In the Wake of Trump’s Broken Promises: The Need for an Arab Strategy

Donald Trump

When Donald Trump was first elected, I warned Arab friends to be careful not to put all of their eggs in a basket that I had every reason to believe would soon unravel. Back then, many Arabs, having felt let down by the initial hope they had in the promise of the Obama Administration, were keen to believe that Trump would develop a firm policy on Syria and Iran and deliver on his pledge to craft the “Deal of the Century,” bringing a just end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In fact, in polling we conducted in the fall of 2017, we found that Arab respondents in some countries – including at least a third of those in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – had at least some expectation that positive change might be forthcoming from the Administration on some of these concerns. Two and a half years later, these hopes have come crashing down to earth.

Trump did end the Iran nuclear deal and impose new tough sanctions on Iran – which our polling showed Arabs hoped might rein in in Iran’s regional ambitions. But the Islamic Republic, despite the economic hardships that resulted from these sanctions, has appeared to become further emboldened and aggressive. Their position in Iraq was somewhat strengthened by the role their allied militias played in the war against the “Islamic State.” Iran remains deeply entrenched in Syria, supported by sectarian armed units from Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan they brought in, armed, and trained. And their support for the Houthi’s rebellion in Yemen has continued to consume the Saudi-led coalition’s resources and attention. In response to the US sanctions, Iran has demonstrated its capacity to respond by creating mischief in the Gulf, including a tit for tat threat to interrupt oil tanker traffic and a “mysterious” devastating attack on Saudi oil fields.

In Syria, as in Iraq, President Trump’s policy did not significantly deviate from Obama‘s approach. He provided tactical and material support, as well as air power, to an American-trained, largely Kurdish army, in the effort to defeat the “Islamic State.” Despite repeated verbal threats to stop the Syrian government’s attacks on civilians, Trump made do with a single airstrike on an airbase – but only after signaling his intention 24 hours in advance, which had the result of minimizing the loss of life and military assets. Meanwhile, the rest of Syria was left to Syrian government forces, Russia, and Iran.

As for the “Deal of the Century,” two and one-half years later, the region is still waiting for its release. In spite of the continued delay, Trump Administration policies have made clear its outlines. They have, in essence, “given away the store” to Israel. Trump famously “took Jerusalem off the table,” and followed by making it clear that they were taking away the rights of refugees (they no longer consider them as refugees) and the status of Israeli settlements (these remained uncontested).

If there remained any confusion as to whether the initial hope some had placed in the Trump Administration was mistaken, events of the past month sealed the deal. Despite tough talk about Iran, the US showed that its bark was bigger than its bite. The best they could do to respond to the attack on Saudi oil fields was to offer to send an additional 1,000 troops to the Kingdom. The US Ambassador to Israel, in public remarks, made clear that the US had no intention to see any Israeli settlements removed from occupied Palestinian lands. And, for many, the coup de grace was the President’s decision to pull American forces back from Syria’s northern border, abandoning its Kurdish allies. This US withdrawal allowed the Turkish army to enter Syria, creating “a safe zone” into which they hope to forcibly “repatriate” Syrians who had sought refuge in Turkey. Abandonment by the US also forced the Kurds to make a pact with the Syrian government, effectively ceding control over what they hoped might become an autonomous Kurdish area.

The winners in all of this have been Iran and Russia. The losers are the Kurds, the Palestinians, and Arabs who hoped that the Trump Administration might represent any constructive change in US policy.

The sad truth is that the US role in the region has been in a tailspin since the George W. Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein’s regime. Despite Bush’s projections that the US occupation would be welcomed, that democracy would bloom in Iraq and spread throughout the Middle East, and the US would establish itself as the hegemonic power for the 21st century, the opposite happened. Instead, the US found itself ground down in a long war it could not win, Iraq descended into bloody sectarian civil conflict, Iran was emboldened and unleashed, finding a foothold not only in Iraq, but across the region, and the US emerged less respected with its military weakened and demoralized.

In an effort to stop the hemorrhaging, the Obama Administration was determined to leave Iraq, which it did. But the US departure left Iran as the ascendant power in a county with a government that pursued sectarian policies leading to the emergence of the Islamic State.

When the Arab Spring erupted, the Obama Administration was unsure how to respond. This forced Arabs to take matters into their own hands in an effort to restore the old order. Conflicts in Syria, then Libya, and then Yemen followed soon after – each in turn involving a number of competing for regional and global powers seeking to shape the outcome and secure their advantage. In each, the US role was reduced to a supportive one, at best.

It was this sad state of affairs that led some Arabs to find hope in Trump’s pledge to work more closely with their governments and to provide American leadership to help resolve some of the region’s pressing concerns, namely an end to the bloodshed in Syria, pressure on Iran to end its meddling in several Arab countries, and a determined effort to achieve a just resolution to the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Two and one-half years later, the blush is off the rose. As the dust settles on the broken promises, the realization is dawning that the region will be left to its own to solve its pressing problems. Signs of this are everywhere: the welcome given to the Russian leader in the Arab Gulf countries; the tentative outreach by some countries to Iran; recognition that, despite deep reservations, the Assad government will need to be engaged; renewed efforts to negotiate a solution to Yemen; and even some initial efforts at overtures to Israel – to name a few.

In the end, the Arab World is in greater need, not just of unity, but real operational unity, if it is to address the many challenges it now faces. There is an need for the Arab states to create regional mechanisms to address conflicts, to implement the Arab Peace Initiative, to address the region’s refugee crisis, and to develop an investment strategy creating jobs, improving education and expanding health care – all of which will help to promote the progress, security, and stability the region needs. In all of these areas, the US can help, as can other global powers. But the Arab World should never again be dependent on the promise of any outside power to provide what it should be able to do for itself.