The Trump administration: policy by impulse, not clear thinking

The US president doesn’t take decisions because they advance American interests, but because they go against what his predecessor did, writes Michael Young

Donald Trump. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
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To say that the Trump administration’s policy in the Middle East is confusing would be too generous. Rather, it is a mishmash of amateurishness and contradiction, whose outcome only benefits America’s rivals in the region.

Take the report last week in the Washington Post that the administration had requested $4 billion from Saudi Arabia in order to rebuild and stabilise areas of Syria under American control, in that way accelerating the withdrawal of US forces. How does a rapid pull-out from Syria square with Washington's stated goal of containing Iran's influence there and in the Middle East? It doesn't.

General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, admitted in congressional testimony that his forces’ mission in Syria had nothing to do with the challenges posed by Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad. The focus was on defeating ISIL, he told Senator Lindsey Graham.

This was a stark contrast to remarks by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January, in which he defined a much broader range of goals for the United States in Syria. Mr Tillerson has, since, been shown the door, and it would appear that his ambitious plans are about to follow him out of the administration.

But so where does Donald Trump hope to contain Iran, and how? No one really knows, certainly not if the intention of the US president is to withdraw from the one country which has come to virtually define Tehran's regional ambitions. But that should come as no surprise, since Mr Trump long ago announced that he would cease arming the Syrian opposition, though he surrendered this potential means of leverage in Syria for nothing in exchange.

Nor does Mr Trump’s promise to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran help clarify matters about what he aims to do with regard to its nuclear programme. The agreement doubtless released funds allowing Tehran to pursue a regional agenda, but it also ended, or perhaps rather temporarily suspended, its nuclear progress.


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For those who complain about the deal’s sunset clauses, and worry that Iran may resume nuclear development when they expire, it is not clear how undermining the deal now would do anything but help accelerate an Iranian push for nuclearisation. Mr Trump has not addressed this, yet the president has to define a convincing US strategy beyond re-imposing sanctions, and address the inconsistency of wanting to prevent Iran from moving ahead in its nuclear programme, while taking steps that are very likely to encourage it to do so.

On the Palestinian front, Mr Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital may have pleased a portion of his electorate, particularly Evangelicals, but it has also ruined his intention of negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. His "deal of the century" is nowhere to be seen, and that's a good thing. Instead, the Trump administration is said to be preparing for the post-Mahmoud Abbas phase, knowing that no current Palestinian leadership will accept its proposals.

Everywhere, Mr Trump is working at cross-purposes. Beyond containment of Iran and its nuclear programme or Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he wants unity against Iran, but has done nothing to end the rifts among Tehran's rivals. He wants to defeat ISIL, but enabled a Kurdish-Turkish conflict in Afrin that pushed the Kurdish Popular Mobilisation Forces to reinforce its comrades fighting Turkey, thereby abandoning the final push against the terrorist group.

The only ones who gain from this disarray are the Iranians and Russians, both of whom have a much clearer sense of what they want to achieve in the Middle East. They have exploited Mr Trump’s talent for ignoring or alienating allies, so that the United States finds itself more isolated in the region than it has in years. That’s not to say the Americans are weak, but rather that Mr Trump has failed to take advantage of the range of options, diplomatic and military, that would have allowed him to deploy US power for maximum gain.

We are in a period of policy by impulse. Mr Trump doesn’t take decisions because they advance US interests, but because they go against what his despised predecessor did. Barack Obama can be blamed for allowing the slaughter in Syria to continue, and for having treated his Arab allies with disdain. Yet Mr Trump has done nothing to reverse Mr Obama's craven behaviour in Syria, and has paid relatively scant attention to his regional friends, except for Israel.

One often hears that the Middle East no longer means much to an America that has become an oil exporter. Mr Obama learned to his detriment the fallacy of that statement when ISIL attacks began. The same thing may dawn on Mr Trump when he finally gives the region more time than his attention span allows. Until then, we will have to get used to more sound and fury signifying nothing.