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Last Updated : Oct 12, 2020 02:28 PM IST | Source: New York Times

For Donald Trump, defying Mideast truisms produced breakthroughs and backfires

Disregarding norms and accepted wisdom, US President Donald Trump went his own way in the Middle East and, in some cases, got what he wanted.

New York Times
Image: AP/Evan Vucci
Image: AP/Evan Vucci

He moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, breaking with those who said it would ignite the Muslim world.

He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and ordered the killing of a top Iranian general, defying those who said the moves would lead to war.

He brokered treaties between Israel and two Arab states, disproving those who said such deals could only follow the creation of a Palestinian state.


Again and again in the Middle East, where volatility has burnished or battered previous presidential legacies, President Donald Trump has run roughshod over conventional thinking, advancing key policy aims or fulfilling campaign promises in ways that experts warned could set off a conflagration or blow up in his face.

Not only did the predicted disasters not materialize, but in many cases his policies produced demonstrable achievements.

The Arab treaties with Israel doubled the number of countries in the region that have relations with Israel. The killing of the Iranian commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, eliminated the leader of a network of dangerous militias. And the embassy move, rightly or wrongly, was a step previous administrations had shrunk from despite claiming to support it.

But the bold moves often had major drawbacks: The Iranians resumed their nuclear project, and experts believe they may have enough nuclear material to build a bomb. The killing of Soleimani scuttled any chance of negotiating a better nuclear deal with Iran, at least for now. The chances of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appeared ever more distant. And political gifts to Israel and Saudi Arabia received none of the concessions in return that would have been expected as part of a negotiation.

Trump approached the region more like a businessman than a politician, alternately squeezing adversaries and dangling economic inducements, snagging opportunities where he found them.

Remarkably, this scattershot, transactional approach bore fruit that a more strategic diplomatic approach had not. But it also failed to persuade the Palestinians to compromise on their national aspirations and the Iranians on their ideology.

Lacking an overall strategy for the region, critics say, Trump blundered in self-defeating ways, allowing Turkey to attack the U.S.’ Kurdish partners in Syria and worsening a rift among Gulf allies that has impeded the containment of Iran. And his overriding focus on helping Israel and hurting Iran led to a hands-off approach to bloody conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, which remain shattered and dangerous.

In an interview, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser on Middle East policy, said the administration sought to create a “core stability” in the Middle East, in part by promoting Israel’s acceptance by Arab states, which he argued would keep terrorism at bay, reduce the risks to U.S. soldiers and costs to its taxpayers, and put the region “on a pathway to a more stable place.”

The president, he said, “took a pragmatic approach, which was to state the goals that we want to go to — set the North Star — and then work very hard to move things toward them.”

Chief among Trump’s ambitious objectives: defeating Islamic extremists, bringing Iran to heel and achieving what he called the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians.

During his term, the Islamic State group lost its territorial caliphate, and attacks by its supporters that once frequently terrified the West have grown rare, although the group remains a potent underground threat, launching frequent deadly attacks in Iraq, Syria and West Africa.

The other goals largely eluded him.

The Palestinians rejected Trump’s peace deal, and the prospect of its resuscitation appears remote. Iran has resumed enriching uranium — a direct consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement — which has brought it closer to being able to make a bomb. And its allied militias are rocketing the U.S. embassy in Baghdad so often that the Americans have threatened to close it.

Trump prioritized arms sales over human rights, standing by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia after his agents murdered dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi and he waged a disastrous war in Yemen. And his plan to sell F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates shows signs of setting off a new regional arms race.

His emphasis on deal-making, critics say, has ignored all but the economic sources of the region’s many problems.

“The Middle East is not a bazaar,” said Lina Khatib, an expert on the region at Chatham House, a London research group. “And to try to solve its crises by treating it that way simply does not work.”

Dead Peace Plan, Diplomatic Coup

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the setting for Trump’s biggest failure, may also be where he leaves the most enduring mark.

Eager to succeed where no other president had, he confronted the conflict quickly, cheering Palestinians who had dreaded being ignored — only to demoralize them by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy, steps widely seen as irreversible.

The predicted uprising did not occur, but the Palestinians boycotted Trump. And he pushed them further away, slashing funding, expelling their diplomats from Washington and eliminating a consulate in Jerusalem devoted to their interests.

When the long-awaited Trump “Vision for Peace” emerged in January, it read as if it had been drafted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, snubbing the main Palestinian demands and encouraging Israeli annexation of occupied West Bank territory. The Palestinians dismissed it in the most vehement terms.

In a twist, though, the talk of annexation made possible a diplomatic coup.

Annexation stalled amid Israeli political opposition, but it created an opening for a deal: In exchange for Israel’s “suspending” annexation, the UAE would bring its under-the-radar ties with Israel into the open. The small Gulf kingdom of Bahrain followed.

