by Emile Nakhleh
President Trump’s new National Security Strategy and the negative reaction his announcement on Jerusalem has generated in the UN Security Council and General Assembly do not bode well for America’s relations with friendly Arab countries and the wider Islamic world. Arab peoples and media seem bewildered by the president’s recent decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and baffled by the apparent lack of a coherent American policy toward the Arab world generally and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically.
The inconsistency and discontinuity in the president’s varied positions and tweets on complex Middle Eastern issues do not present the region with a clear trajectory for Arab-American relations in the coming years. This risks leaving the region on a precarious path to nowhere. The view from the Middle East is that the lack of coherence in American policy toward critical war and peace issues in the Levant, the Persian Gulf, and North Africa is leaving Arab leaders and peoples wondering whether they can continue to depend on Washington for regional security and stability.
President Trump’s “National Security Strategy” would seem to underscore Washington’s benign attitude and callousness toward the Saudi-led war—and resulting humanitarian tragedy—in Yemen; the continued repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other “friendly” Arab regimes; and Palestinian and Arab frustration over the dead-end attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
American diplomatic efforts regarding the future of Syria beyond the Assad regime seem equally futile. Nor has Washington shown a serious effort to address the destructive power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Trump administration reportedly was caught off guard when the Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman placed the Lebanese prime minister under house arrest in Riyadh and forced him to resign on television with no convincing explanation for his action, which has since backfired.
The American military continues to battle the remnants of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in Syria and some parts of Iraq, but Trump’s national security speech gave no glimpse of a reasoned, deliberate strategy to deal with terrorism beyond the Islamic State or to address the rising threat of recently rebranded al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria and elsewhere, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
For years, students of the region have warned that defeating the Islamic State without addressing the root causes that gave rise to it in the first place is a temporary panacea but not a long-term cure of the region’s ills. Repressive and corrupt policies by the region’s entrenched authoritarian regimes—many of which the Trump administration has viewed with favor—together with radical Sunni ideologies that mostly emanate from the Gulf and South Asia, have helped sow the seeds of extremism and terrorism. American silence on the drivers of radicalism and its support for Arab autocrats militarily and politically have put American national security in jeopardy.
Arabs might be forgiven if they take a cynical view toward the Trump administration’s silence in this area. They wonder who is benefiting from this policy and what the U.S., or possibly the Trump administration or Trump himself, is getting in return from wealthy Arab autocrats for this gentle treatment.
Disengagement and Power Vacuum
The perceived American diplomatic and strategic disengagement from the region has created a power vacuum, which other actors have been willing and ready to fill. Political philosophers since Machiavelli have argued that power abhors a vacuum and that when this occurs, other states—usually adversaries—rush in.
The last century provides poignant lessons in this respect, particularly for the Middle East. Whenever vacuums have developed, other state and non-state actors have come in with intentions inimical to American interests and strategic policy objectives.
A year into the Trump administration, this new power vacuum—largely created by the absence of American diplomacy—has been filled by regional and extra-regional state actors. Regionally, the Saudi and UAE crown princes, Mohammad bin Salman and Mohammad bin Zayed, view themselves as a new breed of Arab leaders, with the financial clout to chart the future of the region. Amassing power at home by suppressing domestic opposition and playing with the “big boys” internationally, these two leaders are attempting to create a new Arab architecture that could appeal to President Trump and other Western leaders. Unfortunately for Arab youth, such an architecture is grounded in autocracy, obsession with power, repression, corruption, and a lack of inclusion.
It’s interesting to note that of the three young Arab leaders who emerged in the 1990s—King Abdullah of Jordan, King Muhammad of Morocco, and Bashar al-Assad of Syria—the latter was the only one identified by government analysts at the time as the voice of inclusion and moderation and the face of a different and a more dynamic Arab world! It was much easier to imagine a rosy future based on wishful thinking than to accurately assess Assad’s obsession with power. Washington today faces a similar reality regarding the two leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Iran and Turkey, two non-Arab states, have been working diligently to spread their regional influence as well. They seem to be working in collaboration with two external adversarial powers, Russia and China. As Arabs and non-Arabs become more disillusioned with America’s growing disengagement and policy-driven marginalization, they will turn increasingly to other powers in pursuit of their interests—commercially, economically, and militarily.
American diplomatic disengagement and confusion are most stark regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Yemen war, the Syrian debacle, and Iran.
President Trump’s decision almost a year ago to place his son in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated a sense of mild optimism among some regional observers despite Kushner’s lack of expertise. Optimists saw in the appointment a chance to explore new modalities for a solution. Pessimists, who unfortunately assessed the situation more accurately, scoffed at the appointment and asked derisively, “What peace process?”
