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Trump’s Failed and Costly Middle East Policies

Ross Douthat gives Trump undue credit for conducting a “moderately successful” foreign policy in the Middle East:

In particular, Trump has avoided the temptation often afflicting Republican uber-hawks, in which we’re supposed to fight all bad actors on 16 fronts at once. Instead he’s slow-walked his hawkish instincts on Iran, tolerated Assad and avoided dialing up tensions with Russia. The last issue is of course entangled with the great collusion debate — but it’s still a good thing that our mini-cold war has remained relatively cool and we aren’t strafing each other over Syria.

The Saudi war in Yemen remains a humanitarian catastrophe and our relationship with the House of Saud remains corrupt. But the war in Yemen was already an American-abetted disaster under Obama, and the Trump White House has at least called for Riyadh to lift its Yemen embargo and seen the new king promise some mild social and economic reforms.

Douthat’s summary here is mostly wrong or misleading. Trump has outlined a very aggressive Iran policy aimed at “rolling back” Iranian influence throughout the region. U.S. forces in Syria are expected to remain there indefinitely, and administration officials are defining part of their mission as “not allowing” Iran and its proxies to have a presence in Syria. This is “slow-walking” his hawkish instincts? Unlike his predecessor, Trump has ordered military attacks on Syrian government targets, and U.S. forces have repeatedly struck pro-regime forces inside Syria when they came too close to U.S. proxies. If he isn’t interested in fighting “all bad actors” at once, he does seem intent on picking fights with Iran wherever possible regardless of the potential costs. Maybe that hostility to Iran isn’t surprising when his administration is overflowing with Iran hawks, but it shouldn’t be minimized or ignored.

The U.S. is getting bogged down deeper in Syria on his watch, and the U.S. is getting closer to more confrontations with the regime and its patrons. All of this is still being done without authorization from Congress. I suspect one reason Trump isn’t getting more credit for the war on ISIS is that he is presiding over the continuation of an illegal war that has started to morph into something else. Another is that Trump’s escalation of the war also came with a marked increased in civilian casualties from U.S. and allied bombing.

The description of administration policy in Yemen quoted above is extremely misleading. U.S. support for the war on Yemen has increased under Trump, and the few restrictions the Obama administration put in place have been reversed. Trump’s lip service call for easing the coalition blockade doesn’t amount to much when he clearly has no intention of putting any pressure on Riyadh to make them halt their attempt to starve Yemen into surrender. On Trump’s watch, the blockade has been tightened, commercial imports of food and fuel are being kept out, and the civilian population is suffering even more severely than before. 7 million Yemenis were one step away from famine, and now that figure is 8.5 million. Simply as a matter of fact, conditions in Yemen have grown far worse while Trump has increased support for the Saudi-led war. The only things Trump’s “moderately successful” foreign policy has been succeeding at in Yemen are enabling war crimes and helping despots starve their neighbors.

All of this is being aided and abetted by a Trump administration that cares more about publicly blaming Iran for providing a few missiles than it does about the crime against humanity being carried out by the Saudis and their allies. Since the blockade was tightened in November, Trump continues to offer unqualified praise for Salman and his son. Unless something changes quickly, Yemen will suffer from the largest famine in decades while the U.S. actively supports the war and blockade responsible for it. It’s true that this indefensible policy began under Obama, but Trump has continued it and fully embraced the governments responsible for destroying the country. He has managed to take the worst Obama administration policy he inherited and make it even worse than it was. Making the world’s worst humanitarian crisis even worse and driving millions over the edge into famine would seem to qualify as “something far worse happening in the Middle East,” but as usual the U.S. is almost never held fully accountable for the catastrophe it has helped to cause in Yemen.

Douthat’s claim about Trump’s handling of Israel and Palestine may be the strangest of all:

The relatively mild reaction to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may be a case study in expert consensus falling behind the facts; the Arab world has different concerns than it did in 1995, and Trump’s move has helped clarify that change.

The immediate reaction has fortunately been less violent than I expected, but that doesn’t mean that the decision to recognize was the right or smart one. Trump laughably justified his decision as being in the best interests of the U.S. and the pursuit of peace when it was clearly very harmful for both. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem was an effective endorsement of illegal annexation and occupation, and that in turn will probably be interpreted as a green light by the Israeli government to do more annexing and settlement-building. Pence’s planned visit to the region is likely to stir up more trouble, and he is already being snubbed by local Christian leaders in a pointed rejection of the Jerusalem decision.

Douthat notably omits the Qatar crisis that happened as a direct result of Trump’s public embrace of the Saudis in Riyadh, and he has nothing to say about the nuclear deal that Trump seems determined to renege on. Trump’s indulgence of the Saudis and Emiratis contributed directly to the campaign against Qatar, which has fractured the GCC and driven Qatar closer to Iran. Trump’s obsession with Iran and loathing for any part of Obama’s legacy have driven him to reject the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which he unjustifiably refused to certify in October and which he is likely to scrap all together in the coming weeks. By omitting Trump’s blundering in these areas and minimizing the disasters that he is presiding over elsewhere, Douthat is giving an incomplete and inaccurate picture of what U.S. foreign policy in the region has been like under Trump.

If Trump deserves credit for desirable results of a policy he continued, he should certainly get just as much blame for continuing destructive and indefensible policies everywhere else. When we judge these policies all together, they don’t add up to being “moderately successful.” On the contrary, these policies are almost all failed, costly, and unwise, and in many cases Trump has inherited bad situations and made them worse.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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