by Emile Nakhleh
As President Donald Trump revels in his diplomatic foray into North Korea, he doesn’t have any comparable diplomatic “success” in the Middle East. None of the optimistic promises he made upon assuming office in January 2017 regarding the region has come to pass.
In fact, the Middle East today is worse than what Trump inherited from his predecessor. A growing tragedy in Yemen, deepening repression of dissent across the region, rising Sunni jingoism in the Gulf, bloody violence and despair in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, political uncertainty in Iraq, entrenched butchery in Syria, and expanding threats to the Hashemite rule in Jordan are only a few examples of what continues to plague the region since Trump took office nearly a year and a half ago.
Although Trump did not create these disasters, their downward spiral demonstrates an absence of American diplomacy and signals an ineffectual, even bankrupt, Trumpian policy toward the Middle East. His lackadaisical attitude toward the peoples of the region, coddling of Arab dictators, slavish support of the Saudi and UAE inhumane war in Yemen, and total backing of the Israel’s right-wing, anti-Palestinian policies have exacerbated the misery and human suffering in that part of the world.
Escalating Tensions with Iran
Trump’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal has dashed the hopes the Iranian youth had placed in the long-term expected benefits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They viewed the deal as their opening to the world. By exiting the JCPOA, the Trump administration has also empowered the radical segments of Iran’s population and other elements within the military and political ruling elites, especially in the Revolutionary Guard. These elements feel validated in denouncing American diplomacy as farcical, ephemeral, and unreliable.
If the United States does not live up to its international obligations and commitments, they argue, why should other countries—including Washington’s closest allies—trust it. The president’s recent vacillation and childish outbursts during and following the G-7 meeting in Canada underscore the prevalent view in the region that American leadership under Trump is not trustworthy.
Iran and other Middle Eastern countries view Trump’s nuclear diplomacy toward North Korea as an affirmation of the dictum that America does not go to war against other nuclear states. If this is true, Iran and others will work very hard to develop their nuclear capability, putting in place a nightmarish scenario of a nuclear arms race spiraling out of control. By denouncing the JCPOA, which was designed to halt Iran’s nuclear program for years to come, Trump has foolishly and dangerously opened the proverbial Pandora’s box on nuclear proliferation.
Apart from Iran, Trump’s decision to scuttle the nuclear deal has created serious fissures between his administration and America’s European allies, which were of course exacerbated during the recent G-7 meeting and by the curious tariffs he has imposed on products from America’s closest allies in Europe, Canada, and Mexico.
Two common threads connect North Korea, the Middle East, and Western allies. First, Trump is more comfortable engaging dictators and autocrats than dealing with democratically elected leaders; second, he is out to replace the liberal international order created over half a century ago by democratic governments and their citizens, under the leadership of the United States, with a new order grounded in xenophobia, chaos, uncertainty, and unreliability. Such an order will be defended by strongmen and tyrants, not by free peoples and their freely elected governments. The good news: the Trumpian international order is not expected to outlast Trump once he leaves office.
No Deal Between Israelis and Palestinians
Right after his inauguration, President Trump promised to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under the leadership of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner and the two other partners charged with making this deal happen—Jason Greenblatt, adviser to the Trump organization, and David Friedman, American ambassador to Israel—are not considered by Palestinians and most Arabs as independent observers or “honest brokers” when it comes to recognizing the national rights of the Palestinians. This triumvirate has supported Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank—considered illegal under international law—and has embraced moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Expanding settlements and moving the embassy to Jerusalem have been two cardinal demands by right-wing settlers and neocon extremists under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Kushner team has applauded these two policies. When Kushner was selected for this task, Trump told him, “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.”
Once Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem and declared Jerusalem—not West Jerusalem but all of Jerusalem—as the capital of Israel, Hanan Ashrawi, a leading Palestinian official, announced, “There is no way that there can be talks with the Americans.” The role that America has played for over half a century as an interlocutor between the Arabs and Israel has vanished overnight because of Trump’s inexplicable embassy move.
To add insult to injury, Washington has supported the Israeli military action against largely peaceful Palestinian demonstrators on the Gaza border with Israel that has left scores of men, women, and children killed and hundreds more injured. In the midst of chaos, Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman continue to promise a fair, equitable, and just solution to the conflict, which serious observers view as a joke.
Kushner has reportedly said that “Before Israel makes peace with the Gulf Arab states, it must make peace with the Palestinians.” True, but he has not uttered a word about dismantling the occupation or recognizing Palestinian sovereignty over a part of Palestine, as prescribed in several UN Security Council resolutions notable 242 and 338. He sees no need to push the envelope for peace as long as the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah continues to do Israel’s security for it and maintain its “anti-terrorism” cooperation with the Americans under the so-called Tenet Plan.
Wars within Islam
Contrary to the approach of previous administration to avoid getting involved in ideological/religious wars within Islam, the Trump administration has taken sides in favor of Arab Sunni Islam against Shia Iran and other Shia groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere. This is a losing proposition in the long run because it does not serve American long-term national security in the region and the wider Islamic world. Trump’s bellicosity toward Iran has put him squarely in the Sunni camp. This partnership with Sunni regimes is troubled because most of them are autocratic and opposed to the aspirations of their people for freedoms of speech, assembly, political activism, and expression on social media. Thousands of political prisoners of conscience languish in Saudi, Egyptian, UAE, and Bahraini jails.