Trump’s statement on Jerusalem clearly showed a shallow knowledge of the history of the conflict and of the international consensus on Jerusalem. The nearly unanimous international rejection of the statement as evidenced by the votes in the UN Security Council (14-1) and the General Assembly (128-9) demonstrated America’s policy isolation in the Middle East and globally. The American ambassador cast the only dissenting vote, using America’s veto power, in the Security Council. In the General Assembly, only the United States, Israel and a few mostly small island countries voted against the resolution. The resolutions in both bodies in effect nullified President Trump’s statement on Jerusalem, leaving the region without a clear path toward a plausible resolution of the conflict.
A possible silver lining in the president’s statement is that it forced many Arabs and Muslims to initiate a new conversation on what Jerusalem means to them beyond their faith. The inconvenient reality is that the foreign policies of most Arab and Muslim countries in recent decades have barely acknowledged any emotional commitment to Palestine or Jerusalem.
Arab and Muslim regimes have for the most part pursued their relations with each other and with the outside world—including with Israel—with little or no regard for Jerusalem and Palestine. Although these two issues have frequently been dished out by regimes to mollify their “streets,” the so-called peace process has been just that: a process with no policy or peace.
More and more Israelis and Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims do not see the two-state paradigm as attainable or doable. If the Trump administration is interested in settling the conflict, it should jettison this paradigm and search for more creative alternatives. The current situation is unsustainable. Israel faces two policy choices: retain its occupation of territory that is home to millions of Palestinians, and therefore become an apartheid state; or grant the Palestinians citizenship and respect their cultural heritage and human rights.
The relentless Saudi air strikes on Yemeni infrastructure and civilians have rendered the country a humanitarian disaster. Yemeni children, because of this war, are suffering from famine, malnutrition, horrible diseases, and poor sanitation. Saudi Arabia feels empowered to continue this war primarily because of America’s diplomatic disengagement, its silence in the face of this tragedy, and its military support of the Saudi war effort. If the Trump administration is interested in ending this disastrous conflict, it could use its considerable influence and leverage with the Saudi crown prince to initiate negotiations with the Houthis, Iran, and other Gulf states on this issue. In the face of Trump’s continued acquiescence in the Saudi destructive war in Yemen, one could rightfully ask what quid pro quo the Trump administration is getting from the Saudi and Emirati monarchies in return.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been largely absent on Syria. Now that the Islamic State is almost completely defeated in Syria, the time is right for American diplomacy to play a pivotal role in charting a viable course for a new Syria without ISIS or Assad. Back in 2012, president Barack Obama said that Assad must move aside but did precious little to realize that goal. What drove Obama’s decision not to follow through on his threat to remove Assad from power? Did his visceral opposition to putting boots on the ground drive his refusal to act?
Secretary Tillerson also said that Syria’s future will not include Assad, but American diplomacy has done equally little to bring this about. In fact, Russia, Iran, and Turkey seem to be the only key players discussing the future of Syria. Similarly, one could ask why is the Trump administration giving Russia such a free rein in Syria? How are our strategic interests being served by allowing Russia to re-enter the Middle East after it was forced out of the region in the early 1970s? Why does Putin have such a strong hold on the Trump administration?
The Trump administration has been more bellicose on Iran and the nuclear deal than on other regional issues. President Trump and his UN ambassador often rail against Iran’s regional policies and against the nuclear deal. Trump and his spokespeople give the unmistaken impression that they want to scuttle the deal with Iran, claiming that Teheran has been in violation of the agreement. When the Obama administration negotiated with Iran, its primary goal was to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The agreement has succeeded in doing that, at least for the next decade and a half.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry argued that separating Iran’s nuclear issue from the country’s other regional policies, which ran counter to American interests in the region, was the only way to negotiate the nuclear deal. The Obama administration correctly maintained that once a nuclear deal was reached, Washington and Tehran could then negotiate on the other issues, including terrorism, Yemen, Iraq, Hezbollah, and Syria. The Trump administration has rejected this separation, leading to a growing impasse and potential hostilities between the two countries.
Here again, American diplomacy could play a crucial role in settling the conflict with Iran on the non-nuclear disputes and cool down the rhetoric of yet another Gulf war. Secretary Tillerson, alas, maintains his silence on this critical regional issue. If such a strategy does not serve American regional interests, whose interests does it serve? Pursuing long-term Gulf security and stability demands that we not ignore Iran, for that would be foolish and perilous. This should have been made evident in President Trump’s National Security Strategy speech.