IntelBrief: What is U.S. Policy in the Middle East?
May 28, 2019

What is U.S. Policy in the Middle East?

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Bottom Line Up Front

• The only consistency in the Trump administration’s Middle East policy has been to support autocratic regimes and strongmen, as it has in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

• The Trump administration’s top national security officials met with Congress multiple times in May to discuss how the President interprets the threat posed by Iran.

• U.S. policy on Syria is also ambiguous, and hundreds of bipartisan lawmakers recently called on the President to lay out a coherent Syria strategy.

• The Trump administration is seeking to convene a summit in Bahrain to discuss economic incentives and investment in the West Bank and Gaza as a prelude to what has been described as a ‘secret road map for peace.’

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The Trump administration’s top national security officials met with Congress several times this month to discuss how the President interprets the threat posed by Iran. There is a perceived division between hardliners in the administration like National Security Advisor John Bolton, and the President himself, who recently stated that he hopes to avoid conflict with Iran and is looking to negotiate. Still, President Trump’s overtures have been contradicted by brazen threats, including one in which he boasted on social media, ‘If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.’ Senator Lindsey Graham (R., SC) and Tom Cotton (R., AR) have both expressed support for a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Iran while others, like Chris Murphy (D., CT) have argued against military action. In the back and forth between Washington and Tehran, U.S. policy comes across as muddled, something Trump himself acknowledged on Twitter, noting ‘at least Iran doesn’t know what to think.’ Over the course of one week, Trump threatened to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East, declared that he hopes the U.S. does not go to war with Iran, and then eventually settled on sending 1500 troops to the region.

It is not simply with respect to Iran where U.S. policy lacks clear strategy. U.S. intentions in Syria are also ambiguous, and hundreds of bipartisan lawmakers recently called on the President to lay out a coherent Syria strategy. High-ranking members of the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) and Member Michael McCaul (R., TX), laid out a litany of concerns ranging from the use of ungoverned spaces by terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda, to Russian and Iranian gains as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad consolidates his hold on power. Lawmakers implored the President to coordinate the administration’s Syria policy with allies and implement a full range of sanctions and other forms of leverage in pursuit of U.S. national security objectives.

The only consistency in the Trump administration’s Middle East policy has been to support autocratic regimes, as it has in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And through its support to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in those countries’ disastrous war in Yemen, the Trump administration has shown it is often more interested in selling weapons than in upholding American values. President Trump has often reiterated his support for Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who the President allegedly referred to as a ‘killer.’ Last week, President Trump circumvented Congress by declaring an emergency over tensions with Iran and using that declaration to move forward with arms sales to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. These sales had been blocked by Congress since 2018. 

The Trump administration is seeking to convene a summit in Bahrain to discuss economic incentives and investment in the West Bank and Gaza as a prelude to what has been described as a ‘secret road map for peace.’ The administration’s blueprint for peace in the Middle East will be spearheaded by senior adviser to President Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner. The Bahrain summit will not include a discussion of the most critical elements of any future peace agreement—the political component—and many analysts have observed that the Trump administration will struggle to be considered an honest broker in a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. This is especially true after Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy by relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described as ‘a slap in the face,’ dampening prospects of any potential deal. 

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