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Trump's Middle East Policies May Work in the Long Run

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By James J. Barney
Associate Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

Recent articles in newspapers and journals have been critical of President Trump’s foreign policy.

For example, writing in The Washington Post, Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, says: “The state of Trump’s foreign policy is poor and getting poorer. The best one can say about it is that he has not destroyed too much of the liberal international order. The worst one can say is that he has two more years to wreak his carnage.”

Foreign Affairs commentator John Hannah called the President’s foreign policy a work in progress. “Of course, skepticism abounds as to the president’s ability to sustain and manage such a comprehensive reorientation in U.S. strategy. Conceiving policy is one thing. Executing it another,” Hannah commented.

Two of Trump’s more controversial foreign policy decisions were to withdraw from the nuclear accord that President Barack Obama negotiated with Iran and walking away from the traditional bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

However, much of the foreign policy commentary that pans Trump’s Middle East foreign policy ignores several discernible elements of that policy. These foreign policy elements were on full display at last month’s Peace and Security Conference in Warsaw, Poland.

At the conference, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set forth a three-pronged approach:

  • Support for Israel
  • Forge an alliance between Israel and those Sunni nations opposed to Iran
  • Abandon the failed attempts to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority

Despite being widely criticized by the foreign policy establishment at home and abroad, Trump’s Middle East policy may bear unexpected fruit in the long run. That’s because the three pillars of that policy in combination act to isolate and weaken Iran and Hamas. The application of concentrated pressure on both Iran and Hamas embodied by the President’s policy will, in the long term, force both parties to the negotiation table.

Iran and Hamas Enmeshed in Their Own Problems, So Negotiations Are More Likely

In the summer of 2018, most foreign policy experts panned President Trump’s decision to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal. Similarly, these experts recently noted that the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian talks, the increasing hostility between Iran and Israel, and the strained relations with European allies were clear evidence that his Iran foreign policy was a failure.

Trump’s critics believe that Iran will likely restart its nuclear program, triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. That will result in a widening conflict in the area, possibly including Israel and Hamas, a terrorist organization currently in control of the Gaza Strip.

However, these doomsday scenarios fail to recognize Iran’s current precarious situation as well as Hamas’ weakened state due to the loss of many of its Arab benefactors. So Hamas is in no position to directly confront Israel.

Iran is militarily engaged in Syria and Yemen. Tehran also faces a budding protest movement at home over its stagnant economy. Consequently, Iran can ill-afford a direct confrontation with the United States, Israel or its Arab neighbors over its nuclear program.

Rather than spark a broader conflict in the region, Trump’s decisions to cancel U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear accord and end the traditional Israel-Palestinian Authority talks may ultimately produce a diplomatic breakthrough and reset relations between Tehran and Washington.

Moreover, reorienting the focus of the bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the direction of multilateral talks between Israel and various Sunni states that are opposed to Iran may provide a breakthrough in the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite their public bluster to the contrary, Hamas and Iran appear ready to talk due to their weakened positions. Given the changed political landscape, such future talks may result in tangible progress.

Trump’s Moves Could Weaken Iran and Hamas

Sanctions against Tehran have weakened the country’s economy. Eventually, a weakened Iran will have to return to the negotiation table. At that point, Trump will probably force Iran to address a host of unresolved issues resulting from the Iran nuclear accord.

European powers, including Germany and France, continue to balk at Trump’s decision to abandon the accord. But when confronted with a choice between Iranian oil and American markets, Europeans will eventually side with the United States, further weakening Iran in the long run.

Similarly, Trump’s foreign policy seeks to weaken and isolate Hamas. After being rebuffed by the Palestinian Authority, Trump decided to jettison the long-standing attempts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that began with President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

Instead, Trump decided to forge a multilateral peace accord among Israel and anti-Iran Arab countries. The hope is that such a multilateral peace will shift the focus of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Trump hopes that the Arab states opposed to Iran will use their influence to bring the Palestinians, especially Hamas, to the bargaining table. He also hopes that the Arab states opposed to Iran, such as Saudi Arabia, will invest financially and politically in any future Palestinian state that includes Gaza and that such investment and influence will act to moderate Hamas.

By abandoning the Iran nuclear deal and bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Trump appears to have embraced a 2014 Saudi proposal to resolve the dispute. That initiative included massive Saudi investments in Gaza, the isolation of its long-time enemy Iran and an alliance between a Saudi-led coalition and Israel.

Israel immediately rejected the Saudi proposal in 2014. But Trump’s actions to isolate Iran and weaken Hamas – as well as trying to forge a stronger alliance between Israel and Iran’s Sunni enemies – have changed the Middle East landscape. In turn, that provides an opening for a Saudi-led peace initiative along the lines of the 2014 proposal.

Although Trump’s Middle East Policy Appears Unusual, It Could Work

Trump’s actions possess a certain coherence. Walking away from the Iranian nuclear deal and the traditional bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace talks make perfect sense when placed in the context of the central pillars of his Middle East foreign policy.

In the long run, Trump’s Middle East policy, loosely modeled on the 2014 Saudi-led peace proposal, may provide:

  • Long-term security for Israel
  • Possible statehood for the Palestinians that includes Gaza
  • Renewed ties between the United States and Iran

For now, however, many foreign affairs experts deem these results to be highly unlikely. However, it is possible that Iran and the United States will eventually reengage in more comprehensive talks either after the upcoming Israeli elections or before the 2020 elections in the United States. When such talks do occur, Trump’s decisions might not seem as foolhardy as they appear at the moment.

About the Author

James Barney is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. In addition to possessing a J.D., James has several master’s degrees, including one in American foreign policy. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in history. James serves as one of the AMU faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club. Additionally, James serves as the pre-law advisor at AMU.

James has been admitted to practice law in New York, New Jersey, Alabama and the District of Columbia. Over the past several years, he has served in various roles at debating and moot trial competitions in New York and Washington, D.C. In 2019, James will coach the APUS mock trial team and will serve as one of the faculty advisors for the school’s Model UN delegation to the National Model United Nations conference in Washington, D.C. in early November 2019.

James Barney 3

Dr. James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies at the School of Security and Global Studies. In the past, Dr. Barney has been the recipient of several awards, including the James P. Etter Creativity and Innovation Award (2021), Dr. Wallace E. Boston Leadership Award (2019), and the Excellence in Teaching & Learning Award (2016). He teaches undergraduate and graduate law and history courses. In addition to having earned a Ph.D. in History from The University of Memphis, Dr. Barney has several master's degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy and a J.D. from New York Law School. Dr. Barney serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and the Model United Nations Club, and he is the pre-law advisor at the University. He is currently working on writing a book on the politics of New York City during the administration of New York City's first African American Mayor David Dinkins, 1989-1993.

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