by Seth Binder
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expected to outline the Trump administration’s grand strategy for the Middle East in his speech at the American University of Cairo earlier this month, but he did not even lay out a coherent policy. Although Pompeo touted America as “reinvigorated” and a “force for good” in the region, President Trump has shown little interest in, let alone a broad policy vision for, this part of the world. Trump’s approach in practice has focused on reversing Obama’s policies and confronting Iran, both of which play into his largest concern: appealing to his domestic political base.
This has meant unbridled U.S. support, with few exceptions, for regional actors like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel that have positioned themselves in opposition to Iran. The administration has continued to support the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, including a disingenuous certification of the coalition’s attempts to reduce civilian targeting. It has supported Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s $100 billion “shakedown” at the Ritz Carlton, blockade of Qatar, and severing of diplomatic relations with Canada, while shielding the crown prince from any accountability for the brazen murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. It has even looked the other way as the Emirati government tortures prisoners and assassinates rivals in Yemen. These reckless actions by U.S. allies have only hindered economic development, scared off foreign investment, weakened regional security, and hurt U.S. moral standing in the world.
U.S. officials often mention how Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and pullout from the Iran deal are major successes, yet never explain how either helps further U.S. interests besides upholding campaign promises. Instead, the Palestinians, enraged by Jerusalem being taken “off the table,” have broken off negotiations, killing Trump’s “deal of the century” before it is even announced. In response, the administration has punished the Palestinian people by cutting bilateral economic aid and all U.S. funding for UNRWA. And although Iran has met the terms of the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United States has given the Iranian regime leverage to violate the agreement and renew its nuclear program at little cost.
Making matters worse, the “reinvigorated” U.S. engagement with the region has been inconsistent, leaving both allies and adversaries confused. For example, not only is President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria opposed by the Israelis and nearly the entire national security establishment in Washington—including administration staff—it cedes even more leverage in Syria to Iran, although Pompeo criticized Obama for doing the same.
Some top officials, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has advocated for the United States to support regime change in Iran, have recreated an outdated Cold War mindset that sees Iran as the “evil empire” and Sunni Arab autocratic allies as the only way to contain Iran. But when that policy contradicts campaign promises, like the president’s call to remove troops from the region, U.S. government officials and coalition partners alike are hung out to dry. Removing troops from Syria is not inherently bad policy. But as Brett McGurk, who retired as special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS following Trump’s hasty decision, noted, “the president’s decision to leave Syria was made without deliberation, consultation with allies or Congress, assessment of risk, or appreciation of facts,” giving “the Islamic State—and other American adversaries—new life.”
In his speech, and throughout his tour of the region, Pompeo ignored the danger of rising authoritarianism. From Morocco and Bahrain to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, U.S. allies in the region have taken increasingly repressive actions to crack down on freedom of speech, association, and the press, suppressing nearly all forms of opposition and avenues for peaceful expression. Pompeo justified reinvigorated U.S. support for these regimes by arguing that Obama’s abandonment of U.S. partners strengthened Iran and embroiled the region in conflict. Pompeo preached to his audience, “We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.”
At the same time Pompeo noted that “a strong, secure, and economically vibrant Middle East is in our national interest.” But that cannot be achieved by embracing and emboldening dictators. As the Arab Spring showed, authoritarian “stability” is brittle. The United States has been far from perfect, and at times contradictory, in its promotion of good governance and human rights, but calling out countries on their misdeeds while continuing to help partners develop through aid is vital to roll back the tide of authoritarianism. The United States should use its leverage as the largest economic power and its bully pulpit as a protector of individual freedoms. Ultimately, U.S. economic and security interests lie in freer societies where partnerships can be built on more than transactional interests.
If there is one positive result of the Trump administration’s policy in the region, it is that it has driven Congress to take a more active role in foreign policy. In December, the Senate, for the first time ever, passed a War Powers Resolution that called for the end of U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition’s disastrous war in Yemen. The House of Representatives, with more than 100 bipartisan co-sponsors, seemed poised to pass similar legislation before the Republican leadership used a gimmicky rule change to stave off a vote. The upper chamber also passed a unanimous rebuke of the Saudi crown prince, blaming him for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and introduced bipartisan legislation to sanction the Saudi regime for the murder. In addition, Congress has stepped up its oversight role, which led to the Department of Defense discovering that it had never received payment from the coalition for over $300 million in aerial refueling and associated costs. These bipartisan efforts send a strong message to regional partners and likely led the administration to end U.S. aerial refueling to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Congress can and should do much more. Partisan loyalties may hinder more consequential legislation, but members of Congress need to continue to find ways to rein in the president’s worst impulses. In cases where they are unable to do that, their efforts send a message to the region that the administration’s policies have opposition in Congress. Members should hold public hearings on the dangerous adventurism of U.S. partners in the region and their crackdowns on civil society. Congress needs to make sure that the money they allocate is spent as they intended. If legislators can reach an agreement on providing humanitarian and stabilization assistance to Palestinians and Syrians again this year, then the administration should provide those funds.
And when extraordinary situations arise—like the murder of Jamal Khashoggi—Congress must come together and pass purposeful legislation. One hundred senators have already said the crown prince was responsible. To not live up to their own calls for accountability would be an abdication of responsibility. Even though it is not able to administer policy with the nuance of the executive branch, the legislature can create the boundaries and rules for the president to execute foreign policy and ensure that it aligns with America’s interests and values.
Seth Binder is advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy where he focuses on U.S. policy toward the Middle East and North Africa. Previously he worked on U.S. security assistance and arms sales policy at the Center for International Policy.