President Trump’s “America First” principle is an opportunity for the United States to adopt a more productive approach to engagement with nations in the Middle East. Here are three ways the Trump Administration could get better results, without creating unnecessary new problems, thus allowing the president to stay focused on his vital domestic agenda.
2003 to 2016: What Went Wrong?
To understand what President Trump should not do, it is first necessary to clarify the mistakes of his two predecessors.
That the Iraq War was an enormous strategic disaster is obvious. But if candidate Barack Obama claimed to have learned the right lessons, as president, ironically, he became even more of a regime-change proponent than George W. Bush.
The slippery slope began with Egypt in 2011. After a series of mostly peaceful protests, President Obama inexplicably abandoned President Hosni Mubarak, an ally of 30 years, telling him he “had to go.”
Having set such a precedent, Obama likely felt compelled to do even more in Libya and Syria. He signed off on overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi, despite strong internal opposition within his cabinet, and half-heartedly tried to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Even though Washington did not cause these conflicts, picking sides in local civil wars prolonged them—contributing to more instability, suffering, and terrorism than likely would have occurred otherwise.
Finally, the bad effect of regime change policies was made worse by the Obama Administration’s commitment to reaching a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons. In practice, the arrangement has only empowered Iran at the expense of U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, further destabilizing the region. Trump was not wrong in his assessment that if “our leaders had done nothing and gone to the beach” from 2003 to 2016, the United States would be better off in the Middle East.
Confusing Symptoms for Causes
The bipartisan establishment foreign policy view of the Obama and Bush years considered problems in the Middle East to be top-down. Dictators such as Saddam Hussein were seen as the “cause” of the problem, due to their suppression of democratic activity and authoritarianism.
A more accurate diagnosis is “down-up.” The interrelated problems of the growing appeal of the anti-establishment jihadist narrative, the migration crisis, and the weakness of democratic politics, is a mere reflection of vast socio-economic, religious, cultural and tribal divergences and rivalries within Arab countries. Only through authoritarian leadership is any kind of orderly rule possible.
How President Trump Can Get Better Results
An “America First” policy in the Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter) does not mean isolationism. It means smarter and more realistic engagement that ensures U.S. interests, contributes to regional stability, and doesn’t make anything worse than it already is through counter-productive interventionism. Here are three ways to do that:
1) Keep top allies “healthily confident” as key to a successful nuclear deal and a return to regional stability.
That U.S. relations with top allies Saudi Arabia and Israel have never been worse than during the second Obama Administration must be viewed as a reflection of their sense of abandonment because of the Iran nuclear deal. Proponents of the deal can criticize Israel and Saudi Arabia all they want, but if these nations feel like they are “on their own,” they are going to do their own thing—which may or may not comport with U.S. interests.
For Saudi Arabia in particular, destabilizing activities—such as stoking the flames of civil war in Syria and their aggressive military campaign in Yemen—are driven by a rational need to project strength given their profound sense of insecurity versus Iranian aggression. This was made possible by the U.S. decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime which acted as a Sunni check against that Iranian aggression during Bush plus the nuclear deal during Obama.
One area where Trump could foster renewed Saudi confidence is by supporting their ambitious reform program, Saudi 2030, a serious attempt to fundamentally restructure the economy, create new jobs and diversify away from oil. Success would mean a Saudi government with greater prestige that it can bring to bear in its challenge from Jihadist groups, and would form the foundation for a revamped mutually beneficial U.S.-Saudi relationship.
2) Focus on economic empowerment as a new strategic “third way.”
The sources of terrorism, migration, and political instability in the Middle East ultimately can be traced to socio-economic weakness. In most Arab countries, the economic pie in a ruthlessly competitive global economy is large enough to provide social and economic status to only a small segment of the population.
The basic divide is this: roughly 20 percent of the population is content with the “establishment.” About 80 percent to varying degrees are not. It is the people from this latter group who are susceptible to the anti-establishment jihadist narrative; who seek to flee to Europe as economic migrants; and who gain nothing from the outcome of democratic elections. These elections typically do nothing to change the economic situation, thus ensuring political instability and zero-sum politics.
Addressing that economic equation is a more productive approach than the hyper-interventionism of the Bush and Obama administrations and the instinct toward total disengagement of many Trump voters. Senior Trump advisor Tom Barrack, Jr. has proposed a 21st century Middle East Marshall Plan. This should be strongly embraced. Even a few billion dollars—a drop in the bucket compared to the overall defense budget—could make a huge difference.
3) Be ruthless on counterterrorism but shift focus to addressing the underlying causes.
The United States is great at killing terrorists. Virtually every member of al-Qaida operating on September 10, 2001 has been killed or imprisoned. Yet in 2017 vastly more jihadists are ready, willing, and able to fight. In 2000 and 2001 there was one terrorist attack in the United States. Last year alone several hundred people were arrested in the United States for joining jihadist groups. For every one that has been taken out, there are literally dozens of new jihadists in the field in 2017.
The threat has shifted from one of organized terrorist groups to a decentralized anti-establishment jihadist insurgency. Understanding this is critical to addressing the underlying causes of why so many people are joining—and addressing the underlying causes would represent a major departure from a counterterrorism policy that has been focused primarily on killing terrorists.
President Trump’s reform agenda is too important to the future of the United States to jeopardize over more unnecessary and counterproductive American involvement in the Middle East. Trump’s non-interventionist instincts are correct. If the United States follows these three principles, the United States should have more productive relations with the Middle East.