Reassessing American Interests in the Middle East
By Prof. Eytan Gilboa, December 1, 2016
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 382
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: President-Elect Trump has serious decisions to make about
the Middle East, including what to do about Syria, how to tackle Islamic
State, how to take on Iran, and, of course, how to handle the perennial
Israel-Palestinian problem. Trump’s margin of error is narrow, especially
since Russia and Iran are likely to test his leadership and determination.
Because foreign policy issues received so little attention during the recent
presidential election, it is difficult to know what vision and policies
president-elect Donald Trump will adopt for US policy in the Middle East.
Trump made a few statements about challenges in the Middle East region and
about American-Israeli relations, but they were very broad and lacked focus.
It will take some time before he completes the appointment of key officials
in defense and foreign affairs and formulates his strategies and specific
The challenges and expectations that he will face are clear, however.
American foreign policy is always marked by both continuity and change.
Incoming presidents, especially those from a party different from that of
the outgoing president, often wish to adopt dissimilar, and sometimes
opposite, policies to those of their predecessors.
As a strong anti-establishment candidate, Trump is likely to follow this
practice even more so than have other incoming presidents.
Trump has severely criticized President Obama’s foreign and national
security policies, especially the Iran nuclear deal, the battle against
Islamic terrorism, and the handling of American-Israeli relations. During
the campaign, Trump exhibited a tendency to adopt a semi-isolationist,
anti-globalization posture toward American foreign policy. But to “Make
America Great Again,” he will have to be heavily involved in foreign affairs
and, perhaps, define a new vision for American global leadership.
Trump faces several serious challenges in the Middle East. How to restore
American credibility and leadership in the region? How to stop the horrible
civil war in Syria? How to deal with the Russian intervention in Syria? How
to destroy Islamic State (IS)? What to do about the Iran nuclear deal? How
to repair relations with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi? How to
improve relations with Israel, and what to do about Palestinian-Israeli
negotiations? How to strengthen America’s Arab allies?
All of those allies, as well as Israel, would like to see a major change in
the American strategic approach to the Middle East. Obama left a serious
leadership vacuum in the region that was quickly filled by President
Vladimir Putin. US allies expect Trump to restore American power and
influence in the region. Obama’s policies have blurred the lines between
allies and enemies, and US allies want Trump to clarify who is a friend and
who is a foe.
The No. 1 challenge will be Putin’s Russia. Putin has pursued aggressive
direct military interventions in both the Ukraine and Syria. This behavior
led in turn to direct confrontation with the Obama administration and the
Putin was reported to have been pleased with Trump’s presidential victory
because he expected Hillary Clinton to continue to confront him. With Trump,
there is a chance that agreements can be reached to resolve Russia’s
disagreements with the US in Europe and the Middle East.
In Syria, Russia’s primary goal is to save the regime of Bashar Assad and
restore his rule over the entire country. The secondary goal is to diminish
US standing and restore Russian power and influence in the region.
Putin has acquired a reputation as a determined leader and a reliable ally.
He has built air and naval bases, bombed Sunni-rebel groups supported by the
US far more than he has IS strongholds, and formed a strategic alliance with
Iran. Moscow and Tehran share common goals in Syria, and are negotiating a
huge arms deal that will completely modernize Iran’s conventional armed
Trump was described as Putin’s “friend,” and it remains to be seen how his
relationship with the Kremlin will change Russian behavior in Europe and the
During the campaign, Trump said he would use his business experience to
solve international conflicts via “deals.” While it is true that there are
several common elements in all types of negotiation, business bargaining is
very different from diplomatic negotiation. Trump might offer Russia a deal
based on US concessions in Syria in return for Russian concessions in the
Ukraine and Europe. Any such deal will necessarily include Iran, and may
lead to disagreement and tension between the US and its allies in the Middle
America’s allies are concerned about Iran’s military and political
interventions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; sponsorship of terrorism;
destabilization of pro-Western governments; nuclear deal; development of
intercontinental ballistic missiles; and relationship with Russia.
Iran is establishing a Shi’ite strategic axis that includes itself, Iraq,
Syria, and Lebanon. Its purpose is to promote Iran’s hegemonic aspirations
in the region, and it is much more dangerous to the region and the world
than IS. Russian support for this alliance increases its strength and
Trump has defined the Iran nuclear deal as a “disaster” and “the worst deal
ever negotiated,” and promised to cancel it. Since Congress did not approve
the deal, Trump has the authority to reverse it. Yet it was approved by the
UN Security Council and includes several useful restrictions.
Rather than cancel the deal outright, Trump is likely to ensure that Tehran
fulfills all its nuclear obligations. He will also be more inclined than
Obama was to deal forcefully with Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region.
During the Obama era, US-Israeli relations suffered many disagreements on
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear deal with Iran. On a
personal level, the Obama-Netanyahu relationship exuded a particularly toxic
element that hobbled ties between the two countries. The personal
relationship between Trump and Netanyahu is likely to be much warmer, and
the general environment at the White House much friendlier.
Since the establishment of Israel, every US president has expressed a desire
to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and in every recent
presidential election, at least one of the candidates has promised to move
the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Trump is no
exception on either point.
Obama applied heavy pressure on Israel to promote negotiations with the
Palestinians and was obsessively focused on any type of housing construction
in the West Bank settlements. This strategy failed. The Palestinians refused
to negotiate directly with Israel, expecting Obama to “deliver” the Jewish
State so that they would not have to make serious concessions in return for
Trump is unlikely to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He has said
he wouldn’t force negotiations or a “solution.” And in stark contrast to the
current, steadfast US position, he has declared that he does not oppose
settlements in the West Bank. He is also likely to oppose attempts by the
Palestinians to obtain one-sided anti-Israel resolutions in international
organizations, such as the UN Security Council.
In light of this possible approach, the Palestinians may conclude that their
best option is to alter their strategy and seek an agreement via direct
negotiations with Israel.
It is difficult to know whether Trump’s campaign promise to move the US
Embassy to Jerusalem will be implemented. Like his predecessors, he might be
persuaded that this action would cause too much damage to American relations
with the Muslim and Arab world.
Trump will have to reassess US interests in the Middle East to produce new
and more effective ways of dealing with the numerous challenges in ways that
will best balance resources and goals.
The expectations for change are very high, perhaps too high, and the margin
for error is narrower than it was a decade ago. Global and regional actors,
such as Russia and Iran, are likely to test Trump’s leadership and
determination to achieve the goals he sets for US policy in the Middle East.
He will have to demonstrate considerable patience, stamina, and endurance to
cope with them successfully.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center
for Strategic Studies, is director of the Center for International
Communication at Bar-Ilan University.
This is an edited version of an article that appears in the December 12,
2016 issue of The Jerusalem Report.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the
Greg Rosshandler Family