2017: A look back at Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East

FAHAD NAZER

WASHINGTON: Some American pundits argue that US President Donald Trump’s most notable achievement in his first year in office came in the waning days of December, when Trump and the Republican majority in the US Congress succeeded in overhauling the US tax code. The centerpiece of the most significant tax reform in decades is a reduction in the rate of corporate taxes. It represents a significant philosophical shift and a return to the supply-side economics that have become synonymous with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The tax bill will likely loom large in Trump’s legacy. However, that does not mean that 2017 was not a seminal year in American foreign policy as well.

While overshadowed by the passing of the aforementioned tax legislation, the Trump administration released a 70-page National Security Strategy (NSS) earlier this week which outlines what it considers to be the main threats to US national security and the strategies it has adopted to confront them. Whereas few observers spoke with any degree of certainty at the beginning of the year about what the contours of a “Trump doctrine” would look like, the administration’s actions and statements during its first year, in addition to the release of the NSS, have answered many important questions. As 2017 comes to a close, we have a reasonably good idea about how Trump views the world and the role the US should play in it.

Perhaps more than any other single phrase uttered by Trump during his inaugural address in January, “America first” received an inordinate amount of attention from analysts both inside and outside the US. And while some interpreted it as a shift to unilateralism, or even isolationism, a review of the Trump administration’s record during the course of its first year, as well as a careful reading of the NSS, suggests that is not the case.

Trump sent a clear and powerful message to the Middle East and the world when he decided to make Saudi Arabia the destination of his first official overseas trip. The NSS explicitly states that combating terrorists, countering the “domination” of hostile powers, and ensuring “a stable energy market” are America’s main objectives in the Middle East. Nevertheless, it was implicit in his visit to Riyadh that the US had no intention of disengaging from the world in general or from the Middle East in particular.

Trump has consistently said that combating and defeating violent extremists and terrorist groups including Daesh and Al-Qaeda was among his top foreign policy priorities. His choice of Saudi Arabia as the location from which he issued a call to the Islamic world to unite in its rejection of Daesh’s culture of death was an auspicious start to his foray into foreign affairs. In Riyadh, he stressed that Islamic countries must strengthen their efforts to eject extremists who distort the tenets of Islam to achieve political ends. His choice of Riyadh also indicated a solid grasp of the important leadership role that Saudi Arabia plays in the Islamic world. It suggested that the Trump administration understood that no unilateral measure — military or otherwise — would be enough to defeat the threat of terrorist groups. Daesh and Al-Qaeda have waged a war against all humanity and the international community must continue to work in tandem to counter and ultimately defeat this threat.

In Riyadh, Trump’s message to the Islamic world resonated well. However, critics argued that striking the right tone in a speech abroad is one thing, but what an administration does when it is confronted with a crisis is the ultimate test. Not surprisingly, that test came in Syria.

Trump’s predecessor, President Barak Obama, was widely criticized in 2013 for not adhering to his self-imposed “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in that war. His sudden reversal on not allowing the regime of Bashar Assad to use weapons of mass destruction against its civilian population with impunity confounded his critics and his supporters. Both expressed serious concerns about the ramifications of the reversal and what it meant for America’s credibility.

Faced with yet another well-documented incident of chemical-weapon use by Assad against civilians, including women and children, Trump proved resolute, as he ordered the US military to strike the air base from which the chemical attack on Idlib originated in April.

While the missile strikes were limited, they were praised by many in the Middle East for sending a strong message to Assad and for making it clear that the Trump administration believes the continuing political turmoil in the region calls for clarity, not ambiguity. Much like the leadership of Saudi Arabia, the US under Trump appears to believe that clear, resolute and assertive foreign policies are the correct approach to addressing the two main sources of insecurity in the region: Violent, non-state actors and their state sponsors.

True to its word, the US has continued to take the fight to Daesh in both Syria and Iraq. Playing an important supporting role to the government of Iraq, the US administration received high marks for staying the course and increasing its targeting of the remaining Daesh strongholds in Iraq. It has done the same in Syria, where it is supporting Arab and Kurdish forces. The two efforts have been successful enough for the terror group to lose virtually all of the territory it controlled in in both countries in 2014. The NSS makes clear that the administration will continue to work closely with its allies to defeat Daesh and other terrorist groups “by exposing its falsehoods, promoting counter-narratives, and amplifying credible voices.”

Trump also received high praise from officials and analysts in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and other Arab nations for his approach to what his administration has called Iran’s “nefarious activities” in the region. Trump and his top advisers and spokespeople have repeatedly made clear that they have adopted a very different philosophy to confronting Iran than that of Obama.

On multiple occasions, Trump officials have said that they will no longer draw a distinction between Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region, including its support of militant groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, and its adherence — or lack thereof — to the nuclear agreement Iran signed with six nations, including the United States, in 2015.

Trump has also refused to certify Iran’s compliance with that agreement. And while whether Iran is adhering to the terms of the agreement is a matter of dispute, there is little question that it has continued to flout international laws, conventions and norms by supporting militant groups and terrorist operations across the region and beyond.

The Trump administration and the US Congress have taken several measures to curtail the destabilizing activities of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Quds Force, especially the financing of their activities. America has also imposed additional economic sanctions on Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is safe to assume that members of Congress will pay even closer attention to Hezbollah next year, particularly in the aftermath of a lengthy — and controversial — article in the US media claiming that the Obama administration hampered the efforts of US law enforcement agencies trying to establish a link between Hezbollah and international drug cartels.

The Trump’s administration declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and its decision to move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv have proven controversial. It is difficult, at this point, to see how these measures could advance peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis. However, there is hope among some observers that the Trump team might bring a new approach to the now-stalled peace process. 2018 will likely prove pivotal in determining if the administration is successful.

Overall, the Trump administration receives high marks from many officials and analysts in the Arab world, and especially the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, who have argued — correctly — that an engaged United States is a force for good.

America’s political weight, military power and economic strength makes it uniquely positioned to help bring political stability to the Middle East and beyond. The Trump administration understands this reality. Its track record in the Middle East so far bodes well for the future of the region.

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