Trump’s Middle East Policy and the Art of Improvisation

Thomas Seibert.

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump makes no bones about his rejection of the nuclear agreement with Iran. “I feel strongly about what I did. I’m tired of being taken advantage of,” Trump said a few days after he put the international community on notice about a possible US withdrawal from the accord. “It might be total termination. That’s a real possibility. Some would say that’s a greater possibility.”
However, if you listen to his advisers, “termination” is not on Trump’s mind. “We want to take the agreement as it exists today” and improve it, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CNN. “Right now, you’re going to see us stay in the deal,” US Ambassador to the United States Nikki Haley said on NBC. “We’re in the deal to see how we can make it better.”
The contradictions are not unusual for the Trump administration, analysts said. Trump’s Middle East policy is more of a hodgepodge of go-it-alone rhetoric, tweets and improvisational, off-the-cuff remarks than the product of a comprehensive strategy. The wait for a Middle East policy package under Trump is turning into a growing recognition that none will be forthcoming.
“The attention of the White House shifts with every news cycle and when the American president does take a few moments to pay attention to this important region, it is often to make bold but largely empty statements deriding the policies of his predecessor and declaring his intention to undo them entirely,” said Tally Helfont, director of the Programme on the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
“There is no comprehensive strategy. There are reactive statements, publicity stunts and a short attention span when it comes to all things Middle East.”
Senator John McCain, an outspoken Trump critic within the Republican Party, accused the president of turning away from values that guided US foreign policy for decades. In a speech on October 16, McCain warned of refusing “the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”
Trump’s frequent use of Twitter to weigh in on policy matters adds to the confusion. “As a new diplomatic tool, Trump’s tweets are making world leaders and US officials anxious since they are unpredictable in their nature and timing,” Joe Macaron, an analyst at the Arab Centre in Washington, told The Arab Weekly.
The president has also contradicted and undercut Tillerson on so many occasions that some observers in Washington expect Tillerson to resign or to be fired before the year is out. In one incident in June, Tillerson supported mediation efforts to solve the ongoing crisis between Qatar and its neighbours. Less than an hour later Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism,” placing the United States firmly on the side of the Saudi-led group opposing Qatar.
Despite the inconsistencies, two basic themes for the region are emerging under Trump, said Jeffrey Martini, a senior Middle East analyst for the RAND Corporation and a former State Department official. “They are a more aggressive posture towards Iran, which was formalised in the recent Iran policy review, and an attempt to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel,” he said via e-mail.
Martini and other analysts point out that personal and inter-agency rivalries in the world of US foreign policy did not start with Trump’s presidency but the question of which camp is winning is harder to answer than in previous administrations. There is also an effort by Tillerson and influential Secretary of Defence James Mattis to impose discipline on a free-wheeling president to keep US foreign policy predictable.
No one can be certain that these influences on Trump will be permanent, however. Mattis, for example, might be politically strong at the moment, said Helfont, “but it remains to be seen if he can weather the next storm and the next and the next.”
The Trump administration has not been hit by a foreign policy crisis that has forced the government to prove its mettle, said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington.
Zogby said he does not think that Trump would prove to be a steady pair of hands in a full-blown crisis. “I would hope that Mattis would emerge and take control of the situation but am I confident? No, I am not,” Zogby said.
Given the many uncertainties, Middle Eastern countries trying to work out what the United States is up to should look for long-established trends in Washington’s stance towards the region, Martini said. “The important consideration for Middle East officials is discerning where the current administration’s policies break from longer-term US strategic interests and thus may be subject to reversal by future administrations,” he said.
Some of Trump’s positions, such as his hard line towards Iran, could change under the next president. “Although this risks confusion among allies and partners, it is also a normal part of the US system,” Martini said.
Zogby said Middle Eastern politicians should be careful when dealing with Trump. “He is a pitchman. Everything he does is a sales pitch,” he said, “but none of the great deals he has promised has happened. If I had to work with America, I would not have great expectations.”
Their experience with the tumultuous political scenes in their own countries could give Middle Eastern officials a privileged vantage from which to observe the Trump administration’s endeavours.
“I would argue that Middle Eastern officials are likely to understand the ever-shifting centres of power, the personality politics and the institutional rivalries that are ongoing in Washington better than American politicians themselves,” Helfont said.

Thomas Seibert
is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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