Foreign Policy: Trump’s Middle East Policy lacks the Finesse of a Nixon-Kissinger

June 11, 2017

Foreign Policy: Trump’s Middle East Policy lacks the Finesse of a Nixon-Kissinger

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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President Trump returned from his first overseas trip convinced that he had unified the United States’ historic Arab allies, dealt a strong blow against terrorism and calmed the waters of an unruly Middle East. Since then we have seen a series of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, and an open split within the Arab world. What is going on?

The premise of Trump’s strategy was to support Saudi Arabia, in the belief that it would be able to fight terrorism and stabilize the region. In fact, Trump gave a green light to the Saudis to pursue their increasingly aggressive, sectarian foreign policy.

The first element of that policy has been to excommunicate its longtime rival, Qatar, breaking relations with that country and pressing its closest allies to do the same. The Saudis have always viewed Qatar as a troublesome neighbor and are infuriated by its efforts to play a regional and global role by hosting a large U.S. military base, founding the Al Jazeera television network, planning to host the 2022 World Cup and punching above its weight diplomatically.

It’s true that Qatar has supported some extremist Islamist movements. So has Saudi Arabia. Both are Wahhabi countries, both have within them extremist preachers, and both are widely believed to have armed Islamist groups in Syria and elsewhere. In both cases, the royal families play a game of allying themselves with fundamentalist religious forces and funding some militants, even while fighting other violent groups.

In other words, their differences are really geopolitical, though often dressed up as ideological.

The open split between the two countries will create much greater regional instability. Qatar will now move closer to Iran and Turkey, forging deeper alliances with anti-Saudi groups throughout the Muslim world. The battles among various factions of militants — in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and North Africa — will heat up. The terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, are viewed in Iran as being part of a Saudi-inspired campaign against it. We should expect that Iranian-backed militias will respond in some way. So much for regional stability.

And the United States is in the middle of it all, keeping close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates while directing U.S. regional military operations out of its base in Qatar. Trump has issued anti-Qatar tweets, but U.S. troops will have to live with the reality that Qatar is their host and close military ally in the war against the Islamic State.

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For a superpower such as the United States, the best policy in the Middle East has always been to maintain ties with all regional players. One of the great successes of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy was that they were able to woo Egypt into the American sphere, while simultaneously preserving an alliance with the shah of Iran. For decades, Washington was able to play a Bismarckian game of cultivating good relations with all countries, indeed better than these nations had with each other.

Two seismic events altered the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. The first was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which ushered a radical revisionist power into the region, and then triggered a reaction from countries including Saudi Arabia. Iran’s promise to spread its version of Islam led the Saudis to ramp up their own efforts to spread their ideas and influence. The results were poisonous for the Muslim world, radicalizing communities everywhere.

The next earthquake was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which destabilized the balance of power. Iran’s ambitions had been kept in check by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had fought a bloody eight-year war against it. With Saddam gone, Iran’s influence began to spread in Iraq, where it is now the most important external influence on the Baghdad government. Iran’s alliance with Syria became central to President Bashar al-Assad’s survival. Its relations with Shiite communities everywhere, from Yemen to Bahrain, have been strengthened.

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If the Trump administration wants stability in the Middle East, it should help broker a new balance of power. This cannot happen purely on Saudi terms. Iran is a major player in the region, with real influence, and its role will have to be recognized. The longer Washington waits to do this, the more the instability will grow. This would not cede anything to Tehran. Iran’s influence would be countered by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others. The goal would be a Middle East in which all of the regional powers felt invested enough that they would work to end the proxy wars, insurgencies and terrorism that continue to create so much death, destruction and human misery.

Trump recently learned that health care is complicated. Welcome to the Middle East.

7 thoughts on “Foreign Policy: Trump’s Middle East Policy lacks the Finesse of a Nixon-Kissinger

  1. ‘Trump recently learned that health care is complicated. Welcome to the Middle East.’ Tell us all about the article.

  2. Donald Trump is a seven year old boy in a seventy year old man’s body.This man is simply ignorant,stupid and a dumb ass.The US has a presence of an air force and military base of ten thousand men.Yet,he sided with the Saudis and belittled the Qatar government.

    And a more stupider ass kisser,Republican house speaker Paul Ryan.Paul Ryan said that Donald Trump did not know about the laws concerning obstruction of justice.And if a Democrat was the POTUS,the republicans would not impeach.Because of ignorance of the law.So,Donald Trump should not be impeach if found guilty.All because of being ignorant,was Ryan’s excuse?What if Donald Trump did the grab them by the p*ssies on Ryan’s female staffers,daughters or nieces.Will Donald Trump be innocent because his lawyers plead ignorance?Paul Ryan?Yes,of course.

