The Trump administration has now revealed its Middle East strategy for all to see. The Europeans aren’t happy.
So far, at least, the United States has decided to focus on fighting extremism and checking Iran. The best way to achieve these aims, the White House has decided, is by deepening its previous reliance on its regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, to the exclusion of just about everything else.
It should come as little surprise that both Riyadh and Tel Aviv are thrilled by the shift. Both countries are busily using their influence with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to push their advantages as far as possible.
Consider the ill-advised Saudi intervention in Yemen. It started under the Obama administration, which occasionally tried to warn the Saudis that they were going too far. Under President Trump, however, even these cautious criticisms have ceased entirely. Instead, Washington seems to be stepping up its efforts to support the ill-fated war. The result has been a military quagmire and a humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions.
Then there’s Qatar. There can be little doubt that Riyadh’s campaign to engineer a change of regime in Doha was inspired by the perception of strong support from Trump and his clan. The feud between the ruling families in Saudi and Qatar certainly wasn’t new, and neither were the attempts to meddle in each other’s internal affairs. This time, however, Trump’s demonstrative backing of the Saudis gave them reason to expect a quick victory – wrongly, as it turns out. Instead Riyadh is facing a diplomatic tug-of-war with no end in sight.
Now, on top of all this, the Saudis’ de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is attempting to ignite a new proxy war in Lebanon. Nothing good can come of that, either.
Europe’s policies toward the Middle East emphasize overcoming its different divisions, and urging the various states to focus on the urgent need for domestic reform. The Trump strategy is based on deepening divisions, and, to a large extent, on ignoring domestic challenges.
The starkly different approaches to Iran are a case in point. The nuclear deal solved a conflict that otherwise could have resulted in war, and opened the way to a policy of engagement that over time could expand room for maneuver on other issues. As the Europeans have argued, the best strategy for influencing Iran’s behavior should be based on uniting the world and dividing Iran. The Trump administration is now trying to do the opposite by dividing the world and uniting Iran, and the effects are almost sure to be just as dismal as one would expect.
Iran has a ballistic missile program that is rightly seen as threatening by its neighbors. But it is hardly alone in this. Israel’s ballistic missile arsenal is likely to be far more sophisticated. And though this fact is little discussed, Saudi Arabia has acquired Chinese ballistic missiles with regional reach.
So, a regional approach to limiting ballistic missiles, while hardly guaranteed of success, appears far more realistic than one that targets just one of the countries in the region.
And rather than encouraging an escalation of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, surely we should be seeking seek to urge de-escalation, perhaps while ultimately aiming at some sort of agreed regional security framework. Kuwait and Oman are discreetly seeking to bridge divides between Qatar and the Saudis. The future of Iraq — to name but one country — is dependent on good relations between both nations.
The lowering of tensions among the states of the region is a precondition for allowing them to address their domestic reform needs. The trends in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran all point to grave problems in the decades ahead if far-reaching reforms are not implemented.
The war on the ground against the Islamic State has now been more or less won, but the ideological fight goes on. Over the longer term the threat of a massive extremist resurgence can be addressed only if the countries of the region meet the social and economic aspirations of their people. That, in turn, will assure governments of a degree of legitimacy that most of them currently lack.
These are the real issues of the Middle East — entirely aside, of course, from the continuing need to ensure justice and peace by creating two states between Jordan and the Mediterranean.
The Trump-Kushner family office in the White House, heavily encouraged by Riyadh and Jerusalem, sees things very differently. We are beginning to hear the drums of war. As far as Europe can tell, Washington’s current approach to the Middle East looks like a recipe for making the region’s problems even worse.