According to Donald Trump’s “America first” policy, the United States is putting its own interests into the foreground in the Middle East. Though, it is a few steps away from the role of being a stabilizing actor in the region, America resulted an active foreign policy. Besides protecting the traditional American interests in the Middle-East, fighting against terrorism, confronting Iran, the redefinition of the Palestinian-Israeli-Arab relationship are in the center of this active foreign policy. In the first part of our series, we analyze the Trump administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
Trump, the principled realist
Donald Trump’s foreign policy strategy is one of the most controversial points in the President’s policies. According to some critical opinions, the President has no foreign policy strategy at all, and his decisions are much more characterized by randomness and improvisation, while other experts claim the President is indeed acting along a lightly definable strategy which has a completely different approach to foreign policy in terms of worldview, decisions and rhetoric. Thus, beyond ambiguous Twitter messages and more intense media appearances, we would like to provide a brief summary of Trump’s foreign policy strategy for the Middle East.
The reason for the experts’ debates regarding the President's foreign policy may also be that it is very difficult to place it in the theoretical coordinate system of traditional foreign policy and international relations. His strategy cannot be described purely based on conservativism or liberalism, but not even the theories of realism, neither isolationism nor interventionism gives it a precise, comprehensive definition. However, the so-called “Trump doctrine” draws from each of these theories. Marked with the slogan of “America first,” by a strategy that can be best described as a realistic approach, Trump intends to reinterpret the role of the United States in that liberal international system which it has created. The President has expressed several times that he intends to accomplish his country’s international relations and foreign policy acts more along its interests, thus restoring the position of the United States as a world leading power. In the spirit of this, several international treaties and conventions have been renegotiated or denounced considered by the President as “bad business” for the United States. This mindset also explains the larger troop withdrawals from several regions where the presence of U.S. soldiers has so far been unbroken. This, often-called isolationist and nationalist shift in the U.S. foreign policy, is also true in the case of the Middle East.
For decades, U.S. interests in the Middle East have not changed significantly: unhindered access to energy resources in the Persian Gulf, helping maintain Israel’s security, fighting terrorism, and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are still very much on the agenda. However, achieving these goals took a new approach during the Trump administration. Sean Yom, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, said we are witnessing the strategic retreat of the United States in the Middle East, but interestingly not due to the depletion of financial or military resources, but rather the realization that protecting major American interests such as security, (economic) prosperity, and maintaining the “American way of life” do not require retaining the U.S. hegemonic role in the region at the level as before.
Of course, the global power backstepping from the Middle East’s stage does not mean it is completely abandoning its interests in the region, nor does it mean it is turning away from its former allies. Moreover, in order to achieve its interests, the US intends to give a greater role to its regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel or as we have seen the Kurds - as in the case of Syria. But it must be admitted that neither radical Islamic terrorism (ISIS, al-Qaeda) nor the situation in Iran - the US’s top-tier concern in the region - pose a threat to Americans on their homeland, they are more of a regional problem. We have seen stronger actions against these two threats, but neither of them requires maintaining larger U.S. military presence, nor does it justify ceasing further troop withdrawals from the region. As regards Iraq and Afghanistan, the President has often expressed his aversion on the less effective but more expensive regime changes and democracy building that the US pursued in the past.
Three wishes à la Trump
The above laid down theoretical and strategical framework has had a number of exact military, political, and diplomatic manifestos that have shown that stepping back from the Middle East does not automatically result an inactive foreign policy from the United States. Dennis Ross, former diplomat, who served as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, groups the Trump administration’s most significant foreign policy steps and decisions around three key elements or fields of action.
The first element is the counter Islamic State / terrorism approach. Even during his campaign, Donald Trump promised stronger military action against ISIS and the breaking down of the terrorist organization. By 2017, as a result of the international joint military operation against ISIS, launched in 2014, the terror organization almost completely lost its territories previously held. Trump announced the defeat of the Islamic State, which he saw as the success of his own administration. As well as the death of the leader of the terrorist organization, Abu Bakra al-Baghdad, in October 2019 in a US military raid. Another important step in the fight against terrorism was the killing of Qassem Soleimani, who, as commander of the Iranian al-Quds forces, representing the regime's violent expansion policy, was responsible for conducting a number of military operations and terrorist acts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Confrontation with Iran: Under the “maximum pressure” policy, Donald Trump has taken a number of steps against the Persian state’s expansion and its pursuit of nuclear weapons by which it is destabilizing the region. Some of these serious measures were the US’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA), imposing severe sanctions on the Persian state and Iranian individuals, causing serious hardship to their economy. Or designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, as the first official national force to be added to the list of foreign terrorist organizations. As mentioned before, Killing Soleimani is also of strategic importance regarding Iran's aspirations in the region. Iran has also taken several steps in the while, which resulted escalating tensions between the two countries with the possibility of a military intervention by the US. Such an event was the shooting of the American drone at the Strait of Hormuz, or the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, which led the U.S. to strengthen further its military capacity at its Gulf ally. As a result of these events, as well as the frequent and very aggressive tweets from the leaders of both sides, some predicted military conflict and another war in the Middle East for the United States.
The third group of Trump's foreign policy decisions in the Middle East can be linked to the so-called “Ultimate deal,” an attempt at the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli relations. For Israel, Trump’s presidency opened a whole new chapter in the relationship between the two countries, which as Benjamin Netanyahu said has never been so close and friendly before. This is due to, inter alia, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; allowing Israel to extend sovereignty over the Golan Heights, or withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council because of its “chronic anti-Israel bias”. These decisions, in addition to expressing the United States’ absolute support for the Jewish state, have resulted an excessive Israeli-centered foreign policy in the region, which by no means created a proper milieu for another Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, according to some experts. Handled by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the “peace plan of the century” was revealed in January 2020. At that time, critical voices reckoned with another Palestinian intifada and an even more declining Arab-Israeli relations, but this is not what happened. Although the Palestinian side even refused to sit down at the negotiating table and the Arab League completely rejected the peace plan, it still seems that the consensus among Arab countries in the region on their approach towards Israel is loosening, as the events of recent weeks have shown.
The changing dynamics and geopolitical transformation of the Middle East which the Abraham-accords has birthed will be discussed in the next article.