Nicholas A. Heras | Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security
President Donald Trump’s domestic challenges—such as the Mueller investigation and his declining approval ratings in opinion polls—are not having a big impact on his administration’s Middle East policies. These policies should be popular with Trump’s base of domestic support, which is all that matters to him. He has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran, pressured the Palestinians to accede to Israel’s demands, and is retaining a manageable U.S. military footprint in the Middle East and North Africa to combat the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
Furthermore, Trump’s America First approach to international relations, which is popular with his base, is being applied readily in the Middle East. America First means working though local partners and empowering them to bear the burden of keeping their region secure. This is happening, and a perfect example is how effectively the Americans and Emiratis are partnering together in Yemen and U.S. support for the emerging regional thalassocracy the UAE is building through its control over port cities in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Entering U.S. midterm elections, Trump should be happy because his Middle East policies are not a wedge issue that will be used against Republicans by his opponents.
Aaron David Miller | Vice president for new initiatives and director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., former State Department advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations (1988–2003)
Increasingly immersed in his Watergate travails, former president Richard Nixon felt compelled to demonstrate that America could still project power abroad. Between 1973 and 1974, largely through then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s efforts, the United States was not only able to manage the serious crisis that erupted in the wake of 1973 Arab-Israeli war, including dramatic tension with Moscow, it also laid the basis for what would become an Egyptian-Israeli peace process.
Donald Trump isn’t Nixon, Mike Pompeo isn’t Kissinger, and there are few ongoing wars to mediate and crises to resolve quickly. Trump’s domestic woes can only serve to distract him further from developing a coherent foreign policy or coping with an emergent crisis. But that dysfunction in foreign policy—two secretaries of state, three national security advisers in a year and half—has been evident from the beginning of his administration, and is unlikely to change now.
Three influences have shaped Trump’s foreign policies since 2016: satisfying campaign commitments and the emotional needs of his base; reversing former president Barack Obama’s policies; and injecting his own personal likes, dislikes, and vanities into the foreign policy process. And despite the occasional influences of Trump’s advisers and the intrusion of reality (see maintaining U.S. forces in Syria and keeping NAFTA), they are likely to continue to do so.
So will Trump’s political travails produce some kind of dramatic October surprise in the run-up to the midterms—a little war with Iran, more devastating attacks on Syria if chemical weapons are used against rebels in Idlib, a summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un—to grab the headliners and distract attention from tell-all books, anonymous op-eds, and obstruction and collusion investigations? Never say never. But more likely, in large part because Trump like Obama is highly risk-averse when it comes to using military force, we’re likely to see more of the same: dysfunction and disarray in foreign policy as domestic woes mount.
Joseph Bahout | Non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Three of the drivers of President Donald Trump’s policies in the Middle East appear to have roots in domestic American politics and tribulations.
First, there is the “anti-Obama imperative,” that leads Trump to systematically take the opposite direction of his predecessor. Its main regional translation has been the impetus to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran. This decision was helped by the fact that, amid wide divisions in the United States, withdrawal from the deal was a unifying theme among the wings of the Republican Party.
Second, there is Trump’s America First approach, with its inherent populism. While the anti-Iran principle emboldened Gulf states and made them feel they had a blank check in the Yemen war, the idea of making regional powers pay for their own defense has so far been translated in Washington’s lucrative arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the “arms deal of the century,” regardless of what happens with the so-called “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians.
Third, there is Russia, which has led to a domestic investigation of possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign. While Trump has objectively subcontracted Syrian issues to Russian President Vladimir Putin or abandoned Egypt to Russia, the same drive has led him to compensate for accusations of collusion by showing toughness—bombing the Assad regime’s forces or decimating a group of Russian mercenaries last May.
More dangerously, as regional actors face a Trump presidency that is perceived as volatile or ephemeral, they could well be tempted to quickly maximize their gains, through bold moves and the imposition of faits accomplis, before a change of administration in Washington. This, in turn, only adds another layer of unpredictability to the one the U.S. president himself has created.
David Mack | Scholar at the Middle East Institute, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates
President Donald Trump bases his approach to issues almost entirely on his personal reputation with the U. S. public. This is often at odds with the views of his senior national security advisors, to say nothing of the carefully considered advice of the U.S. intelligence community or a consensus of U.S. experts. Under legal pressure and with congressional elections looming, a quick military strike (against Iranian forces in Syria?) to rally voter support might appeal to Trump’s self-image as a decisive commander.
The president believes he has exceptionally good instincts on foreign policy issues. He is also convinced of his talent for negotiating one-on-one with world leaders and gaining an edge in the outcomes that will yield popular support from the American public. His strategic view is closer to that of many totalitarian leaders, or even the days of absolute monarchs when international relations were conducted between the leaders or ruling families of particular countries. Popular support is a given. His favorite world leaders tend to be “strong men” who control their own publics, either by force or political guile.