What will Trump’s ‘America First’ policy mean for the Middle East?
30 Jan 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army.

President Trump’s enunciation of ‘America First’ in his inaugural speech should have important implications for US policy toward the Middle East. It should mean disengagement from futile conflicts and reassessment of strategies toward key regional actors. The extent of Washington’s involvement has far exceeded its economic and strategic interests in the region and drained military and diplomatic resources that could be used to greater effect elsewhere, such as East Asia where it faces a major potential adversary.

There are multiple reasons for such a high degree of US involvement in the Middle East but most are now passé. First, it has become a matter of habit—a holdover from the Cold War when competition with the USSR drove much US foreign policy. Second is America’s assumed dependence on imported oil. Whatever force that may have had, it’s almost completely redundant today. In 2015 Persian Gulf countries made up only 16% of total US petroleum imports with Saudi Arabia accounting for just 11%.

It shouldn’t be difficult for the US to replace the entire Gulf supply (and certainly that from Saudi Arabia) from other sources in a market now flush with oil. In fact, given Saudi Arabia’s increasingly rash foreign policy moves in Yemen and elsewhere, Riyadh has become an albatross around America’s neck. Moreover, the spread of Saudi influence, encouraged by the US, has led to the emergence of the most virulent form of radical jihadism threatening not only the region but also US interests globally. Instead of turning a blind eye toward the spread of radical Saudi ideology, America should put Riyadh on notice that such propagation will no longer be tolerated. That should be one of President Trump’s priorities.

The security of Saudi Arabia and the balance of power in the Gulf are no longer vital US concerns, especially since Washington’s relations with Tehran are on a moderate upswing following the nuclear deal. US–Iranian relations would have progressed faster had it not been for the shortsightedness of the Republican controlled Congress, which continues to create obstacles in the form of new sanctions which prevent genuine rapprochement with Tehran.

Trump’s criticism of the nuclear deal during the election campaign makes that détente difficult and provides fodder for radicals in Tehran who oppose it. However, Trump is likely to revise his stand in office when he understands the situation’s complexity. Reneging on the deal would leave Iran free to pursue its weapons program and the only way to stop it would be by force which could start a conflagration in the volatile region. The nuclear deal puts Iran’s program in cold storage, but also provides major US corporations the opportunity to enter the large and technologically hungry Iranian market, which should be dear to Trump’s heart. He should find that increasingly appealing in the light of Boeing’s US$16.6 billion sale of 80 aircraft to Tehran. President Trump is in a far stronger position than his predecessor to persuade the Republican-controlled Congress to modify its position on Iran and this should be another priority.

The third reason advanced to justify a high degree of US involvement is concern for Israel’s security. That’s outdated given Israel’s tremendous military superiority over its Arab neighbors and the Arabs’ preoccupation with killing each other rather than addressing the question of Palestine or confronting Israel. Moreover, obsession with Israeli security on the latter’s terms prevents the US pursuing its genuine interests in the Middle East. Putting America rather than Israel first should be a priority.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was an extremely bad idea and the US is paying the price for it still. So is the involvement, without much forethought, in the civil war in Syria. Both Iraq and Syria have become failed states and continuing US involvement in the Fertile Crescent does nothing but exacerbate hostility towards it among radical factions—above all, ISIS. The US should cut its losses and withdraw from both Iraq and Syria especially since no American vital interest is involved in either. Access to Iraqi oil now is of no particular concern to Washington (it may be to some American oil interests) nor is the character of the Syrian regime. Withdrawal from Syria will also leave Russia with the primary responsibility for finding a solution and expose the limits of its influence.

The only Middle East country where one could reasonably argue American strategic interests are at stake is NATO member Turkey. But the US shouldn’t get drawn into Turkey’s regional adventures, as in Syria, or its domestic quarrels with its Kurdish population. President Trump should advise Ankara to retrench from Syria and find a modus vivendi with its restive Kurdish population, with the Kurds in Syria and with President Assad. Washington should make it clear that Turkey cannot involve NATO in its quarrels with the Kurds and its involvement in Syria.

President Trump’s work is cut out for him in the Middle East. It would entail disengagement, retrenchment and reassessment to put ‘America first’ but that appears eminently doable. It needs the political will to implement decisions that would advance long-term US interests.