Report Card – first 100 days of Middle East Policy in the new administration

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Yes, the first 100 days of any Presidential Administration is an arbitrary benchmark. There is no automatic reason that the first 6% of a term is any more important than the first 12 or 18%?

Still, enough time has passed to make some meaningful initial assessments. So this is my First 100 Days report card on Middle East Policy.  See my overall grade at the very end of the post.

6 Core Issues: 

#1 – Restoring a Stabilizing “Balance” Between Iran and Core US Allies 

This is the most important Trump Middle East achievement so far. To be fair, Team Obama deserves credit for their good intentions in thinking that reaching a nuclear deal with Iran would lead to a desirable results for regional security.

In fact, the opposite occurred. A good deal clearly wasn’t reached. And American over-interest in reaching a deal contributed to two unintended outcomes:

  • Iran felt emboldened to engage in adventurism throughout the region (knowing the US wouldn’t crack down, wanting the deal more)
  • Created a sense of insecurity amongst core US allies who questioned whether America had their back like before; influencing them to engage in counter-productive go it alone operations (Saudi in Yemen)

President Trump, with assistance from Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis and NSA McMaster have worked to restore that sense of balance in a way that is constructive and recognizes the insecurities of key allies. This new approach is having a stabilizing effect on the region as I wrote in The Hill.

#2 – Restoring Key Relationships to Get Better Results for the US

By the end of the Obama Administration, US relations with most traditional core Allies in the region were bad.  President Trump has made it a strong priority to rebuild them, and, while it’s only 100 days in, has done about a good a job as could be imagined in this regard.

Saudi Arabia:

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The Saudis are at this point easily the most Pro-Trump ally in the Middle East. The Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, received the full VIP treatment during a visit in early April.  There is talk that a trip by President Trump to Saudi Arabia is in the works.

As I wrote in my WINEP analysis of MbN’s visit, President Trump gets that on the core issues (national security, economy, counter-terrorism) there is extremely strong shared mutual interests. And that there is no logical reason for the two countries not to be close allies.  Similarly, the UAE, closely allied with KSA, is also aligned with Saudi and the Trump administration on the same issues.

Egypt:

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Shortly after KSA, President Sisi of Egypt, another extremely pro-Trump Arab ally, was given a rousing reception at the White House.

Relations between these two countries had declined severely in recent years.  A core cause of that decline was President Obama’s mistaken decision to abandon support for President Mubarak in the heat of the moment of the Tahrir Square rallies back in 2011.

As I wrote in February 2011 this was going to be a mistake that would cause serious diplomatic damage.  It did.  It poisoned US-Egypt relations through the rest of the Obama administration.

And having that close relationship means the US has more Chips than it would use if it took a dogmatic approach. One example of this happened last week:

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One respected DC voice argued the meeting didn’t go so well for President Sisi. Perhaps he wanted more aid.  Probably true.  And it’s also true that Egypt wants/needs more from the US than vice versa.  But just because the initial Trump-Sisi meeting didn’t produce significantly detailed new agreements it was after all, an initial meeting.

Jordan: 

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An enormously critical ally. King Abdullah also received the red carpet treatment from President Trump. This will help gain more leverage and assistance from the King in a new push on Israel-Palestine.

Turkey:

The government of Turkey has hardly been a force for regional security in the last several years. Nobody has stoked more tension in Syria than Ankara over the past 5 years.

Many in DC took major issue with President Trump for calling President Erdogan to congratulate him on his recent electoral victory:

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The key question: how to best achieve the objective of obtaining desirable results from Turkey?

Mr. Boot’s highly ideological approach sounds good on paper.  But President Trump’s approach is more practical. If the US takes a dogmatic stand about whatever we don’t like about the quality of Turkish democracy, it’s going to significantly decrease any likelihood of getting cooperation from the Turkish government. The best way to address this issue is through forming good President to President relationship.

I don’t see how the US has any other way to influence Turkey in this regard.

#3 Syria: Shaking Things Up For Good

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Outside of literally sending 50,000 or more US troops to Syria to literally stand in between the factions to physically prevent them from killing each other, there isn’t much the US can do at this point to change the trajectory of the Syrian Civil War (I am of the view that the same was true of the early years of the war as well).

Sad to say this, but it almost has to run it’s course.

Yet President Trump’s ordering of a surprise attack on a Syrian regime military base, did shake things up in 3 key ways.  As I wrote in The Hill, the 3 factors were:

  • Drew a line in the sand on chemical weapons.  And incentivizes the Syrian regime to tighten up their command structure to make sure it doesn’t happen again
  • Further send a message to traditional US alliances that the Trump administration is different, reinforcing point #1 above
  • Apply Art of the Deal style pressure on Russia and Iran to then put pressure on the Assad regime to be more conciliatory re big-picture peace negotiations.

As long as the US avoids getting further entangled in the Syrian Civil War, and picking sides, it was a very smart move. And on Monday – President Trump restated this.


