WASHINGTON // Almost six months into the Trump administration, Washington’s new focus on the Middle East has been defined by a heavier hand in containing Iran and targeting ISIL.
Donald Trump, who came to power with no foreign policy credentials, launched the first US missile strikes against the Assad regime and made his first foreign trip as president to Saudi Arabia.
Yet the lack of a clear strategy, signs of division within the administration, and an unusual delay in filling positions in the US government, have cast a dark cloud over his agenda.
To his defenders, Mr Trump is restoring US engagement and military clout in the region. James Carafano, a senior scholar and historian at The Heritage Foundation, said the US president early on veered towards "reengaging US partners in the Middle East” whereas his predecessor Barack Obama “wanted to disengage from the region”.
Mr Carafano, who was part of the president's transition team, described Mr Trump’s doctrine as “peace and stability through persistence [and] presence” in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia to protect US interests.
However, Jon Alterman, the vice president and director of the Middle East programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said it was premature to talk of a Trump doctrine.
"I don’t think there is a strategy, there is an instinct to be disruptive, to break from the previous administration," Mr Alterman said. He attributed the lack of strategy to a lack of effort from the top of the administration and the absence of a robust civil service lower down the rank.
Last month Politico reported that hundreds of appointments remain vacant in the state department including crucial positions relating to the Middle East such as the assistant secretary for Near East affairs. "Thousands of people in the US government are trying to figure out what their bosses want them to do, there is no broader framework of what direction they should go," Mr Alterman added.
What Mr Trump appears to have kept from the Obama days, is a continued US focus on defeating ISIL in Iraq and Syria. A US state department official ranked that goal as “the top priority” for the Mr Trump administration in the Middle East.
As for Iran, the US official told The National that a final policy still awaits the conclusion of a review.
Mr Trump sees Iran not through its nuclear programme, but through its destabilising activities, said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “He’s not afraid of upsetting the Iranians the same way that Obama was,” he said.
Since Mr Trump took office, new treasury sanctions have been imposed on Iran and US jets over Syria targeted Iranian proxies and drones three times in the last two months.
On regime change in Iran, Mr Schanzer said the US president “is a risk taker and is sending a message to the Iranians, that all options are on the table”. Additionally, if Mr Trump manages to bring moderate Arab states and Israel together to help counter Iran “it would be a major diplomatic feat”.
There are those like Mr Carafano who think the US is not interested in regime change or nation building in the Middle East, and is concerned only with defeating ISIL and Al Qaeda, and marginalising the destabilising activity of Iran.
Lack of cohesion
Tamara Wittes, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, defined Mr Trump’s priorities in the Middle East as a “set of instincts” and not a coherent strategy, driven chiefly by his appreciation of autocratic leaders, mistrust of Iran, being anti-Obama, punishing Bashar Al Assad for chemical weapons use in Syria and seeking Arab-Israeli peace.
Remarkably absent from the administration's agenda “are concerns about governance in the region”, Ms Wittes said. While former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama saw a direct link between improving governance and stability “this administration seems to dismiss the idea that governance has anything to do with American interests in a stable and successful Middle East,” she said. “That's a very foolish judgment, in my view. Defeating ISIL militarily is a very temporary gain unless there's investment in establishing governance, justice and security in the areas ISIS leaves ... otherwise bad actors will simply find new pockets of grievance to exploit so they can reemerge.”
Divisions within the administration
The debate on the Middle East in Washington has also exposed differences within the administration on dealing with the Qatar dispute and Syria.
“There is what [secretary of state Rex] Tillerson says, there is what the president tweets and sometimes says, there is what [White House spokesperson] Sean Spicer says ... and they’re all different positions,” said Mr Alterman.
These differences were recently evident after US military action around Al Tanf base in Syria against president Assad forces and Iran’s proxies. The “top line” strategy to defeat ISIL is the same there is little clarity on what to do afterwards, said Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.
While the Pentagon's primary goal is to defeat ISIL, other voices would like to escalate the conflict and expand the goals to include direct action against Iran, Mr Stein said.
“There is a paper churn, largely coming from [White House adviser] Derek Harvey that we have interests out in the eastern desert of Syria and one of them is to counter Iran.”
This wing, however, seems to be facing resistance from Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the Inherent Resolve operation, who on Monday said he welcomed a push by Assad forces into eastern Syria against ISIL.
These differences are a sign of “healthy tension”, said Mr Schanzer, and not a new phenomenon in Washington. Mr Alterman was more wary of the lack of cohesion. “You can do a lot with personal relations but the way the US has done things in the past, is by bringing strong teams and institutional presence,” he said.
For Mr Trump, disruption is not necessarily a bad word. The former real estate mogul and TV star embraced disruption as a modus operandi. In international politics, Mr Carafano said, “Mr Trump doesn’t care if Iran or Russia or North Korea collapse, he just doesn’t want it to threaten US interests".