American presidents’ strategic miscalculations in the bloody years following Osama bin Laden’s attacks on New York and Washington have had a catastrophic impact on the Middle East. In response to those attacks by al-Qaeda, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama spent the next 15 years committing foreign policy sins of omission or commission that unleashed chaos upon an already troubled region. The fallout from those grave missteps empowered our enemies and undermined the noble causes for which too many Americans fought and died.
If Afghanistan is truly the graveyard of empires, then today’s Middle East is where rigid ideologies go to die. Bush’s addiction to the schemes of neocons led to Iraq’s unraveling, just as Obama’s obsessive retreat from the region left Syria in ruins, the Islamic State on the rise and Iran marching westward.
Both of these well-meaning commanders in chief made historic miscalculations because they were captive to ideological assumptions. Obama’s belief that the United States could escape history in an area undone by his predecessor’s policies proved to be as misguided as Bush’s call for “ending tyranny in our world.”
Now it is President Trump who has been motivated by his political instincts to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem while abandoning the Iran nuclear deal. Both geopolitical decisions appeal to many conservatives like myself in the way that liberating Iraq from the reign of Saddam Hussein once did.
Today, few remember that 76 percent of Americans once supported the Iraq War, while 77 U.S. senators — and a majority of Democrats — voted for the resolution backing the invasion. Proving once again that failure is an orphan, Iraq’s most tragic lessons are too often lost on the politicians, press and public who blithely supported a war whose tragic consequences few fully considered. Put me at the top of that list.
Unlike Bush’s momentous missteps in 2003, however, Trump’s policy shifts on Israel and Iran are opposed by a majority of Americans and viewed skeptically by most of our allies. Support for both policies is mainly limited to conservatives who support a stronger Israel and a diminished Iran.
If the 21st century has taught Americans anything, it is that Middle East policy decisions demand that our presidents question their assumptions and challenge their ideological instincts. Following their “gut” always ends in disaster.
That is a tall order for a politician such as Trump, who lives in the eternal now and brushes aside the complexities of history and the consequences of his actions. Were he more introspective, Trump might conclude that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem at this moment in history only helps the terrorist group Hamas, which had been back on its heels for failing miserably to deliver for its followers. More troubling, but just as predictable, is the burden Trump’s decision places on our closest regional allies.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi was forced to respond to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement by opening his country’s border with Gaza for the longest time in five years. A secular leader who rose to power by ruthlessly defeating the Muslim Brotherhood, Sissi announced Thursday that he would move to “ease the burdens on the brothers in the Gaza Strip.” Even before the Jerusalem announcement, Egypt’s government was reeling from internal unrest, leaving Sissi little room to maneuver: Public sympathies rest squarely, as they do throughout the Arab Middle East, with Hamas and the Palestinian cause.
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal will further strain relations with our closest European allies, undermining long-term U.S. interests. I opposed the 2015 agreement, but unilateral U.S. withdrawal from it just three years later will further strengthen Iran and isolate the United States.
While Iran has been the epicenter of international terrorism for 40 years, its leaders have usually proved themselves to be shrewder than the U.S. presidents they have opposed. Expect Iran to remain in the nuclear deal and to give our European allies no reason to answer Trump’s call for banking or oil sanctions on a country that Europe believes to be adhering to the agreement’s terms. Without those secondary sanctions imposed by Europe or China, the United States will lose most of its leverage over Iran’s economic future — and also have far less power shaping Iran’s nuclear program than it did when the UnitedStates was part of the international deal.
As we learned from George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Barack Obama’s speedy retreat, following one’s ideological instincts in places such as Israel and Iran usually ends in disaster. We can only hope that those advising this president will take greater care navigating America’s course across the Middle East in the coming years than we have over the past two decades. If the past few weeks are any indication, the United States is once again on the wrong track.