A growing sense in the Middle East that Israel ties can be a gamechanger for states that are in need of more clout in Washington, or that they can be traded for various agreements and deals, is central to the current Trump doctrine. This “transactional” aspect of the current US administration is unique in US history. Probably not since former US president Calvin Coolidge has there been such an open focus on “business” as a nature of US policy. The most recent focus on Sudan’s possible normalization of relations with Israel is part of this trade-off between advancing US interests and getting a win for the Trump administration, with a byproduct that also aids Israel relations with the wider region.
In one sense this transactional diplomacy is not entirely foreign to the nature of US foreign policy over the last two hundred years. The Gulf War was largely seen as a conflict over US interests in oil, while US involvement in the First World War related to issues such as free trade. America’s “Dollar diplomacy” prior to the First World War and the Atlantic Charter of 1941 enshrined the same concepts. After decades of high minded talk about a “new world order” and humanitarian intervention, the Trump administration’s focus on a more utilitarian foreign policy has left states in the Middle East trying to figure out which transactional incentives will make Washington happy.
Sudan, which has a relatively new government and has gone through a political transition in the last year, wants a victory it can show its own people. One desire of Khartoum is to be removed from the US list of states that support terrorism. However, despite rumors over the last month, the country has rejected tying this to Israel relations. That doesn’t mean the two issues could happen at the same time. However it appears a bit questionable for a government of a country like Sudan to argue it traded these two issues. The issue of removing Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terrorism appears to be a right for Khartoum, since it no longer supports terrorism. Relations with Israel are a controversial issue in a country that has in the past been hostile to Israel.
There are many factors at work here. Not the least of which is an anti-Israel agenda being pushed by Turkey, which opposes countries normalizing relations with Israel. Turkey has relations with Israel but its current regime is one of the most hostile to Israel in the world. Turkey until recently was hoping that it could be the country deciding Sudan’s future, with massive investments and even leasing an island in the country and sending military advisors. That is part of Turkey’s overall support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups in the region. Qatar may be involved in trying to subvert Sudan-Israel ties as well. The Brookings Institution ran a piece over the weekend asserting that “normalizing Sudan-Israel relations now is a dangerous game.”
One of the issues with transactional diplomacy is that transactions don’t happen in a vacuum. The Trump administration is facing an election in a month and a half. Countries have to gamble on whether they think the same administration will be around in a year to deliver on incentives. They also have to gamble on their own administration’s survival at home and on foreign relations in the region. That is why transactional diplomacy is more complex than a business deal. The Middle East today is divided into several alliance camps, and deals with the US and Israel have wider ramifications.
The US isn’t the only country doing dollar diplomacy these days in the region. Iran also helps fund and arm groups across the region. It also does deals with the Syrian regime, for instance. Iran is also seeking massive support from China and Russia through new trade deals as sanctions and embargoes are ending. But even Iran’s regime is under critique from within that it might be trading rights to free trade zones on some islands in return for Chinese investment.
Further afield Russia is dangling deals in front of Turkey to lure it away from the US and Russia is working throughout the Middle East to sell various defense systems. The Russian interest, along with Iran, Turkey and Russia, of using diplomacy combined with business across the Middle East and also Africa, is key to understanding that the Trump administration’s focus on “deals” is not esoteric, it is part and parcel of the battle for the region.
There are questions about what other transactions could be traded for more Trump wins in the region. Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Morocco have all been mentioned as countries that could move towards relations with Israel. Further afield there may be opportunities in Asia and Africa where there are a few countries that don’t have relations. In general though it’s not clear what some of these countries may want that Washington could provide. Media reports note that questions of supplying the F-35 to the UAE were linked to the Israel normalization deal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied this, but press reports in Israel continue to hint at it. Even if the F-35 deal goes through it is thought it will take years to finalize and get the first planes to Abu Dhabi.
That means when one looks at transactional diplomacy it is important to acknowledge that what appears to be a simple transaction has long-term implications. Once countries have relations with Israel, they rarely break them. Iran after the Islamic Revolution is an anomaly. This means countries are locking in a long-term relationship. Removal from a “terror sponsor” list, in Sudan’s case, is also a long-term investment in the country’s future.
There remains one elephant-in-the-room question regarding transactional diplomacy in the Middle East. What does Washington get? Trump pushed arms deals in his discussions with the region in 2017. He also wanted to show that he could accomplish much where previous administration’s had failed. Some of this was partly symbolic, including the air strikes on Syria and claims to have ended the war on ISIS. The desire for a “deal of the century” that could re-write several decades of impasse in the “peace process” is certainly at the top of a list of desired accomplishments to show Washington’s vigor and relevance, appears to be a win for the administration. In the long term it’s unclear if this diplomacy secures Washington’s footprint against large adversaries such as Russia and China. However, if it knits together a new regional alliance system, which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sketched out through his recent travels, then Trump can point to a success.