Daniel Benaim and Brian Katulis rightly criticize Trump’s handling of the relationship with the Saudis, but then they frame it as part of Trump’s supposed “passivity” in the region:
As the Saudi son rises and the U.S. son-in-law falters, a dangerous dynamic is taking shape: Washington is shying away from setting a regional agenda, while Riyadh feels emboldened to fill the void. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric masks a surprising passivity allowing others to rush in—Russia in Syria, Iran in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The result is a disengaged U.S. in the Middle East, where a new contest for power and influence is playing out.
Whenever a president is criticized for being “disengaged” from a region, the critics’ real problem is not that the president is “disengaged” but that he is acting in a way that the critics don’t like. Obama was frequently accused of passivity in this part of the world because he didn’t do what his (usually hawkish) critics wanted, and yet in reality he presided over eight years of war and meddling. The U.S. was arguably hyperactive in the Middle East under Obama and has remained so under Trump, who is even more of an interventionist in practice than Obama was. If the U.S. truly were “disengaged” from the region, we might debate whether that it desirable, but that simply isn’t the case. The problem with Trump’s foreign policy isn’t passivity. The problem is that his policies are reckless and destructive. Passivity would be a marked improvement.
The Trump administration hasn’t really “shied away” from setting a regional agenda. Their regional agenda is to oppose Iran everywhere, including in places where Iran has little influence, because they mistakenly believe that Iran is responsible for every problem in the region. The U.S. isn’t so much leaving a “void” for the Saudis to fill as it is indulging the Saudis in whatever they want to do because they think it lines up with the administration’s own Iran obsession. That is why Trump embraces the Saudis so tightly and why he sees no need to pressure them to change their behavior in the region.