By Robin Wright
January 19, 2018
Three of President Trump’s four major initiatives in the world’s most volatile region are failing.
Last May, over a working lunch with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, at the White House, President Trump vowed to broker the final, elusive phase of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. “It’s something, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” the new President opined. Trump said that his Administration had a “very, very good chance” to get it done. “And I think you feel the same way,” he told Abbas. The Palestinian leader responded, “We have hope.” He praised Trump for his “courageous stewardship, wisdom [and] negotiating ability.”
As Trump marks a year in office, his ambitious foreign policy in the world’s most volatile region is in tatters. Vice-President Mike Pence arrives in the Middle East this weekend, with stops in Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, amid growing anger at the Trump Administration, little to show for its pledges, and almost no prospect of progress anytime soon, while getting sucked into longer-term military commitments to preserve its few gains. Abbas—who has staked his political career on making peace with Israel—has refused to even see Pence.
The Arab-Israeli peace process—the President’s most robust initiative—imploded last month, after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. “Today is the day that the Oslo Accords end,” Abbas raged in a two-hour speech, on January 14th. “We will not accept the U.S. to be a mediator, because after what they have done to us—a believer shall not be stung twice in the same place.” What had been promised as “the deal of the century,” he said, had turned into “the slap of the century.”
Trump had four goals in the Middle East when he came into office, beginning with energizing the peace process. The second was wrapping up the war against the Islamic State launched by his predecessor, in 2014. The third was checking Iran’s influence in the region and wringing out new concessions on its nuclear program. The fourth was deepening support for a certain type of Arab leader, notably Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and the Saudi royal family. “We must seek partners, not perfection,” Trump said, in a speech in Riyadh, the first leg of his first foreign trip as President.
Paul Salem, a vice-president at the Middle East Institute, in Washington, and the son of a former Lebanese foreign minister, gives Trump a C, at best. “In some areas, his policy is going well,” he said. “The war on ISIS, started in the Obama years, is a major success. But in some areas it’s going terribly, including the peace process, which is considerably worse.”
“The real problem,” he said, “is that, a year into the Administration, it’s still not clear who or what the Administration is. It has not consolidated its decision-making. Who’s in charge? Does Tillerson speak for the U.S. government? Does Kushner? A lot of people in the Middle East are still dumbfounded. Add to that the President is mercurial and unpredictable. He might have one position on Monday and another on Tuesday. That makes people in the region wonder. At least with Putin, you know who you’re dealing with. What he says on Monday will hold on Friday.”
Questions are not limited to the Middle East. A Gallup poll released on Thursday reported that global disapproval of U.S. leadership hit a record high in 2017. Ironically, the highest disapproval of the Trump Administration—eighty-three per cent—was in Norway, a country that Trump cited this month as a preferred source of immigrants.
The backlash on the Jerusalem decision also extends far beyond the Middle East. Last month, the United States had to exert its veto at the U.N. Security Council to block a resolution demanding that the White House rescind its decision. The other fourteen members supported the rebuke. A few days later, the U.N. General Assembly (of all member states) overwhelmingly denounced Trump’s decision. The vote was a hundred and twenty-eight countries for the resolution (including all major U.S. allies except Israel) to only nine votes against it (by marginal international players, such as Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Togo). Thirty-five countries—many recipients of U.S. aid—abstained after the Administration threatened to withhold financial support to countries that voted for the resolution.
“All of these nations . . . take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars, and then they vote against us,” Trump responded. “Well, we’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us—we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”
The Trump Administration takes credit for the final phase of the war against ISIS, but at a cost of what now appears to be open-ended military engagement in Syria. On Friday, the State Department said it intends to keep some two thousand troops in Syria to find ISIS remnants, to insure stabilization of the war-ravaged country, and to help with political transition.
“ISIS is still present. The military campaign against the so-called caliphate in the Euphrates Valley is not over,” a senior State Department official told reporters. “There is heavy fighting. It’s going on as we speak.” Some fighters are now regrouping, and the U.S.-led coalition carried out fifty-three air strikes in Syria this week. “They still have the potential to more than disrupt any attempts at stabilization, much less political transformation and transition in Syria,” the official added. “And so the enduring defeat of this malignant presence is an absolute requirement in Syria, as in Iraq, for any future progress.”
U.N. peace talks between the Assad regime and the opposition remain deadlocked seven years after the Syrian war erupted. Washington has limited diplomatic input on an issue dominated by Russia and Iran. The U.S.-backed opposition is fractured and politically inept.
On Iran, Trump’s tough talk has jeopardized the most important agreement limiting the spread of nuclear weapons in a quarter century. The 2015 deal, with the world’s six major powers, had also eased tensions between revolutionary Iran and the international community. The President’s unilateral decision not to waive sanctions on Iran—as promised in the deal—split with Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia.
This month, European officials told me that Trump’s effort to scuttle the Iran deal was undermining transatlantic relationships at the heart of U.S. security. “The deal is working, the International Atomic Energy Agency has certified it nine times already, and it is crucial for the security of Europe and the world,” the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said. Other European officials fear that Trump’s go-it-alone strategy on nuclear arms will imperil the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been the foundation of all efforts to contain nuclear weapons.
Trump’s choice of Arab allies, who tend to be autocratic rulers, has also alarmed Middle East experts and human-rights groups. A Human Rights Watch report on Egypt, published in September, chronicled torture that had reached “epidemic” proportions. Last week, the group noted that Sisi’s government “chose to end the year by carrying out executions following unjust trials.” After Trump won the Republican nomination, Sisi was the first world leader to telephone the candidate and then to meet him on the sidelines of the United Nations, two months before the election.
In the meantime, long-standing allies—countries, such as Tunisia, undergoing fragile political transitions—are being all but ignored. Protests swept more than two dozen towns and cities in Tunisia this month over price hikes for fuel, food staples, and services and new taxes on phone calls, Internet usage, hotels, and big imports, such as cars. Since 2011, the year that the Arab Spring was launched, when a young Tunisian street vender set himself alight to protest corruption, poverty, and injustice, food prices have increased annually by as much as eight per cent.
Tunisia has also begun to cut back on public-sector jobs—at a time when unemployment is already fifteen per cent and twice as high among the young, including university graduates. During the weeklong protests, Tunisia witnessed the birth of a new protest movement—“What are we waiting for?” or #Fech_Nestannew. The phrase has been spray-painted on public walls and fences across the country and has taken off on social media.
“Our friends will never question our support,” Trump vowed in his Riyadh speech. “Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption.” But Tunisia’s economic woes are mirrored in other countries, from Morocco and Egypt to Yemen and Lebanon. Countries trying to introduce reforms—to modernize economies and attract foreign investors or lenders—face growing anger from constituencies that expect more after the Arab uprisings.
“The reforms are welcome and break with the old status quo,” Rabah Arezki, the World Bank’s chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa, told me. “But they didn’t bring the kind of benefits, in the short run, in terms of what was expected. And they did raise the cost of living without helping or changing the basic dynamics.”
“The old social contract, where jobs were offered to support the population, is no longer possible, because coffers are empty and population growth is so rapid that it’s impossible to pay for all these public jobs,” he added. “The challenges are enormous, and the risk of continued violence and instability are hig
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