  3. Donald Trump failed geography in grade school and in high school. He doesn’t even know which countries make up the region called Middle East. He can’t even differentiate an Arab from a Persian. He doesn’t read the Security briefings and thus doesn’t know that the US military have a very big presence in Qatar from which they conduct operations throughout the Arabian peninsula and as far away as North Africa.

    He has managed to insult Qatar a strong US ally. He also doesn’t understand the history and culture of the different nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan and the Emirates. He thinks that Saudi Arabia holds the key to disarming IS. He needs to have a better State Department and Secretary of State otherwise his mid east policies will create more turmoil and fighting in an already fragmented region. Dealing with the Arab countries is not the same as making a business deal. There is the different culture, mores, norms, politics and above all the personalities involved, not counting the Sunni versus Shia factor.
    Semper Fi,

    That said, Americans put him in The White House. And we in Malaysia elected Najib Razak and will keep him in office after GE-14. The world is suffering from a political leadership crisis and democracy has become a failed system.

    I am sure, you and LaMOy have something to say about the paralysis in Washington DC and the frenzy over Russia.

    The show which is being put on in Congress is a joke. Nobody takes The House and the Senate seriously. We in Malaysia think our Parliament is a “pentas untuk bertemasha”.–Din Merican

    • DDM Americans voted for Hilary giving her over 3 million more popular votes than Drumpski but the Electoral College chose to award Drumpski the Presidency. That is why there are many groups opposing Drumpski such as ‘Indivisible’ and other PAC.

  4. Qatar, which hosts a huge US airbase for missions to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, has played the role of a modest regional counterbalance against Saudi domination of the Persian Gulf. Crucially, it hosts Al-Jazeera, the leading Arabic satellite news network that the Saudis hate. The Saudis’ nominal excuse for breaking diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar was its sponsorship of terror. But the real reason was that Trump’s comments on his visit to Saudi Arabia, when he told Arab leaders that he wanted a stop to “funding of radical ideology”, gave the kingdom an excuse to take steps against a rival whom it considers a thorn in its side and a dangerous source of critical news. Trump was not quick enough that this was a way of deflecting attention from the Saudis while dangling the possibility of action against Qatar. He took the bait.

    Trump was outwitted and got played by the Saudis and he bragged on Twitter taking credit for the breakup between Saudi Arabia and three Arab partners on one side and Qatar, a staunch US ally, on the other. The challenge now is to figure out how to walk back the brewing diplomatic disaster without a public reversal by Trump – a step he has shown no inclination to take.

    Pentagon has continued to trumpet Qatar’s “enduring commitment to regional security.” Small wonder: More than 11,000 US and allied forces are stationed at Qatar’s strategically essential Al Udeid airbase. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called on the Arab states to stop blockading Qatar but Trump continues to applaud the move on Twitter, completely contradicting and undermining Tillerson. Trump apparently just doesn’t understand how important Qatar is to the US. With such an ignorant and idiotic narcissist as president, how can the crisis be resolved?

    Trump is pushing Qatar away and other regional actors would be happy to take the place of the US. The worst scenario would be closer ties between Qatar and Iran and Russia, which are trying to take advantage of Trump’s blunder. Turkey, itself a US ally that is growing closer to Russia and Iran, has already tossed Qatar a lifeline in the form of goods to replace those that aren’t coming from the gulf and promised military protection.

    Is there anyone still exalts how successful Trump’s Middle East trip was, besides the Trumpanzees?

  5. This split between the Saudis et al and Qatar has been ongoing for the past decade. Many moons ago – just after the onset of the so-called Arab Spring (er..,Winter), i’d mentioned it – as i was privy to the angst, antipathy and acrimony by the autocratic fat-cats for the previous Qatari Emir al-Thani, who was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbollah and other Islamist radicals. The present FUBAR is just a manifestation of that SNAFU.

    Qatar is deemed as the upstart, inimical to the ‘health’ of regional Despots, even when they were just as despotic and arrogant.

    Frankly, Drumpf is just the convenient Fool who can’t differentiate the Sunnis and Shia and is so ignorant that it boggles any thinking soul. His reaction to this mess is like a toddler given a choice of lighted candles or a live electrical socket. After all there’s a Drumpf Tower in Dubai.., so his ‘ministrations are totally self serving.

    As for Malusia, the current FDI from Saudi stands at 7+ billion (not counting so-called Donations), while the Qatari have invested 12-16 billion. Luckily, Abu Dhabi sponsored FLOM’s favorite childhood pedagogy nonsense at the onset, but no longer..

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