“Defense first, diplomacy last, development never – and don’t even ask about democracy” (New Republic 2017)
Donald Trump’s fans and detractors don’t agree on much. According to Carnegie Endowment (2017), one point of consensus has been that he would radically change U.S. policy in the Middle East. What started as a shallow hotchpotch of bizarre tweets and statements got more shape during his first foreign trip from May 19 to May 27 and his reactions to the Qatar crisis. Whilst some of these show a great sense of continuity to the Obama administration’s Middle East approaches, others do not and cause further instability in the region.
- Trump shows a resolute stand on the question of political hegemony in the Middle East, namely supporting Sunni Arabs like Saudi Arabia and stopping US-Iran rapprochement (cf. Foreign Affairs 2016). Obama’s Middle East policies on Iran and Syria gave room for new struggles over influence in the region. The facts that Obama did not follow through on his red line declaration regarding the usage of chemical weapons in Syria, while focusing on achieving the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, made Sunni Arabs apprehensive. Trump labelled the Iran agreement a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated” but five months into his presidency the deal remains in force and the sanctions still lifted. By signing a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia during his visit on May 20, Trump reassured Saudi Arabia’s position as the key US ally in the Middle East. This move even outnumbers the unprecedented arms sales of the Obama administration to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
- Trump reassured some longstanding alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, while diplomatically degrading others, like Iran and subsequently also Qatar. On May 21, Trump gave a speech in Riyadh which was not only directed at Saudi Arabia as a country but at Saudi Arabia as a leadership hub of the entire ‘Muslim world’ – Muslim leaders literally gathered there for meeting with Trump. His location choice per se was degrading to other regional US partners, like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, where Obama held his benchmark speech on Islam in 2009. In his 2017 Riyadh speech, Trump did not mention the executive orders he signed for banning visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries. Instead, he emphasized Sunni-US cooperation in the fight against extremism. Thereby, Trump identified Iran as the source of evil, as having “fuled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” in the region. After hours of meeting individually with leaders of Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait as well as other Muslim leaders in a group meeting, he formed a Muslim coalition of friends against extremism. Arguably, this group was/is responsible for the Qatar crisis (see below).
- Trump is increasing US military engagement in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, however, without connecting this approach to a comprehensive diplomatic strategy (New Republic 2017). Whilst Obama authorized more drone strikes than his predecessor Bush, Trump launched more airstrikes than Obama in any year of his presidency in just one week in Yemen (known as the ‘Yemen Raid’). After a chlor attack on Syrian civilians and all fingers pointing at Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Trump decided for a first direct US military engagement in Syria by bombing the al-Shayrat airbase with thomahawk missiles. In May, he used the infamous ‘Mother of all Bombs’ for destroying an ISIS tunnel system in Afghanistan. While his politics definitely lead to decreasing the absolute number of terrorists over the short-term, the relative effects of such US involvement against the premise of sovereignty in Middle Eastern countries remain to be examined. Drawing from previous experiences from the fight against al-Qaeda, however, this approach seems doomed to rising civilian missentiments and spreading conservative beliefs.
On June 6, Trump complimented Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states on breaking their relations with Qatar, which they accuse of supporting Iran and terrorism in the region. Analysts, however, claim that this inner-Gulf rift has been there for some years, as Qatar challenged Saudi’s regional hegemony by making its own contributions to the proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. Turkey which already showed distress about the US partnering with the Kurdish Peshmerga and YPG forces in northern Iraq and Syria, decided on June 8 to employ soldiers to military bases in Qatar. Foreign Policy already even asked whether this crisis would lead to the next Great War.
Obama followed the strategy of ‘leading from behind’, Trump’s seems more like a scattergun approach. As an immediate reaction to Trump’s foreign visits in May, Carnegie Endowment argued that none of his actions may add up to a coherent policy yet occur as “surprisingly normal”. Some two weeks later, we already see some of the imbalances he created. With further weapons exported to Saudi Arabia, the proxy war in Yemen could further escalate, whereas Turkish troops in Qatar may spark a fear of a Middle East arms race. If anything, Trump’s Middle East policies emphasize the need for doctrines in uncertain times.