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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Trump's Middle East focus shows "America first" policy can still support global role

The US president understands that self-interest and relations with key partners are not mutually exclusive

Mr Trump's engagement with the region demonstrates that America’s interests and the maintenance global security are not mutually exclusive.  Saudi Press Agency / EPA
Mr Trump's engagement with the region demonstrates that America’s interests and the maintenance global security are not mutually exclusive. Saudi Press Agency / EPA

Critics of the Trump administration argue that it has isolated the United States. The experience of the Middle East, however, suggests otherwise. America’s engagement with the region since Mr Trump’s election has intensified. On Friday, a US delegation led by retired general Anthony Zinni concluded its deliberations with GCC countries and Egypt. Mr Zinni was dispatched by the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to the region as part of Washington’s efforts to defuse the regional crisis precipitated by Qatar.

The choice of the retired four-star general as the State Department envoy was a sign of the importance the Trump administration attaches to peace in the Middle East. Mr Zinni is a widely respected figure in the region, having forged valuable relationships at the highest levels of the GCC during his service as commander-in-chief of the United States Central Command from 1997 to 2000. His shuttle diplomacy last week took him to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, where he held talks on Thursday with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

Mr Tillerson has said that the US wants to “maintain a constant pressure on the ground” to resolve disputes. In keeping with this line, the White House announced that it will be sending another high-level delegation to the region even as Mr Zinni was wrapping up his visit. The new delegation will be led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who will be accompanied by the special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblat, and deputy national security adviser for strategy, Dina Powell.

The dates of their travel have not yet been announced, but the visit is likely to take place towards the end of August. The delegation’s focus will primarily be on the Israel-Palestine conflict: the relative calm after last month’s violent clashes is seen by Washington as an opportunity to make some headway. But the delegation also travels to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The arrival of Mr Kushner, who is effectively Mr Trump’s personal envoy, is another indication of the centrality of the region to the president’s evolving foreign policy. It also signals Washington’s energetic departure from the staid, ad hoc and hit-and-miss efforts of his predecessor in the region. Relations that had frayed or been neglected under president Barack Obama have revived and strengthened over the last eight months. This can only bode well for the region.

As a candidate, Mr Trump campaigned on an “America first” platform, prompting some to claim that he was intent on pursuing disengagement with the world. This was always a misreading. Putting “America first” is not dependent on cutting off relations with the world. Mr Trump’s vigorous renewal of relationships with key partners in the Middle East demonstrates that America’s interests and the maintenance of global security are not mutually exclusive. They are interdependent. Mr Trump’s diplomacy in the region affirms this point.