# 4 – Counter-Terrorism: continuing to refine/adapt policy to changing conditions

Taking the Fight to ISIS in unpredictable ways.

One being a change in the rules of engagement in Iraq.  ISIS fighters got used to X habits, rules of engagement of last several years.  The Trump administration changed things around, giving more flexibility to local commanders, enabling faster reactions.

Another example, was the dropping of the MOAB bomb. The enemy has to constantly be guessing and can’t get complacent.

Stronger border protections.

Yes, people do want to come to America to kill Americans. Some form of the short-term travel ban on select countries will finally make it through the court. New restrictions on laptops  are a huge hassle.  Yet we know that Jihadists are trying to build such bombs.

Shifting the narrative about the roots of “Islamic terrorism.”

See my review of Dr. Gorka’s book which is basically the adopted policy in terms of communication.

This is not to say that the problem is going to go away because of how it is described in Washington DC.  But by describing the problem more accurately, without going overboard, provides a better foundation for the next several years of CT policy, to more productively address the problem.

#5 – Israel Palestine

President Trump has fully embraced the idea of trying to bring a peace deal.  His spokesperson announced recently that he is embracing a conflict ending deal. Appointing his son-in-law as special negotiator on Israel-Palestine is a sign of how serious this issue will be taken.

#6 – The Yemen War

The key point about the Saudi Yemen War is that it must be seen in the context of their desire to “go it alone” after percieving a decline in US support under President Obama.

There is a constant belief by some Saudi critics in the US that it’s only because of US support that the Saudis can do whatever they are doing in Yemen.

When in reality, they are going to do it whether the US liked it or not. So the question is what can the US do about it stopping it now.  Secretary Mattis is adopting exactly the right approach:

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The US policy is basically this:

“Do what you feel is absolutely necessary, but please get it done, so we can get to a peace negotiations.”

Which sounds reasonable to me because I don’t know what else could be done.

II: Next 600 Day Likely Initiatives to Ponder

Above I talked about what I see as the Big Picture issues that can be adjusted from administration to administration.  Then there are the various areas of more creative endeavors and initiatives that take longer to develop.

Here are two that will be increasingly important for the next several administrations:

(1) A Revamped US focus on Religious Liberty

Sadly, I strongly suspect that the rise of ISIS-style Jihadism is only going to become stronger. It’s just beginning and the ongoing slaughter of Christians such as the massacre of 50 Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday in Egypt will continue.  Religious tensions will increase, creating mass pressure on Christian migration to the West and things of that nature.

A more effective US paradigm and response is going to be necessary. Higher-level diplomacy will need to be dedicated to this cause.  Two areas where this will be important:

  • Forcefully advocate for the religous freedoms of those ethnic minorities
  • Do it in ways that walk the proper balance between talking about religion frankly and the role of radical Islamists in doing the oppressing – while not rocking the boat in ways that preclude cooperation and getting stuff done

Last week I attended an excellent conference sponsored by the University of Notre Dame and I strongly recommend reading this report Under Ceasar’s Sword for an in-depth look at this issue. The appointment of a truly capable US ambassador will be critical in this regard.

(2) Targeted Economic Aid

There is a growing perception that the Trump Administration is trying to “gut” foreign Aid.  See this Foreign Policy article on The End of Foreign Aid As We Know It.

But it’s just not true.  For two core reasons:

  • The budget proposal is an opening negotiating position
  • It’s designed to force greater scrutiny over the spending of X dollars? What clear US objective is being met?

On that note, several Republican voices have expressed support for the idea of increased economic aid in the Middle East. See Tom Barrack’s What The Middle East Needs Now From America.  This is a hugely important point.

Here are several specific ways where US assistance could lead to more targeted development that cuts into the appeal of radicalism and addresses migration pressures that I have written about hereherehere, and here.

Grade So Far Through First 100 Days:  

In the short period of time available, the right moves were made on the biggest picture issues. Hard to see what else could have been done.  So my grade would be an A.

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4 thoughts on “Report Card – first 100 days of Middle East Policy in the new administration

    1. Nathan

      Not sure how it was “exploited.” He put some pressure on Sisi to release her and then had a brief photo op at the White House.

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  1. danieljdufour

    Interesting overview. Thanks, Nathan! Although I agree that punishing Assad for his chemical weapons use was a smart move, I’m not convinced this “put[s] pressure on the Assad regime to be more conciliatory re big-picture peace negotiations.” I realize it’s a short piece, so you can’t go into detail about everything, but I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this.

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    1. Nathan

      Thanks for your comment Daniel.

      Well, I generally start from believing that the US has very limited ability to affect the outcome of the Syrian Civil War. So if there is little you can do? What else can you do? Russia does have alot of different issues in play that they want something from the US for. So this strike was a way to pressure them to put pressure on the Syrian regime, especially Assad, to be somewhat more conciliatory. I’m not saying it’s a huge game changing thing. I’m saying it’s pressure from the Russians to push towards some kind of end solution in the war that wasn’t as strong as during the last couple of years of the Obama administation. Which is better than nothing. Nathan

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