President Trump’s speech last Tuesday before a joint session of Congress did not go into great depth on foreign affairs. However, it did offer several key statements about the meaning and intent of his “America First” approach to foreign policy.
One of the most important statements was only a few lines, but it was also quite revealing:
We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations.
Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people—and America respects the rights of all nations to chart their own path. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off, when there is less conflict—not more.
The entire concept of America First has been derided by critics as an expression of isolationism, as an expression of selfishness on the part of the United States at the expense of other nations. In fact, Trump’s words about respecting the “sovereign right of nations to chart their own path” makes plain that exactly the opposite is the case.
America First is a recognition that the nation state is the most natural, transparent and orderly conduit for conducting relations with other states. The core factor at play in this arrangement is national interest which affords a maximum transparency and clarity, and therefore stability.
Equally important, this approach treats sovereign governments in the Middle East as “equals” on this playing field which, consequently, provides more incentive for them to take an active role in contributing to addressing major security problems within their region, especially.
While the media will not necessarily report it, all of America’s traditional allies, especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, despised the foreign policy of the Obama administration, and are now responding in positive ways to Trump.
To illustrate why this is so let us first look at an analysis of Trump’s approach from the “America Not First” perspective of Rob Malley, former President Obama’s point man on the Middle East, in a February 28 Washington Post article:
For clues as to how the Trump administration would like to deal with the Middle East, one need not look too far. As a candidate, and then as president, Donald Trump laid out three overarching principles that, one suspects, his national security team is busy trying to stitch together: to quickly defeat the Islamic State; to aggressively push back against Iran, imposing a steep price for its hostile activities; and to put “America First” —a concept that, applied to U.S. policy in the region, translates roughly into avoidance of costly, opened-ended military entanglements. The principles are clear, understandable and irreconcilable: the administration could have one, or even two of the three, but not all of them at once. If it wants a robust approach to the Islamic State and an aggressive stance towards Iran, it will need to substantially ramp up U.S. military involvement. If it insists on keeping those numbers low and aspires to go after the Islamic State nonetheless, it will have to postpone the goal of decisively challenging Iran. And if it wants to confront Tehran while keeping the U.S. presence within bounds, the fight against the Islamic State inevitably will suffer.
What’s the most noteworthy takeaway?
Malley, supposedly a champion of engagement and anti-isolationism, does not once mention our allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the UAE. It is as if there are no U.S. allies in the region. He fails to mention them because the Obama Administration’s “America Not First” approach meant the United States had no choice but to play the dominant role in the region, given that we alienated all of our traditional allies.
Let’s walk through how Team Obama got us to this point.
It started in 2011, when President Obama told Hosni Mubarak, an ally of 30 years, that he “must go”—essentially throwing him under the bus out of some naïve desire to be on the “right side of history.” The message to sovereign rulers around the region was clear: if Mubarak wasn’t safe nobody was.
That counter-productive instinct next led to the United States leading the campaign to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi—a ruler who had made real moves to bolster his ties to the United States in the preceding years—merely because he made a couple of speeches some took as threatening. Obama then took sides in the Syrian Civil War, half-heartedly attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. This achieved no lasting or tangible benefit to America and only served to prolong a brutal and now, apparently, savage war.
Even more damaging to U.S. alliances in the region was Obama’s insistence that reaching an Iran nuclear deal was absolutely imperative. In the process, the administration all but abandoned old allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, treating them with disdain and giving them less incentive to cooperate with the United States.
The Obama administration’s neglect of allies set into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. If America treats its allies with contempt, those allies will decline to to help us counter Iran or fight ISIS. Under these conditions, the United States must necessarily play the dominant role in the Middle East.
By contrast, President Trump’s more traditional “America First” approach is simple and easily understood. By choosing to make clear that America is approaching the Middle East on the traditional nation-state to nation-state basis, he is restoring a clear sense of order and a predictability to Washington’s dealings with the region. Accordingly, the United States is poised to restore positive relations with its traditional allies in the region.
Take for example, the refugee crisis. The Saudis in particular were treated with contempt by President Obama and responded accordingly. They had no incentive to lift a finger to help out with the Syrian refugee problem. President Trump, by restoring a good relationship with Riyadh, is in position to negotiate with them to play a major role. For example, in a call shortly after taking office, the king of Saudi Arabia agreed to play a major role in facilitating safe zones in Syria to help displaced persons from that war.
Iran poses another challenge—and illustrates the difference in the two U.S. approaches. Whereas Malley and Team Obama, after alienating our allies, had no option but to take the lead role in dealing with ISIS and in checking Iran, President Trump wants those allies, all on the front lines in this war, to play the leading role.
For example, on March 2, Yusuf Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal speaking positively of the Trump administration’s eagerness to rebuild U.S. relationships with its traditional Gulf allies in countering Iran. But Otaiba also tied those strengthened ties to greater effectiveness in making headway solving each of the major regional security issues.
Finally, a third problem is in countering ISIS. Malley seems to think that only the United States faces the threat from the Islamic State. But the chief target of radical jihadists are local Muslim governments. It is therefore not surprising that under President Trump, Saudi Arabia is talking about sending in ground troops to Syria.
America First is not of a piece with an unthinking or absolutist isolationism. It’s a realistic approach to dealing with the world the way it is. It does not mean that America likes every aspect of Middle Eastern regimes. But it does recognize that working with them in a pragmatic way is the only realistic approach to getting positive results for Americans and our allies in the region. For that reason, all of our allies in the Middle East are excited and optimistic about the Trump Administration’s approach compared to the “America Not First” approach of President Obama.