Donald Trump’s fans and detractors don’t agree on much, but one point of consensus has been that he would radically change U.S. policy in the Middle East. Trump campaigned on a pledge to fix President Barack Obama’s “disastrous” foreign policy. He promised to tear up the Iran nuclear agreement — which he repeatedly called “the worst deal ever negotiated” — on day one. He promised to unveil a secret plan to destroy ISIL within 30 days, to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, to fix America’s allegedly collapsing reputation — and that’s just the beginning.
I was not so sure. Every new president since Jimmy Carter has entered office promising to radically change America’s place in the Middle East, and almost every president soon finds those plans stymied by regional realities. Shortly after Trump’s election, I published a long article in The Washington Quarterly arguing that Trump would find it far more difficult than he expected to change America’s role in the Middle East. Enduring American interests and limitations, the expectations of U.S. allies and adversaries, pressure from the mainstream foreign policy community, and the internal contradictions of his promises would soon force his policies back toward something close to traditional U.S. policies.
If you look past Trump’s Twitter feed, bizarre proclamations, and mismanagement of the bureaucracy, thus far the structure seems to be winning. It has only been a few months, but on actual policies there has been far more continuity than change. On the personnel front, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn, perhaps the most extreme of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, lasted less than three weeks. Both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster could have easily been chosen by Hillary Clinton had she won, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be almost entirely marginalized. Many of the radical fringe figures floated for top administration positions have yet to get jobs, while those who did have faced intense scrutiny.
So, what has Trump actually done? Most significantly, the Iran deal has not been torn up. Instead, Trump seems to be trying to use his skepticism about the deal as leverage to coerce Iran to fall in line on regional issues. That has come alongside some muscle-flexing against Iran in Yemen, of all places, remaining (thus far) a proxy war rather than a full-scale war with Tehran. The Iran deal may yet be undermined by Congressional sanctions or by developments on the ground, but this will only isolate the United States as other countries — to include American allies — continue to build relations with Tehran. While brinksmanship with Iran is dangerous, this tougher line on Iran’s regional influence is also pretty much the same approach Hillary Clinton would have taken.
On Israel too, Trump’s policy has tracked more closely than expected with tradition. As during previous administrations, who made similar promises, the campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem has yet to materialize. The United States and Israel are once again bickering over West Bank settlements. Trump may have backed away from traditional American commitments to a two state solution, but he has also signaled his interest in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. That will likely have the same effect as those initiated by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations: endless talks providing regional cover for Arab states to cooperate with Israel and domestic cover for the survival of the Palestinian Authority, without any real progress toward a two-state solution.
Trump’s secret plan for defeating ISIL has, as predicted, turned out to mostly be taking credit for continuing President Barack Obama’s campaign. While there has been an intensified pace in bombing and an alarming increase in the deployment of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, the fundamentals of this war remain the same. Trump continues to work closely with the Iraqi government despite concerns about Iranian influence in Iraq. Nor has the president backed away from partnering with Syrian Kurds in the anti-ISIL campaign, despite Turkish distress about the role of the Kurds. Proposed “safe areas” in Syria (which themselves are a bad idea not far from what Clinton suggested) floated by Tillerson remain little more than a half-baked idea. Trump departs from Obama in that he no longer pays lip service to the idea that Assad must be removed from power in Syria, but this shift away from regime change has been the de facto reality for years.
Trump has certainly been more openly enthusiastic about working with Arab autocrats than Obama. The administration has reportedly removed human rights restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, has invited Egyptian President Abd el-Fattah el-Sisi to the White House, and has downgraded human rights and democracy in all areas of foreign policy. But sadly, what could be more in line with traditional U.S. Middle East policy than embracing dictators in the name of stability? Obama embraced the Arab uprisings of 2011 and spoke powerfully about Arab aspirations for freedom — in one of the best moments of his presidency — but this momentary enthusiasm did not survive the region’s autocratic resurgence. Obama decided, after much internal debate, to accept Egypt’s July 2013 military coup, and approved unprecedented levels of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Trump’s acceleration of the disastrous Saudi-U.A.E. war in Yemen continues one of Obama’s worst Middle East policy mistakes. Arab leaders may be delighted with Trump’s enthusiastic support for their domestic repression and regional proxy wars, but the difference with Obama is one more of tone than of practice.
Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims, Islam and refugees has been appalling by any standard and will undoubtedly do enduring damage to America’s relationships with the Muslims of the world. But again, structure and institutions still matter. Both of Trump’s egregious executive orders restricting immigration from selected Muslim countries generated widespread resistance and were summarily dispatched by the courts. He has for now thought better of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization after the State Department warned of the complexities involved. To be fair, he does have advisors who invoke magical words such as “radical Islamic terrorism,” and he did change the official terminology for the Islamic State from “ISIL” to “ISIS.” So that is something.
The foreign affairs community may, understandably, be in a state of perpetual outrage over the Trump team’s amateurish gambits and penchant for shocking statements, and foreign diplomats understandably bemused by a president who appoints his son-in-law to top policy positions and tweets about Snoop Dogg. But thus far, Trump’s actual Middle East policy has been shockingly conventional. He talks a big game but has proven largely unable or unwilling to actually change all that much in America’s Middle East policy. Instead, he has mostly been managing Obama’s Middle East in a more boorish and belligerent way.
This is not to say there is no cause for concern on the Middle East policy front. Trump’s approach to Islam has already been damaging. His unhinged tweets, chaotic White House and aggressive policies generate uncertainty and create potential crises. His escalation of wars in Yemen and Syria (and seeming relaxation of the rules of engagement for air strikes) are already dragging the United States down a slippery slope into dangerous quagmires, with little evident thought about the potential consequences. And, of course, it’s only been a few months. Trump could soon grow impatient with these status quo policies and suddenly change direction. He might finally staff his administration with people who really do want to radically change Middle East policy. Most alarmingly, he might decide to escalate a conflict or to throw the Iran nuclear agreement into doubt just to disrupt an unfriendly news cycle.
Right now, however, the greatest risk comes from how a still untested and understaffed administration will respond to a sudden crisis. The pushback against Iran in Yemen could suddenly escalate. There could be a successful attack on U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria. A sudden massive popular uprising could easily erupt in one or more of the fragile autocratic states for which he has doubled down support, such as Bahrain or Egypt. Israel might get drawn into a new war with Hezbollah or Hamas. The Palestinian Authority could collapse. It will be the response to those sorts of disruptive events — crises which have confronted every U.S. President — which will reveal Trump’s real intentions and capabilities in the Middle East. But for now, despite all the bluster and churn, Trump’s Middle East policy has proven quite remarkably normal.
Marc Lynch is professor of political science at The George Washington University, director of the Project on Middle East Political Science, and the author of The New Arab Wars: Anarchy and Uprising in the Middle East (Public Affairs).
Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Joshua Wooten