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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Take polarisation out of US foreign policy

Democrats should resist the temptation to rip up Donald Trump’s entire world view

Panelists at the Fourth Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, which discussed US foreign policy. Navin Khianey for The National
Panelists at the Fourth Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, which discussed US foreign policy. Navin Khianey for The National

To the consternation of allies, from those in Nato to Arab Gulf states, US foreign policy in the 18 months since Donald Trump’s inauguration has been unpredictable. But in many ways, it is business as usual. While Mr Trump often appears to be more motivated by the desire to unpick his predecessor’s legacy, similar accusations could be made of Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton. Successive administrations, whether Republican and Democrat, have instituted their own big foreign policy ideas – from the War on Terror to the flawed Iran nuclear deal – then ceded power to the opposing side, who have proceeded to roll them back.

Of course, administrations have the right to set out their own priorities, but the problem with this approach is that while policies can change according to who occupies the White House, the world’s problems do not. As Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, has made clear in Abu Dhabi this week, discourse surrounding Middle Eastern policy has been reduced to a binary set of partisan allegiances, in which Democrats tend to side with Iran, while Republicans take the part of the Arab states. Such an approach is dangerous and antithetical to any kind of stability in the region.

In January, when the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives and the foreign affairs committee, the stage will be set for the worst sort of disruptive partisan politics. In anticipation of this, it is time to say that what the world – and this region in particular – really needs from the US is consistency, regardless of who is in power.

Mr Trump has made a series of US policy U-turns, including the abandonment of trade and climate change agreements, the undermining of Nato and the on-off nature of his relationship with North Korea. As regards his own policies, the Arab world − although grateful for his hardline approach to Iran − has learnt to take nothing for granted. The controversial decision last year to ban travel to the US by citizens from seven Muslim countries was followed two months later by a visit to the Gulf, then the reversal of the long-standing US commitment to a two-state solution in Palestine and recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In Syria, the lack of consistent US focus has allowed Russia to regain something of the pernicious global influence it wielded at the height of the Cold War.

America has a responsibility to develop unequivocal foreign policies. The stability of the Middle East and much of the rest of the world depends upon it. As matters stand, Gulf states can only hope that the newly empowered Democrats will not undermine sanctions aiming to curb Tehran’s destabilising influence and that a proposed Arab Nato, formed with the US, will empower them to speak with a single, louder voice to American politicians from either side.