WASHINGTON: For most of Barack Obama’s presidency, the “pivot to Asia,” negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and escaping Middle East turmoil engulfed US policy in the region.
Analysts and former US officials interpret President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia as the antithesis of his predecessor’s approach.
Trump’s choice of Saudi Arabia and then Israel as his first foreign destinations since taking office on Jan. 20 puts the Middle East back at the centerpiece of US foreign policy, said Edward Djerejian, director of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, and Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Djerejian, who served in eight Republican and Democratic administrations, told Arab News that Trump’s trip “demonstrates US willingness to engage with traditional partners in the Gulf and in the Middle East.”
While the first three stops symbolically will take Trump to Muslim, Jewish and Christian capitals (the Vatican on May 24) “to engage with the Muslim world and marginalize extremists,” Djerejian said the Gulf countries, which will convene with Trump in two summits in Saudi Arabia, “feel bolstered by the strong signals from his administration in terms of support, arms sales, and that Trump is reengaging the US with its traditional partners.”
Obama “focused too much on the Iran nuclear deal,” added the former US diplomat, who served as ambassador to Syria and Israel. Obama’s overemphasis on the Iran negotiations and nuclear deal “made the Gulf feel sidelined by that priority.”
Abrams said: “By the end of the Obama years, Arab leaders had concluded that the US was on Iran’s side.” Abrams, who served under former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, saw three significant slants in the visit. Firstly, going to Saudi Arabia as the first trip is a “departure from previous presidents, who chose to go to Canada, Mexico, Europe or Asia.”
Secondly, the trip is a message to “those who thought the US is withdrawing from the Middle East that they’re wrong.” Thirdly, the former official said the flight route from Saudi Arabia directly to Israel is another break from routes that former US delegations took when departing from an Arab country to Israel.
But on substance both Djerejian and Abrams agreed on the complexity of the issues that Trump will face on his trip. Djerejian laid out the landscape as such: “The war in Yemen has become very complicated, tensions with Iran haven’t gone away, the threat of Daesh is prevalent, though its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria continue, and the Palestinian issue is still unresolved.”
While it is “an important signal that Trump is willing to get engaged, in between word and deed there can be a big gap,” Djerejian said. The ultimate test for Trump is “in the strategy or strategies to address these threats,” and that remains unclear so far.
President’s trip demonstrates US willingness to engage with traditional allies in the Gulf.
On Iran, Djerejian said Trump as a candidate “criticized the Iran nuclear deal, but ever since he became president he didn’t make that decision to rid the US of the deal, because it isn’t a bilateral agreement … and it involves the P5+1 group.” Finding balance in “countering Iran’s troublesome actions outside the nuclear deal is critical,” added Djerejian.
Abrams agreed that Trump has “decided not to throw out the nuclear deal, but is pushing back on the non-nuclear side with more robust US military posturing and patrols in the Bab Al-Mandab” area.
Djerejian did not foresee a US military confrontation with Iran unless the latter “withdraws from the nuclear deal, develops its ballistic missile capability and threatens the US naval presence in the Strait of Hormuz.” But Abrams was less confident about the possibility of such a confrontation. “Trump doesn’t necessarily want confrontation, but suppose the Iranians hit a US ship off Yemen, the administration will find itself having to respond.”
Yemen is one area where Trump and the Gulf countries can find common ground during the visit. Abrams described a sense of glee among Gulf partners at Trump’s more robust role and military coordination with them.
“A Saudi diplomat said to me, ‘We’ve gotten more intelligence-sharing on Yemen in three months of Trump than in two years under Obama. There are also more US patrols in the Gulf waters.’ “
Djerejian saw “potential to get Gulf countries to agree on a modus operandi in Yemen, to find a track for diplomacy. There’s no military solution.”
Trump’s closer embrace of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf partners could open the door to talking and cooperating more on “defunding radicalization,” said Abrams. “Trump can get more with less pressure, and can get more if Saudi Arabia doesn’t perceive you as a friend of Iran.”
On the peace process, which will be front and center during Trump’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Djerejian struck an optimistic note. “The solution is there, and the modalities and general configuration are there. What’s missing is political will,” he said.
While Djerejian said Trump could energize the political will needed for an agreement, Abrams said: “There’s a chance to do some good to improve life in the West Bank, but there are no conditions for a comprehensive agreement.”
But Djerejian cautioned against the “improving life in the West Bank” approach, saying: “We’ve seen this before — just go for economic measures and wait for a better day to push for an agreement — we waited far too long.”
Abrams said the regional turmoil, Israel’s and Jordan’s security, and the looming succession battle within the Palestinian Authority all point to continued stalemate between the Israelis and Palestinians. But Djererjian viewed Trump’s “unorthodox approach” and regional backing as signals for a “chance to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” concluding that “the door hasn’t closed on a two-state solution.”