Reading Trump’s Middle East Policy

Could Retrenchment Trigger a Realignment?

A pro-Trump poster in Tel Aviv, November 2016. Baz Ratner / Reuters

Leaders in the Middle East wasted no time in congratulating Donald Trump on his surprise election victory. Given Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, that might seem surprising. But it should not be, since few in the region were particularly thrilled at the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton perpetuating the Barack Obama administration's policies toward Iran and Syria. At the same time, the region’s leaders remain uncertain about Trump’s intended Middle East policies, giving rise to endless speculation about whether he will stay in or back out.

Conservative Arabs and Israelis alike hope that the incoming Trump government will reverse the Obama-era policy of leading from behind. In particular, they want clear signals of U.S. commitment to its traditional allies. Yet U.S. conservatives—as opposed to more hawkish neocons—have traditionally sought to avoid entangling alliances, including in the Middle East. If Trump follows suit and makes good on his pledge to Make America Great Again, beginning at home, the United States’ regional friends could be compelled to renew their search for other partners to protect their interests.


It is hard to get a read on Trump’s policy preferences for the Middle East, given that he spoke so little about foreign policy during the campaign other than to categorically disparage the Obama-Clinton team for perceived errors of omission and commission in Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Given a choice between re-engagement or further disengagement, Arab leaders fear the Trump policy team might opt to further decrease U.S. diplomatic and military involvement in the region. In their insecurity, many of these heads of state may well encourage non-Arab outside players, such as China, India, Russia, or Turkey, to take on a larger role—thus further destabilizing the balance of power in the region and around the world.

Ever since the late 1940s, conservative and pro-Western Middle Eastern regimes—Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for example—have regarded the United States as a firm and reliable pillar of defense.

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