More broadly, what had driven the UAE into Israel’s arms was the Trump administration’s waning commitment to the region and newfound doubts about its willingness to send its military to the rescue, particularly after Trump refused to retaliate against Iran after accusing it of attacking Saudi oil facilities last year.

“The Emiratis were looking around for who they could rely on,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. envoy to peace talks and ambassador to Israel. The region’s strongest military was the obvious answer.

For the Palestinians, it was perhaps the unkindest cut: Much of their strategy to pressure Israel relied on Arab solidarity to deny Israel the acceptance it craved.

For the Trump administration, a dud product launch became a marketing bonanza. “We were nimble and opportunistic,” said David Friedman, the ambassador to Israel.

Moreover, Kushner argued, the deals with the UAE and Bahrain would eventually force the Palestinians to come around. “They’re only going to be tough for as long as they have the resources,” he said.

But few expect the Trump peace plan to be the basis of any future talks.

“If you have parameters which are only supported by Israel and rejected by the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Europeans and so on, they’ll probably not hold for long,” said Michael Herzog, a veteran peace negotiator and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Maximum Pressure, Limited Results

Trump focused much of his attention on Iran, which he called the Middle East’s greatest generator of instability through its support for a network of militias active across the Arab world.

President Barack Obama had sought to entice Iran with the promise of sanctions relief and engagement with the West, an approach that led to an international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

Trump declared that deal a failure for not addressing Iran’s missile program and aggressive behavior and for permitting it to resume unconstrained uranium enrichment in 2030. So he replaced carrots with sticks, withdrawing from the agreement and launching a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at constricting Iran’s finances.

In January, Trump took aim at Iran’s regional militia network, ordering the killing of its architect, Soleimani.

The approach alienated Western allies but won Trump plaudits from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, rivals of Iran who resented Obama’s negotiations with their nemesis.

“Showing Iran the big stick, that was needed,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist. “This guy was Public Enemy No. 1 for many countries.”

The pressure campaign — including sanctions on Iran’s oil sales and financial transactions — has choked its economy. Its currency plunged nearly 50% against the dollar in the last month. Iranian officials have spoken frankly about the distress but remain dismissive toward Trump.

“He hasn’t got a deal, he hasn’t changed the regime, he hasn’t made Iran withdraw from the region, and he has undermined moderates in Iran,” said Vali Nasr, an Iran expert and former State Department adviser.

Trump and his allies say the policy has reduced the Iranian threat by degrading its ability to finance militias in Iraq and Syria, the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“That’s money denied, it’s resources unavailable, it’s terror attacks avoided,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview.

Iran has also dialed down provocative activity in the Persian Gulf in recent months, which administration officials cast as a direct result of U.S. pressure. Iranian politicians, however, say it reflects a fear that conflict would only help Trump win a second term.

Kushner said Trump’s policies gave the United States a strong negotiating position. “The table’s set. Iran right now is stone-cold broke,” he said. “The goal here hasn’t been to make a deal. The goal here has been to try to set the table to make a good deal.”

But such talks seem remote. Iranian politicians said the Soleimani killing would bar the country’s leaders from negotiating with Trump.

“Even if he gets reelected, it will be impossible,” said Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, a reformist politician.

For now, Iran’s militia network remains active, and its nuclear program is up and running — and rapidly approaching the ability to build a bomb.

Changes to Reckon With

Regardless who wins the November election, Trump has brought about changes in the Middle East that the next administration must take into account.

The momentum toward normalization agreements could continue, with Saudi Arabia, whose stance toward Israel has warmed under Crown Prince Mohammed, looming as the largest potential prize. A future U.S. administration could use that enticement to press Israel for concessions toward the Palestinians. But there is much concern in Israel about how the Palestinians would react to their abandonment by more of the Arab world.

With Iran’s government in dire financial straits, some of its regional allies have questioned how long it can hang on. The next administration could use that distress as leverage, even if in the pursuit of drastically different objectives.

Trump’s transactionalism may also have limits: Sudan’s new leaders have so far refused to normalize relations with Israel despite substantial financial incentives because doing so could leave them “morally compromised” among their people, said Ofer Zalzberg, Middle East director at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation.

Still, the id on display in Trump’s policies has earned measured praise in unlikely quarters.

Even some critics said Trump’s lack of interest in traditional talking points about democracy and human rights had brought a new frankness to age-old discussions about the U.S.’ dealings with autocrats.

“It takes away the illusions some people have convinced themselves of that we used to be a force for good,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy research director at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“The harm is significant,” she hastened to add. “We don’t get that soft power back right away.”

And Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group and a former senior Obama administration official for the Middle East, said Trump’s record held at least one lesson for his successors: The prospect of blowback from critics and allies need not be paralyzing.

“They may not like what we’re doing,” he said, but Trump had shown that “if it’s in our interest to do it, we just need to forge ahead.”

By David M. Halbfinger, Ben Hubbard and Farnaz Fassihi

c.2020 The New York Times Company
First Published on Oct 12, 2020 02:28 pm