by Emile Nakhleh
Vice President Mike Pence’s recent visit to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel was a stark reminder of the diplomatic and public-relations dilemma facing President Trump’s policy and America’s standing in the region. Pence’s efforts to sell the president’s vague, confusing, and pro-Israeli policy to his Arab hosts were met with a polite but lukewarm reception.
Pence’s visit also reflected the Trump administration’s benign and nonchalant attitude toward the emerging, dangerous security threats and challenges facing the region and the United States. The immediate challenges include a looming war on the Turkish-Syrian border, a Saudi-caused humanitarian disaster in Yemen, a likely eruption of violence between Israel and the Palestinians over Jerusalem, a political implosion in Iraq on the eve of the upcoming elections, and growing domestic internal threats to the Jordanian monarchy by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).
On the Gulf side, the immediate challenges include a potential military confrontation with Iran and the continuing Saudi political and economic boycott of Qatar. Arab leaders and public have seen no evidence that Washington is seriously working toward defusing any of these conflicts or addressing their long-term impact on regional and global security.
Arab and Middle Eastern leaders are mostly seeking a clearly defined American policy on key regional issues and diplomatic engagement to resolve some of these issues. Military assistance and sales of sophisticated weapons systems to Arab regimes unfortunately have become a default substitute for diplomacy.
Additionally, Vice President Pence reportedly did not raise with his Egyptian host the issue of repression, massive human rights violations, and the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Egyptian jails. He did ask Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, however, about the fate of the two American citizens who have been imprisoned in Egypt for almost five years. How could the vice president credibly sell American values to the Egyptian autocrat without even alluding to his repressive regime? Incidentally, some of America’s so-called allies in the region—including the Saudi, Bahraini, and UAE regimes—are, like Sisi, serial violators of human rights.
Selling the Jerusalem Decision
Egypt’s Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah made it clear to Vice President Pence that they did not support Trump’s unilateral approach to Jerusalem. Nor will they endorse moving the American embassy to Jerusalem before the status of that international city is finalized through negotiations. They also told Pence that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians could move forward only based on the internationally supported two-state approach. Pence reassured them of Washington’s support for the same formula, but Trump’s recent tweets and pronouncements, and even Pence’s pledge to the Israeli parliament that the embassy would be moved by next year, belie Pence’s reassurances.
Since Pence and his Arab hosts had little, if anything, to negotiate on the Israeli-Palestinian front, the two Arab leaders and their guest highlighted their common ground in fighting terrorism and the close relations between these two regimes and Washington. Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, announced before the visit that he would not meet with the vice president because of Palestinian anger at President Trump’s recent statements on Jerusalem and the announced cut of $65 million in US aid to the Palestinians.
In addition to the two Arab leaders’ tepid reception of Pence, the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Palestinian public and media have been extremely critical of the Trump administration’s exceedingly pro-Israeli position and disregard for Palestinian demands. Of course, the Palestinian leadership cannot buck the American behemoth. But it is unprecedented for the PA president to publicly reject America’s traditional role as an “honest broker” of the conflict. What is even more worrisome is that some angry and frustrated Palestinian youth could easily turn to violence against America’s economic and diplomatic facilities and personnel in Jerusalem and beyond.
If Vice President Pence’s trip to the two Arab countries aimed only at reaffirming America’s 50-year-old commitment to the two-state solution, then the visit would have proven both superfluous and disingenuous. If President Trump’s support of the two-state approach is genuine—and if the status of Jerusalem is subject to final negotiations under the two-state umbrella, as Pence stated on his visit—then, Arabs ask, why would the president raise the issue of Jerusalem without a clearly defined policy approach on the conflict? Vice President Pence could only defend the president’s statement without any convincing explanation of the contradictions in the Trump’s recent statements.
Other than to escape the political deadlock and government shutdown in Washington, why did Pence make the trip in the first place? He could have defended Trump’s “s…hole” comment and blamed the Democrats for shutting down the government without having to fly thousands of miles away from home at a cost to the American taxpayer of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Under Trump, Arabs watch with dismay the disappearance of the traditional underpinnings of American diplomacy—constancy, predictability, flexibility, alliance-building, engagement, and balancing of American values and interests. Vice President Pence’s lame reassurances aside, Arabs note that the Trump foreign policy in the past year has relied on erratic, early-morning tweets driven by whim and the latest opinion on Fox TV rather than strategy. In the past year, the Arab public sees in Washington more improvisation, diminishing US leadership, the rejection of agreements made by Trump’s predecessors, cozying up to autocrats and dictators, and of course rising Islamophobia. All of which inadvertently re-enforces the claims by extremists, radicals, and more and more mainstreamers that the United States is anti-Arab and anti-Islam.
Looking Beyond IS
Reflecting on his visit to Egypt and Jordan, Vice President Pence must realize that selling Trumpism to a region in turmoil—whether skeptical Arabs, uninterested Iranians and Turks, or adoring Israelis—requires more than just a handshake in Cairo and Amman and a parliamentary speech in Jerusalem. If the administration is interested in understanding and managing the serious Middle Eastern threats and challenges facing the country, Washington must begin to address them immediately and pro-actively.
Six months after the defeat of IS, our policymakers seem to have neither understood the meaning of such a defeat nor developed a vision for the region beyond IS. The only apparent response has been to put more troops in Syria and Iraq for the indefinite future without asking the basic questions that should have been asked and answered, for example, in Afghanistan and Iraq over a decade and a half ago: Why are we there, what’s our mission, how can we disengage, and under what conditions?
To start a robust process of analysis, senior policymakers must focus on at least three issues: Washington’s future relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally; America’s view toward and engagement with mainstream political Islam; and how to avoid potential conflicts in the Levant and in the Gulf. Whatever sales job Vice President Pence did on his recent visit, he must have realized that if the Arabs were to buy what he was selling, he had to define “Trumpism” in terms other than emasculating the Iran nuclear deal, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, cutting aid to the Palestinians, and coddling dictators.
Washington would need to deepen its expertise on these issues, analyze the root causes driving them, and re-engage with the region to manage them. Putting more boots on the ground—Americans and proxies—without diplomatic engagement is an inadequate short-term panacea to a long-term problem.
Photo: Mike Pence (by Gage Skidmore via Flickr).