Analysis: Rebooting US foreign policy in the Middle East

The Trump administration is still trying to define its goals.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump at a White House press conference in Washington , US on May 15, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump at a White House press conference in Washington , US on May 15, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Obama years were a curious blend of isolationism and limited interventions.
American troops were not pulled out of Afghanistan and there was a relentless fight against terrorist organizations in the Middle East by way of drones and bombing raids. Small groups of elite forces were dispatched to Syria and Libya for intelligence gathering and advisory purposes only.
What was missing was a global strategy which could have stopped the Middle East descent into chaos. The vacuum thus created gave free rein to Iran’s both open and stealthy penetration efforts; it also brought back Russia.
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Moscow has now almost regained the positions held by the Soviet Union in Syria and Egypt and is strengthening its hold on Libya. A similar lack of decisive American resolve allowed China to adopt increasingly aggressive tactics in South China Sea and enabled Russia’s annexation of Crimea and division of Ukraine. The question is whether the Trump administration is willing and able to embark on a policy of active intervention, especially in the Middle East, to defuse threats and bring a measure of stability. It might be too late, however, to dislodge well-entrenched intruders that timely measures would have kept out.
America has a long history of vacillating between isolationism and aggressive foreign policy, and yet its intervention was decisive in ensuring the triumph of democratic regimes in two world wars, as well as in the lengthy Cold War. This was not Obama’s way. He mostly shunned active intervention, often at the price of losing the American power of dissuasion.
Yet during his presidency, the Middle East went through one of its most violent periods since the end of World War I and the emergence of new states following the Sykes-Picot Agreement. A revival of radical Sunni Islam rivaled Iran’s efforts to export its Shi’ite revolution and led to gradual destabilization, a process escalated by the Arab Spring in 2011.
What started as the spontaneous demand for freedom and democracy ended in the strengthening of Islamic extremism, bringing about the demise of Arab nation states that had formed the backbone of the region. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and, to a lesser measure, Lebanon are no longer functioning.
America was strangely absent while its allies in the region were bearing the brunt of the devastating process, leading to its inability to act as an effective deterrent on the world stage and the very real risk of a rogue state or organization making use of weapons of mass destruction, such as the chemical weapons used in Syria.
Obama refused to help the Green Movement, which took to the streets throughout Iran in 2009 to protest massive fraud in the presidential election. He did nothing while the regime gained back control of the nation using extreme brutality, ultimately defeating the people, tightening its grip on the country and putting an end to any hope of change. Although Iran is busy promoting its Shi’ite revolution and threatening the stability of Sunni regimes while calling for the destruction of Israel, Obama entered into a nuclear agreement with Tehran that will not prevent the country from creating weapons after the terms of the accord expire, and it does not address the ongoing development of missiles that could be equipped with nuclear warheads.
In Egypt, Obama abandoned Mubarak, his longtime strategic ally, and called on him to resign, transferring his support to the Muslim Brotherhood, although he knew, or should have known, that they were bent on setting up an Islamic dictatorship – a goal they achieved with disastrous results that the present regime is still fighting to correct.
He encouraged Europe to get rid of Muammar Gaddafi, promising to “lead from behind” and supplying weapons and ammunitions for bombing raids – and then left Europe to deal with the shambles: a civil war in Libya and a stream of refugees from Africa, as well as Russian penetration that could threaten southern Europe.
He refrained from giving his support to the Syrian uprising in 2011, though arming the moderate Sunni insurgents before Jihadi groups moved in might have toppled Assad, cutting off Iran from its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. Indeed, he let Assad get away with breaching a succession of so-called “redlines” – including the use of chemical weapons.
The premature withdrawal of American troops from Iraq made it possible for ISIS to establish itself while the Iraqi army crumbled. Setting up a coalition of Western and Arab countries to fight the terrorist organization by means of sending planes to bomb its forces was taking the easy way out, to avoid putting boots on the ground. It was obvious from the very beginning that it was imperative to destroy ISIS while it was still too weak to resist, and the fighting today in Mosul and Raqqa, and the toll on the civilian populations, clearly display the price to be paid by not acting in time.
This, of course, does not mean that the former president is responsible for the state of chaos in which the Middle East finds itself today.
For hundreds of years, there has been warfare between Arabs on a tribal, ethnic or religious basis. However, America had been a stabilizing presence in the Middle East since the ’40s and has been instrumental in appeasing tensions. By, in effect, withdrawing from the region, Obama created a vacuum. A position doubtless born of ideological considerations and the belief in peaceful and noninvasive diplomacy nevertheless let the enemies of America further their own interests without fear of reprisal.
The Trump administration is still trying to define its goals. On the one hand, it cannot remain indifferent to a situation which threatens world peace. On the other hand, it may choose to focus on America’s very real domestic problems. During his campaign, President Donald Trump promised to destroy ISIS and said he intended to confront Iran while coming to an understanding with Russia regarding its presence in the Middle East. Not an easy task, since Moscow is well-entrenched in the region, and a deal might involve give-and-take in the matter of sanctions and a compromise in Ukraine. But serious negotiations will not be possible as long as the FBI is conducting an investigation into alleged links between Trump’s close advisers and Putin.
What the president should do, meanwhile, is to work hard to rebuild the trust of his erstwhile allies and convince them that America is determined to promote its interests – and theirs. He needs to revive the old alliance of pragmatic Sunni countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates – against Iran. And yes, he needs to do something about Iran.
Whether he does or not is anybody’s guess for now. He has, however, already taken a few positive steps regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that’s a welcome change.
The writer is a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.