The recent statements to the 38th Session of the Human Rights Council about the human rights conditions in Gulf countries show an appalling picture of the prevailing “culture of impunity” in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf Cooperation Council states. Most of these regimes “continue to commit widespread and systematic human rights abuses” without any accountability. Dozens of human rights men and women defenders, including Mohammad al-Bajadi, were recently detained in Saudi Arabia. A prominent human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, is serving a five-year jail term in Bahrain as a result of several sham trials. Bahraini jails are full of hundreds of other human rights defenders.
Trump’s proclivity for strongmen and benign attitude toward human rights violations globally have empowered these regimes to torture their peoples and silence their voices. In his recent meeting with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s tyrant, in Singapore, President Trump did not raise the issue of human rights and Kim’s gulag prisons.
The marriage of convenience between Trump and Arab Sunni autocrats is destined to be short-lived. Their rule is precarious despite their wealth. Theirs is essentially a house of cards that will soon collapse. Their youth have not forgotten the euphoria of the Arab Spring seven years ago and still long for freedom, dignity, and democracy. Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammad bin Zayed, the crown prince and de facto ruler of the UAE, will soon discover that their ability and willingness to flaunt their oil wealth regionally and globally in pursuit of their aggression against Yemen and against Qatar will not buy them stability, domestically or regionally. They see Trump as a kindred spirit and a sympathetic strongman. They seem to forget, however, that his rule, unlike theirs, will come to an end in a few short years. The United States will then swing back to the middle away from tribalism and xenophobic nativism. It’s doubtful whether they will they be able to do the same.
The Yemen War and the GCC
The Saudi-UAE attack today on Yemen’s critical port city of Hodeidah, with Washington’s acquiescence, will only deepen the humanitarian tragedy of the Yemeni people. This attack—dubbed “Operation Golden Victory”—is a microcosm of the Saudi-created disaster in Yemen. It is a part of the coalition’s continuing military effort, again with American assistance, to topple the Houthi regime and restore the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour, who fled the country nearly four years ago.
The bombardment of Hodeidah from the air and the sea is bound to force thousands out of their homes, thereby creating a massive internal refugee disaster—on top of what’s already there. Hodeidah is a major port through which food supplies and humanitarian aid are delivered to needy Yemenis. It also lies at the mouth of Bad al-Mandab. connecting the Arabia Sea and the Red Sea, and is a major international strategic waterway.
Yemen, a country on the verge of starvation and total drought due to a lack of food and fresh water, will collapse if food and humanitarian supplies are interrupted. Hundreds and potentially thousands will die of starvation, thirst, and disease. Why hasn’t the Trump administration stopped the attack?
It’s ironic that Saudi Arabia, which presents itself as the guardian of the Islam’s two holiest mosques, launches such an attack during Ramadan, a Muslim holy month during which the faithful are enjoined from engaging in war. Unless, of course, the Saudis do not consider the Houthis as true Muslims because of their Shia faith.
It is foolish to believe that this attack on the port city will lead to the collapse of the Houthi regime in Sana’a or will push the Houthis and Iran to the negotiating table. It’s equally sad that the Trump administration is consciously standing on the side of the Saudi-Emirati barbarism in Yemen, especially when American regional and national interests are not being threatened.
Washington’s unwillingness to end the Yemen war and resolve the Saudi-led tribal aggressiveness against Qatar will likely lead to the collapse of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The GCC, which came into being 37 years ago, was designed to help unify tribal regimes in the Gulf. They argued then that their unique common tribal heritage and survival dictated that they join forces and present themselves to the world as a unified group. Of course, it was more hyperbole than reality.
The Saudi-Emirati war in Yemen and the siege of Qatar have unnerved some members of the GCC, especially Oman and Kuwait. As the GCC has become irreparably fractured, it is possible to see new alignments emerge in the Gulf, with Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, and Iraq on on side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and perhaps Jordan on the other. This certainly will not bode well for the United States.
The Mirage of the Trumpian Regional Order
The American posture in the Middle East in the past half-century has had successes and failures. American diplomats have tried to balance their pursuit of the national interest with a commitment to human rights and dignity. Their efforts have not always succeeded, for many reasons. They often failed to block American domestic political actors from pursuing a certain policy at the expense of another. American diplomats, despite unwise and destructive wars, tried to uphold certain principles of good diplomacy, including speaking out for fairness and decency and against repression. They believed in people-to-people engagement and collaboration in education, economic development, and freedom of expression. They took human rights seriously even though their efforts were not often unsuccessful.
The Trumpian new regional order, by contrast, is predicated on strongman rule, disregard for human rights, Sunni primacy over Iran and other Shia centers of power, continued military support for pro-American warring parties regardless of the unlawfulness of such wars, and Israeli hegemony. The Trumpian paradigm disregards climate change, creeping desertification, fresh water shortages, and a deteriorating physical and human environment.
If this trend is not reversed, Trump’s imperial assertiveness and exploits will in the long run put the United States in peril diplomatically, militarily, and economically. His friendly regimes in the region will enjoy a similar fate as well.