To be scrupulously fair to the administration, however, there had always been an important exception to the assertion that the United States was turning off its allies and partners. Sure, the administration has alienated most U.S. allies in Europe, Latin America and the Pacific Rim, but there was always the Middle East. Israel is one of the few countries in the world whose population has a more favorable impression of Trump than his predecessor. There is no denying that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets along better with Trump than he did with President Barack Obama. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have all been thrilled with the Trump administration’s hard-line approach toward Iran. The leaders of all these Middle Eastern countries, as well as Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, have clearly enjoyed having a U.S. president who does not give a flying fig about human rights.
If there is one constant in the foreign policy universe under Trump, however, it is that he will eventually do something that flummoxes his friends. With his abrupt Syria decision, Trump has finally managed to annoy his allies in the Middle East.
My Post colleagues Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey and John Hudson offered up an excellent account of just how much upset Trump caused with his decision to announce a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria by tweet last month. Here are key portions:
The president’s erratic behavior on Syria cost him the most respected member of his Cabinet, former defense secretary Jim Mattis; rattled allies and partners unsure about U.S. commitment to the region; and increased the possibility of a military confrontation between Turkey and Kurdish forces in Syria. …Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure allies in a lengthy tour of Arab capitals last week, promising that the U.S. withdrawal will not alter the Trump administration’s commitment to fully defeat the Islamic State and drive Iranian forces out of Syria. …The message did little to reassure jittery allies.
It would certainly seem that Erdogan refusing to meet with national security adviser John Bolton and then excoriating him live on national television qualifies as jittery behavior, yes. Of course, Trump did not make things any better with Turkey by tweeting a warning over the weekend that any Turkish move against the Kurds in Syria “will devastate Turkey economically.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Middle East tour has been like a bit of deja vu, because Pompeo is saying things that his predecessor Rex Tillerson said when he went there. According to the Los Angeles Times' Tracy Wilkinson, “Pompeo on Sunday urged Saudi Arabia and other U.S. Arab allies in the region to repair a long-festering rift with Qatar, expressing frustration that little progress has been made. The dispute ‘has dragged on too long,’ he told reporters in the Qatari capital of Doha between meetings with top government officials there. ‘It’s on everyone’s mind and not at all clear that the rift is any closer to being resolved today than it was yesterday. And I regret that.’”
How Pompeo will succeed in that task is an interesting question, especially because Wilkinson also reports that Pompeo will “press Saudi officials on the Oct. 2 murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.”
Which brings us to the last problem with the administration’s approach to the Middle East: It is not really sustainable. For a populist president, Trump keeps adopting foreign policies that are pretty unpopular. Ever since October, the polling on this has been clear: The American people do not believe the official Saudi version of events. Last month, CNN found that “nearly 60% of Americans say that the U.S. response to Saudi Arabia’s role in the murder of US-based journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi hasn’t been tough enough.... Around a quarter say that the response has been about right.” Even if Trump’s national security team manages to right the ship in its Middle East relationships, the polarization of U.S. alliances increases the uncertainty for countries in the region.
In a Cairo speech that pleased core Trump supporters but aggravated most regional experts, Pompeo claimed: “America is a force for good in the Middle East. Period.” This sounds about as convincing as when White House press secretary Sean Spicer used to end sentences that way. Increasingly, it seems the Middle East is finding itself in the same place as NATO, the Far East and Latin America: exasperated with the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.