The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s Middle East ambitions have been exposed as misguided fantasies

President Trump during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office in March.
President Trump during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office in March. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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When Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected president, two nations in the Middle East that had been particularly aggrieved by the policies of the Obama administration rushed to take advantage. They were Saudi Arabia and Israel — and they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.

In a matter of months, Trump reversed Obama’s strategy of encouraging a regional equilibrium of power between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, siding unequivocally with the Saudis. He also abandoned decades of U.S. attempts to balance Israeli interests with those of the Palestinians. He tore up the Iran nuclear deal, moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and cut off aid for Palestinian refugees.

Trump and his supporters argued that this radical shift would lead to Mideast breakthroughs that eluded the Obama administration, including a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the Saudis would help to broker. His son-in-law and Middle East point man, Jared Kushner, talked expansively both of forging that “ultimate deal” and of an “Arab NATO” to roll back Iranian influence across the region.

Columnist David Ignatius and editor Karen Attiah remember Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post, Photo: Courtesy of Hatice Cengiz/The Washington Post)

Today, those ambitions have been revealed as the misguided fantasies they always were. The disappearance and alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has exposed the real return on Trump’s gambits: a string of reckless acts by the Saudis and Israelis that have made the region more rather than less unstable.

The leaders of the two countries, Mohammed bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu, have given Trump what he most craves: sycophantic support. On substance, however, they have done next to nothing to reciprocate unilateral Trump concessions such as the embassy move or the resumption of U.S. support for Saudi bombing in Yemen. Netanyahu expanded West Bank settlements and rejected confidence-building steps with the Palestinians. The Saudis, predictably, have failed to deliver on the $110 billion in arms purchases Trump boasted about last year.

This being the Middle East — a far more ruthless theater than the New York real estate market — both countries have exploited Trump’s indulgence to the hilt, taking actions they never would have dared under Obama or any other previous president. Netanyahu’s government supported a new law that makes non-Jews second-class citizens; it has put pressure on critical NGOs and press outlets. Last week it was detaining a visa-holding American student because she belonged to a pro-Palestinian campus group.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) warns that military and economic ties could be threatened if Saudi Arabia is proved to have killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

Netanyahu, to be sure, is a cautious statesman; his exploits pale beside those of the 33-year-old Mohammed. Since wooing Trump with a sword dance in Riyadh last year, the callow crown prince has launched a blockade of neighboring Qatar, though doing so undermined the promised Sunni front against Iran; abducted the pro-American Lebanese prime minister and forced him to resign on Saudi TV; dropped American-supplied bombs on civilian targets in Yemen, including a bus full of children, thus implicating the United States in what the United Nations has described as possible war crimes; and sanctioned Canada for criticizing the regime’s human rights record, including its imprisonment of women who advocated the right to drive.

None of this has troubled Trump. On the contrary, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month met a congressional mandate by certifying — against the judgment of the State Department’s own experts — that the Saudis were taking adequate steps to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen.

Given that record, and Trump’s labeling of news organizations such as The Post as the “enemy of the people,” it stands to reason that Mohammed might have concluded he could abduct or even kill Khashoggi, who was living in the Washington region and writing regularly for The Post, without serious consequence. Tragically, he may yet be proved right. Trump, who took six days to respond to Khashoggi’s disappearance, is now promising “severe punishment,” but he also called relations with the regime “excellent” and said he does not want to scrap those elusive military sales.

Still, as many have already discovered, an alliance with Trump rarely ends well. Even before Khashoggi’s disappearance, outrage over Yemen had created an unusual bipartisan coalition in Congress, which conditioned further military aid to Saudi Arabia. As the reaction to Khashoggi swelled, 22 senators divided between the parties signed a letter to Trump triggering a mandatory investigation of sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which punishes human rights abuses. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said that if Saudi complicity is confirmed, it would “drop [relations] off the cliff.”

If Netanyahu believes he has nothing to worry about, he is not reading the polls showing a huge gap in support for Israel opening up between Republicans and Democrats. Like Mohammed, he seems to be betting that Trumpism will prevail in Washington indefinitely — and that there will be no reckoning for the outrages committed under its umbrella.

Twitter: @jacksondiehl

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