Trump’s Middle East

The Trump administration’s Middle East policies jumped into the headlines this past summer, as the region moved to the brink of war. Since the situation is confused and confusing, we’ve compiled a guide for the perplexed.

The Middle East has a distinct history, culture, and geopolitical logic, with local powers locked in an eternally shifting great game. Too weak to avoid temporary domination by outsiders, they are nevertheless strong enough to resist full absorption. As a result, grand schemes for regional order inevitably go up in smoke, the exasperated foreigners eventually leave, and the game continues.

In the mid-twentieth century, the United States took over from the United Kingdom as the outside power of record. By the 1970s, it had to deal with the residue of the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured territory from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used American diplomacy to facilitate the transfer of land for peace, setting in motion decades of what is now known as “the Middle East peace process.” But by 2016, that process had ground to a halt. Most incoming administrations would have tried to get it going again. Instead, President Donald Trump pulled the plug.

Martin Indyk explains how the administration abandoned a half century of U.S. policy for a dream of hegemony on the cheap—continued U.S. withdrawal, with the containment of Iran contracted out to Israel and Saudi Arabia. The new course is a fiasco, he argues, and has led directly to the current crisis.

Not so, responds Michael Doran. It was President Jimmy Carter who abandoned Kissinger’s policy, inserting a personal obsession with the Palestinian question into the American position. The successes of the peace process, such as Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan, were sensible material bargains, not quests for justice. Similar deals with Syria and the Palestinians are highly unlikely. Trump’s real crime is acknowledging this, shattering long-held illusions. 

Israeli power does make a two-state solution impossible, agrees Yousef Munayyer—which is a good thing, because no Palestinian Bantustan achieved through the existing peace process could fulfill Palestinian national aspirations. Instead, both peoples should live in a single constitutional democracy that would offer equal rights to Jews and Palestinians alike.

Beyond the Arab-Israeli issue, things get even more challenging. Robert Malley and Maha Yahya sketch the region’s unique strategic dynamics and developmental challenges, respectively; Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon look at its most persistent headache, Iran; and Sarah Yerkes reports on its sole glimmer of hope, Tunisia.

These articles offer a clear window onto the Middle East’s stark new landscape. Read them and weep.