Assessing Trump’s ‘unorthodox’ 2018 Middle East policies

While some analysts criticized the president’s unconventional approach to the region, others contended it was exactly what was needed to shake up a long-dormant peace process

By TERRANCE J. MINTNER/THE MEDIA LINE
January 6, 2019 01:29
4 minute read.
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a news conference following Tuesday's midterm congressional el

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a news conference following Tuesday's midterm congressional elections at the White House in Washington, US, November 7, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

 
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When it comes to US President Donald Trump’s approach to the Middle East, many analysts have noted that 2018 has been a confusing year. The perplexity, they contend, stems from the commander-and-chief’s unorthodox and unpredictable style.

Judging President Trump’s seriousness on various proposals – such as his latest bid to remove US troops from Syria and downgrade America’s military presence in Afghanistan – has been notoriously difficult. Critics say he often appears to weigh foreign policy decisions while giving off-the-cuff statements to the press, a thinking-out-loud modus operandi that some say has sown uncertainty in a volatile region.

On the other hand, supporters note he has made good on past pledges, namely by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the US Embassy to the holy city in May. Such a tack, they believe, is exactly what is needed to dislodge and shake up the long-stalled Middle East peace process.

With regard to Iran, the Trump administration has reimposed tough economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic after unilaterally withdrawing from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. While some say the move is necessary in order to curb Tehran’s regional adventurism and support for its terror proxies like Hezbollah, others have sharply attacked his Syrian withdrawal, fearing the chief executive has just lavished the mullahs in Tehran with a big New Year’s gift.

Fred Menachem, a political analyst, opined to The Media Line that in light of these decisions President Trump appears to be an isolationist who ran for the presidency on that premise.
“He promised his base he would ‘put America first’ and now appears to be delivering on that vow by pulling troops out of the region’s conflict zones,” Menachem said.

“But frankly, his foreign policy changes depending on whom he spoke with last. He talks to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and then decides to remove US troops from Syria. He has lunch with Sen. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and decides to slow down the withdrawal.”

Tim Ripley, a London-based defense analyst who has written extensively on Syria’s war, agreed that President Trump has made isolationist remarks, such as “the need of getting America out of foreign wars, but has never really explained how to do that,” he told The Media Line.

“Allegedly, it has all been ascribed to this telephone call between Trump and Erdogan in which the latter said ‘I have a plan’ and Trump responded, ‘great!’ Therefore, it has been a bit nebulous what the president’s policy is. Maybe he grasps at someone who says what he wants to hear.”

Nevertheless, President Trump has always had a gut rejection of foreign wars and big spending on defense, a stance that is at odds with members of his own administration who tend toward a “traditional” or “interventionist” stance, Ripley explained.

Dr. Martin Sherman, Executive Director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that “as far as being on board with Israel, President Trump’s approach has been very positive and consistent, minus his recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria.”

Regarding Iran, he compared President Trump to his predecessor Barack Obama, whom he said failed to produce much in terms of results despite his experience and calculations.
“If President Trump manages to debilitate the Iranian regime and replace it with a more amenable government, he would certainly deserve great credit. In contrast to Obama, Sherman contends, the incumbent has shown that no deal is preferable to a bad one.”


“In many ways, the jury is still out on the long-term impact of the current chief executive’s moves. Still, President Trump has changed the way America is viewed; it is more feared and respected than before.”

Professor Yossi Mekelberg, who teaches international relations at Regent’s University in London, told The Media Line that “it is difficult to know the logic behind Trump’s greater strategy, and if such a strategy exists.”

About the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mekelberg complains that the president, “talks about the ‘deal of the century’ but nobody takes it seriously anymore. It is a peace plan in reverse. First, he puts in place what one would expect his proposal to contain, and then wavers on whether to introduce it or not.”

The president has already dramatically shifted the landscape by declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital without addressing whether the holy city will also be the capital of a future state called Palestine, angering many in the Arab world, he explained. “This is one of the most sensitive and important issues in any potential negotiation.”

When it comes to the American isolationism which Trump champions, Mekelberg called the idea “a myth.” The US never adhered to the doctrine because it was involved in foreign affairs or expanding its territory at every point in history, he believes.

“What does ‘isolationism’ mean? Does it mean that the US will no longer trade with the rest of the world? Does it mean that Washington will stop giving Israel $3 billion in aid per year?

“In a genuinely globalized world, I doubt the US can ever seal itself off to the rest of the world.

While US interventions have done harm, there are strategic areas where America has a role to play, and Syria is one of them. Unfortunately, Washington now leaves the game open to other players,” Mekelberg said.

For more stories go to themedialine.org

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