trust gap that has developed with key partners.

But it also comes with real costs. The greatest cost is that it has pushed the region further away from strategic equilibrium and toward greater state fragmentation and conflict between states. 

The new dynamic that has emerged in the region has increased the potential for conflict between states, after decades when most of the conflicts were mostly within them. The existing state structure of today’s Middle East remains weak and brittle and subject to new tensions between states across the region. It’s no longer just the main event of Saudi Arabia and its camp against Iran, it also includes a revived alignment between Turkey and Qatar. A rising tide of nationalism in some countries—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and parts of Iraq and Syria—sharpen the potential for a more conventional war breaking out in the region. 

Weak and failing states like Yemen, Libya, and Syria continue to fragment, and the Trump administration has made little serious effort to involve the United States in resolving these conflicts. Across the broader region, the Trump administration left the door open for countries like Russia and China and even the European Union to gain more influence at America’s expense. 

To top it off, there’s an even broader existential question for anyone looking to do a sober, clinical analysis of Trump’s foreign policy: Does it even matter? Is assessing the Trump administration’s Middle East policy like writing a Yelp review of the food on the Titanic? Given the political crisis at home and Trump’s erratic, performance-art style of policymaking, it’s unclear to what extent regional experts should aspire to set aside Trump’s antics and put the focus on the tectonic shifts happening in the region. Key countries and forces have been testing the limits of their power for years now, and this fluid competition for influence will keep churning, no matter what Trump says or does. 

The vicissitudes of the Middle East—not to mention American politics—have humbled wiser experts than us. But as best we can tell, one year in, the main long-term strategic consequence of squandering the leverage and influence of the United States is that it ultimately will contribute to a trend set into motion by the 2003 Iraq War: the decline of U.S. influence and the rise of the rest.