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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Clarity is needed in Trump's Middle East policy

US president is guilty of viewing the region as a US foreign policy conundrum, rather than a group of sovereign nations

US President Donald Trump arrives to deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday. Doug Mills / AFP
US President Donald Trump arrives to deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday. Doug Mills / AFP

With the state of the union address, US presidents typically offer reflections on the previous year and strategies for the next. But Donald Trump is no conventional president. Given his proclivity for impulsive decision-making, his speech on Wednesday night might not provide a definitive outline of US policy moving forward. But it does cast a light on Mr Trump’s current thinking.

More than most US presidents, Mr Trump sees domestic and global affairs in binary terms. “We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance,” he said. But the world is more intricate than such an analysis presupposes. “One of the most complex sets of challenges we face is in the Middle East,” Mr Trump said. But like many of his predecessors, he is guilty of viewing the region as a US foreign policy conundrum, rather than a large group of sovereign nations.

In a statement that will resonate across Arab capitals, Mr Trump called Iran the world’s pre-eminent state sponsor of terrorism. Given Tehran’s regional destabilisation, via its involvement in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, sincere attempts to rein in the regime are welcome. But amid Iranian and European efforts to bypass them, US sanctions are not proving as effective as they should.

On the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine – as the world awaits his promised peace deal – Mr Trump again proclaimed Jerusalem “the true capital of Israel”, suggesting that whatever deal follows will not assuage the fears of Palestinians. That followed a Senate bill, passed on Tuesday, which aims to shield Israel from boycotts. This week, as ever, the US undercuts its own role as an honest broker in the intractable conflict.

But the most disquieting foreign policy-related passages of Mr Trump’s speech concerned Syria, Afghanistan and ISIS. The sentiment behind his claim that “great nations do not fight endless wars” is a one that can only be lauded, but as a Senate motion on Monday argued, a precipitous troop pull-out from Afghanistan and Syria “could put at risk hard-won gains and US national security” and perpetuate the conflicts. And in addition, Mr Trump is yet to spell out a timeline for the withdrawal.

The truth is that, contrary to the president’s continual claims, ISIS has not been defeated. Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) – the US-led coalition dedicated to fighting ISIS – argued in a report this week that the group is actively regenerating in Iraq and Syria and could start regaining territory within six to 12 months. That is why all eyes will be on the scheduled meeting of counter-ISIS coalition foreign ministers in Washington today.

As domestic woes mount and the 2020 presidential race begins, Mr Trump must pay genuine attention to US foreign policy and the Middle East in particular. “America is winning each and every day,” he told Congress last night. But a failure to defeat ISIS, rein in Iran and help restore peace in Afghanistan and Syria, would suggest otherwise.

In the past few weeks, questions have arisen about America’s strategy and ambition in this region. Now, more than ever, ambiguity must give way to clarity.

Updated: February 6, 2019 05:14 PM

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