What assumptions can we make about U.S. foreign policy in the next four years, especially with regard to the Middle East?The first, I think, is that the contrast between Trump’s policies and those of President Obama will not be as great as people might think.
Though Trump has spoken of wanting to “kick ISIS’s ass” and has been willing to name radical Islam as the source of the terrorist threat against the West, like Obama he is uncomfortable with asserting U.S. power. His neo-isolationist instincts and his desire to effect a rapprochement with Russia represent a change in tone from Obama. But the current administration’s decision to allow Russia freedom of action in Syria has already given Moscow what it wanted. There’s virtually nothing Trump could do to appease the Russians—including distancing the U.S. from NATO allies in Eastern Europe—that Obama hasn’t already tried with unfortunate consequences.
Thta may worry Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who must ponder a future with an America that is no longer willing to keep its commitments in the region, but if so it will be no different from their current dilemma in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.
With respect to Iran, given Trump’s rhetoric, there is an expectation that there will be a dramatic shift in U.S. policy. But even there, the contradictions in Trump’s positions will have to be resolved before the situation is clarified. Trump has rightly denounced the nuclear agreement. But that doesn’t mean he will tear it up. Doing so would also involve conflict with Russia and Iran over Syria and the war against ISIS. Unless Trump is willing to prioritize a conflict with Iran over his desire to make nice with Moscow and avoid further conflicts, the nuclear deal will stay in place.
Wth respect to Israel and the Palestinians?
Barack Obama came into the presidency not only believing deeply in the imperative of the U.S. brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians but also thinking that the way to get it was to create more “daylight” between the U.S. and the Jewish state. He pursued that policy for eight years with no success. In his last two months in office, Obama may take one more shot at the Israelis with a betrayal at the United Nations, recognizing Palestinian independence without requiring them to make peace first.
By contrast, although Trump’s grasp of policy is meager, he appears to have no such illusions about the willingness of the Palestinians to make peace or the value of American pressure on Israel. No one should be surprised if some of his campaign promises, such as his vow to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, are not fulfilled. He unnerved friends of Israel with talk of even-handedness during the primaries and his desire to strike what he called a “real-estate deal.” Still, unlike Obama, Trump isn’t obsessed with the fallacy that, if left to decide its own fate, Israel is doomed or that it must be saved from itself. The overwhelming majority of Israelis has decided that further territorial retreats must await a sea change in Palestinian culture that will lead their leaders to make peace and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Obama—and many Jewish liberal critics of Israel—believe Israel should be forced to withdraw from the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem despite the real possibility that this might create a new Gaza, where an independent Palestinian terrorist state already exists. As unpleasant as the status quo may be for both sides, it is better than an international diktat that will weaken Israel and make a new round of bloodshed even more likely.
There will be intense international pressure on Trump to conform to past administration positions on pressuring Israel, but this is one issue on which his outlier approach may truly bring a break with decades of failed U.S. policies. That said, Israel and those Arab nations who look to it as a tacit ally as a result of the Iran deal will have reason to worry if Trump continues to back away from engagement in the region or bows to Russia on Iran policy.