Love it or hate it, Barack Obama’s Middle East policy was both clear and clearly articulated. The former US president came into office convinced that the United States had expended far too much blood and treasure in the Middle East during George W. Bush’s administration and far too little time and effort on East Asia. East Asia, he believed, would be the epicenter of global competition in the twenty-first century. Obama therefore strove to extricate the United States from the Middle East so it might “pivot to Asia,” the region that would not only be the fulcrum of global affairs in the future, but one in which American endeavors might more readily bear fruit.
To accomplish the pivot, Obama believed that the United States had to resolve or tamp down ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. It also had to resist plunging into new ones and foster an environment there that enabled regional competition but prevented regional conflagration. This meant bringing the Israel-Palestine conflict to a close, reaching out to Iran and calming the waters between it and Saudi Arabia, and ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ultimately, of course, the Obama administration failed to extricate the United States from the Middle East. There were a number of reasons for this: the hostility of “partners” like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who felt they were being abandoned; poor execution; the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 and their bloody and repressive aftermath; and hostility from Republicans, wealthy political lobbies, and those within the corridors of American power, particularly the Pentagon. In the end, Obama was forced to put any pivot on hold.
Thus, while it was strategically unsuccessful, American policy in the Middle East during the Obama administration was clear for all to see. What about the administration of Donald J. Trump?
Trump has no independent strategic vision for the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter. Overall, Trump draws his foreign policy from four sources: the promise of political gain, impulse, his affinity for strongmen (Putin, Erdogan, and the like) and, most important, his obsession with reversing the policies of the Obama administration—what the British ambassador to the United States called “diplomatic vandalism.”
Obama had grudging relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump’s first trip abroad was not to Mexico or Canada, where other presidents went on their first trips, but to Jerusalem and Riyadh. Obama attempted to end Iran’s outlier status in the region and bring it into international councils. Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and lent support to the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, an organization that is, in fact, an anti-Iran alliance made up of predominantly Sunni states. Trump did—although he was also committed to “America first” and keeping the United States out of “stupid wars.” And Trump ordered the withdrawal of the American forces in Syria that Obama had dispatched there to work with Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS. That order spoke to three of the four sources for Trump’s foreign policy (impulse, affinity for strongmen, and diplomatic vandalism) and spelled disaster for America’s Kurdish allies whose biggest mistake was once again to take American promises at face value.
Then there is Israel policy. Obama pushed for a two-state solution, pressuring Israel to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. As an interim gesture, he leaned on Israel to pause settlement construction—something that Israel grudgingly and superficially did, for a time. Trump’s “deal of the century” represents what right-wing commentators call a paradigm shift: “Israel Victory.” Trump abandoned even the pretense of American even-handedness in the Israel-Palestine conflict and gave Israel everything that all but a few die hard pro-settlement Israelis want. He moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli ownership of the Golan Heights, expelled Palestinian diplomats from the United States, ended American support for Palestinian refugees, and supports Israeli annexation of the settlements. Along the way, his administration became the first in American history to declare the settlements to be unambiguously legal—something international law experts know to be untrue.
Trump’s Israel policy thus also spoke to three of the four sources of his foreign policy: his affinity for strongmen (Netanyahu), his obsession with reversing Obama’s policies (a negotiated two-state solution), and, of course, political gain (winning the vote of evangelical Christians). And who knows? Maybe there was some impulse involved as well.
Under Trump, America’s former proxies in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—make policy for the United States. The Israeli and Saudi leadership worked with anti-Iran hawks such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and unrepentant neoconservatives such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton in the Trump camp and played on Trump’s antipathy to his predecessor, personal quirks, and ignorance of the region and the issues at stake. Their purpose was to win him over to a strategic vision that divided a complex part of the world into binary categories of good (Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc.) and bad (Iran, etc.).
And it worked: Trump and his enablers made Saudi and Israeli Iranophobia the foundation for America’s regional policy. Trump vilified Obama’s policy of “engagement” with Iran as “appeasement.”
Chances are the United States has lost its hegemonic position in the Middle East for good. And policy analysts and historians will continue to argue about whether that loss was inevitable, the result of contingent factors, or the result of the failings of one or another leader (Barack Obama? Donald J. Trump?). But in the end, it is worth remembering the unique set of circumstances that both permitted and compelled the United States to take on the role of Middle East hegemon and that obliged states in the region to accept it as such.
During the period of American hegemony in the Middle East, the global system was bipolar, the contest to dominate the region played out as a zero sum game in which a victory for one side meant a loss for the other, and the Middle East was a prize worth competing for. The United States was unrivalled as an economic and, arguably, military power and had a preeminent position within the global economic system. There was a core group of states in the Middle East whose interests aligned with American interests and whose very existence the American security umbrella guaranteed. And with the help of some deft diplomacy in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the United States became the only power capable of brokering a land-for-peace deal among the combatants. This put the most populous and militarily capable Arab state, Egypt—previously the region’s preeminent spoiler—permanently in the American pocket.
Comparable circumstances do not exist for the United States anymore, nor for any state or group of states for that matter. There has, of late, been a lot of talk of Russia or China taking America’s place in the region, but Russia’s ambitions outstrip its capabilities; for China the opposite is true. In the absence of a hegemon, local powers—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran—will vie without check for position within the regional order.