Is Trump Following a Grand Mideast Strategy?

By Daniel J. Arbess

Wall Street Journal

June 6, 2018

 

What if President Trump’s foreign policy isn’t as impulsive as it may seem? Put aside Korea and trade and consider the Middle East. Mr. Trump’s disregard of orthodoxy could turn out to be exactly what’s needed to sequence a comprehensive strategy for stabilizing the region—and to stanch the flow of Islamist terror to Europe and the U.S.

The first step has been to forge a working consensus among Israel and its Arab neighbors, aligned to contain Iran and frustrate its dreams of a Shiite crescent through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Mr. Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip, in May 2017, and has cultivated the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a putative reformer of Wahhabism.

He has collaborated with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, another advocate for reform of Islam, and respected the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, while calling out Qatar for its support of Hamas in Gaza. While none of these nations—except Israel—exemplify American ideals of liberty and the rule of law, they share an interest in fighting Islamist terror and ultimately enlisting U.S. support for better governance and economic opportunities for their young populations.

The new alliance faces three main challenges: containing Iran’s imperial ambitions and support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah; stabilizing Syria to finish off Islamic State and foreclose the next iteration of caliphate-seeking terror, while also ending Bashar Assad’s devastation of Syrian Sunni Arabs; and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last has become a low priority in the Arab world, but its resolution would liberate Israel to assume a deserved mantle of regional leadership.

The president was still right to start with the Palestinian file, while consolidating the alliance and working toward consensus goals and strategies for the other two challenges. His recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital codified a truth that must be accepted before Israel and the Palestinians can move forward together. The December announcement was brilliantly timed to confirm, validate and stress-test the new regional alliances.

All the partners stayed quiet or offered pro forma objections, thereby passing the test—except the Palestinians. This was an opportunity for them to express disappointment and to resume negotiations for their own state, with its capital also in Jerusalem. Instead, President Mahmoud Abbas cursed President Trump: “Yekhreb Beitak,”:“May your house come to ruin.” Then, as the embassy was moving last month, Hamas incited border riots in Gaza that killed scores of Palestinians.

There’s nobody home right now to engage in peace negotiations on behalf of the Palestinians. On the West Bank they are led by the affable but unreliable Mr. Abbas, who is 83 and in the 14th year of his four-year term, continues to propagate base anti-Semitism. He is routinely bullied by subordinates—I’ve seen it privately in person—and is trying to govern from a hospital bed. He has no apparent viable successor. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a terrorist organization whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

Ordinary Palestinians are desperate for the peace that would integrate them into Israel’s economic miracle, but their illegitimate leadership is worsening their people’s misery to curry sympathy from naive Westerners. Still, Mr. Trump deserves credit for crystallizing the regional alignment that lays a foundation for progress once someone emerges with legitimacy to speak for the Palestinians.

Next, the president delivered on his promise to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a move that repudiated his predecessor’s supposed crowning foreign-policy achievement, defied Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, and frustrated America’s European allies. The JCPOA might have delayed Iran’s nuclear program, but it didn’t even pretend to eliminate it. Withdrawing from the deal could be a very good decision—provided it’s eventually replaced with a real nonproliferation regime and an arrangement that contains Iran and its proxies’ terror and mischief in the region.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May 21 Iran strategy speech articulated the challenge well, but making it happen will require exceptionally smart diplomacy. North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies need to be brought on board lest Iran drive a wedge between them and the U.S.—which could otherwise yield even more serious mutually destructive retaliatory trade wars than seem likely now with China, Mexico, Canada and Europe.

Then comes the ultimate prize, stabilizing Syria by stopping Mr. Assad’s domestic bloodletting, containing the spread of Sunni extremism, and ideally opening the door for Syrian migrants to return home. The Trump administration is still behind the curve here. Besides launching airstrikes to punish Mr. Assad’s grotesque and illegal chemical drops on his own people, the president has talked about pulling out of Syria “soon,” which would widen the vacuum Vladimir Putin’s Russia is aggressively filling—and for good reason: Syria is the door that must be closed to block Islamist radicalism from reaching Russia from the Middle East.

A serious approach to stopping the spread of Islamist terror, which should be the highest priority in the region for U.S. homeland security, necessitates that the U.S. stay engaged and develop a real Syria strategy. This could be a huge accomplishment, with the not-incidental bonus of getting the failed “reset” with Russia back on track. Cold War talk is the rage in Washington these days, and Mr. Putin’s thuggish behavior doesn’t help. But Russia, the U.S. and Israel have critical common interests in redressing the spread of Islamism much closer to Russia than America. So far, Israel is alone in cultivating the Russians, with the U.S. out of the picture as Mr. Putin earns credit for constructively rolling back Iranian influence on Israel’s northern border.

Russia has little affinity for the Iranian ayatollahs, especially with their competing nuclear and energy ambitions—imagine an oil-rich Cuba with nukes. Mr. Putin is in bed with Mr. Assad and Iran for lack of a better alternative. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Turkey can’t be trusted to help insulate Russia, and the U.S. and Europe are understandably hostile to Mr. Putin’s moves in Ukraine and Syria.

Yet Russia needs American partnership, and it’s clearly in everyone’s interest to collaborate toward an alternative to Mr. Assad and Iran for shoring up Syria. The U.S. will certainly have a better chance of restraining Mr. Putin’s misbehavior at home and abroad if it seizes the initiative to stabilize the Middle East with Russia and Israel. This should be high on the agenda for the next Trump-Putin meeting.

Successfully dealing with Russia and Middle Eastern and European allies could produce a long-overdue realignment of international alliances set in the 20th century’s bipolar rivalry of economic systems, to address rogue nations like Iran and the decentralized, multipolar threats of nonstate terrorists afflicting East and West. Given the initial chaos around the administration’s other international negotiations, this may be a lot to expect. After decades of Middle East failure, though, bold disruption seems exactly what is necessary. Last century’s “experts” have had their turn.