Donald Trump's Middle East Promises: Can He Keep Them?
When it comes to the Middle East, President-elect Donald Trump may not have offered up many details about his administration's priorities. But he certainly made a number of transformative promises on the campaign trail about what he would like to do. So will he? Here are four bold commitments that the next president made as a candidate that are unlikely to follow him after he occupies the White House, either because he cannot deliver on them or because he may not want to.
Not likely. In military terms, destroying an enemy means destroying permanently its ability to resist. This is a realistic goal in conventional conflicts, but not in a conflict against an enemy like the Islamic State. The United States can erode ISIS’s support and increase the costs of its operations; we can also deny ISIS territory and disrupt its terrorist attacks. But we cannot destroy the terrorist group’s ability to resist, nor alter its ideology. Even countering that ideology and the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and proselytize will entail a prolonged struggle, one most likely without end. In ISIS, President Trump will face an adversary that is extremely resilient and adaptable. Degrading that resilience requires decisions and actions that America’s partners have shown no interest in taking. If the Shia-dominated Iraqi government does not make a concerted effort to treat Iraq’s Sunni population fairly and inclusively, and if Iran-backed Shiite militias seek to expand their influence at Sunni expense or seek revenge for ISIS killings, the Trump administration will end up with ISIS 2.0 in Iraq.
Indeed, both Iraq and Syria remain giant petri dishes for incubating and growing ISIS. It will not be possible for the United States to “drain the swamp” of ISIS supporters if these dysfunctional, conflict-ridden, and poorly governed countries cannot be pieced back together. And Trump’s recent reiteration of his aversion to nation-building means that this cannot be done unless America has reliable local and international partners willing to bear the major responsibility for mending these broken states at the cost of billions of dollars and at great risk of loss of lives. Moreover, even if ISIS is not robust enough to hold territory, it will have no problem, as we have already seen, in spreading its tentacles throughout the region or going global.
A new administration -- assuming it follows up on President Obama’s efforts in Mosul and Raqqa -- can prevent ISIS from holding territory as a proto-state, but it cannot prevent the operations of other Salafist and jihadist groups such as al Qaeda or Fatah al-Sham. Nor can Bashar Assad or Russia accomplish the task, which means that Trump’s notion of cutting a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to destroy ISIS in Syria is fanciful, especially so long as Assad remains in power and is determined to retake all territory under ISIS control. A President Trump should also be careful of what he wishes for: "Bombing the hell” out of ISIS, as he said he would do, would only clear a path out of the destruction for al Qaeda, Fatah al-Sham, and other militant jihadist groups.
Not so fast. During the course of the campaign, Trump said several contradictory things about the accord. He said that he might seek to renegotiate it, or that he would not “rip it up” but “police the contract so tough that they don’t have a chance.” Should the next president want time to assess the pros and cons of precipitous action, he would surely have it, and he very well might take it. There are clearly downsides to early unilateral action, including almost certain opposition from Russia, China, and European allies; a green light for Iran to pocket the billions it has made from sanctions relief and to make more as the international community accelerates its business with Tehran; and resumption of its nuclear program, at Iran’s chosen pace, toward a bomb.
Moreover, the collapse of the accord would deal a humiliating blow to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his allies, tip the outcome of Iran’s presidential election next May toward the hardliners, and empower the very members of the Iranian security establishment that control the regional policies that Trump and the Iranian hawks in his administration care most about. Responsibility for abrogation would be laid squarely at Washington’s door. Iran would gain a public relations boost and a political advantage without any real immediate gain for the United States, and America would lose out on business opportunities in the Iranian market. To use Trump‘s own metric, such an outcome doesn’t seem much like America winning.
There is another way to handle the accord, whether the next president wants to kill the deal, trigger a death spiral that puts part of the onus on Iran, or try to pressure Iran to tighten up some of its terms. The wise course would be to undertake a review of the JCPOA and allow Congress to ratchet up sanctions on issues such as terrorism and ballistic missile tests that fall outside the four corners of the accord. It’s doubtful that a Trump administration would ever actively defend the JCPOA. But it is certainly possible that it might see the advantages of preserving the deal as useful tool to avoid an early crisis with allies or with Iran. Much like Obamacare, dismantling the JCPOA without thinking through the costs, particularly if there is nothing to replace it, may not appear as attractive in the White House as it did on the campaign trail.
Seriously? This is another talking point that looks better during a campaign than it does while governing. Two of the last three U.S. presidents -- Clinton and Bush 43 -- made similar pledges during the campaign. Yet both, and President Obama as well, took advantage of the waiver provided in the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act to avoid that course of action. Clearly President-elect Trump has proven unpredictable and has said and done things that none of his predecessors have. But it’s also true that President Trump will not be candidate Trump. And once in the White House, a precipitous move on the Embassy -- like scuttling the Iran deal -- seems neither warranted nor wise.
There are other ways to demonstrate support for Israel, and the dysfunctional relationship between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration is going to change for the better. Why risk a violent reaction from Palestinian Arabs throughout the region while giving jihadists a propaganda windfall over a religious symbol like Jerusalem? Why make a move that would prejudge, predetermine, and further complicate a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that Trump recently said he would personally like to broker? It’s hard to imagine that even Trump’s hard-nosed foreign-policy advisers wouldn’t counsel caution and argue that the downsides on moving the Embassy hugely outweigh the advantages.
Really? Curiously, during the campaign and even after the election, the president-elect voluntarily pledged several times that he would be honored to take on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He has touted his own negotiating skills and those of his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Clearly this issue has his attention. All modern presidents have understood the importance of Middle East peace, but none has ever publicly expressed the confidence that he could actually solve the historic conflict.
Of all Trump’s campaign promises related to the Middle East, this is the one that is perhaps most most marked by magical thinking. If there is any issue in the dysfunctional Middle East that is not ready for prime time, it is surely the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The key issue blocking an impasse in the search for a two-state solution -- which is probably the least bad outcome -- is not the absence of U.S. leadership or the negotiating talents of this or that president or secretary of state. Rather, it is the politically inconvenient fact that neither the Israeli government nor the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is willing or able to make the kind of decisions required on the core issues (Jerusalem, territory, refugees) that would enable an effective mediator to get close enough to bridge the gaps. Nor does the Arab world -- confronted with transnational terror groups, bitter sectarian rivalry, a rising Iran, and failed and failing states -- offer up the kind of environment for risk-taking and engagement to support a two-state solution. Short of some unforeseen regional development that compels Israelis and Palestinians or the Arab states to alter their risk-averse calculations, there seems little that even the self-confident and willful Trump or his relatives would be willing or able to do that would afford Trump a serious chance to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The president-elect has already discovered that campaigning is not governing. We have seen his pragmatic side recently as he walked back or offered more nuanced views on waterboarding, climate change, and appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton. Despite the rather high correlation political scientists have found between a president’s promises and delivery, Trump may find it difficult to translate his campaign talking points on the Middle East into concrete policies. He may well discover, like his predecessor did, that the United States is stuck in a broken, dysfunctional region full of bad options, impossible missions, and long shots. As the campaign and transition lead to governing, he may well find a politically incorrect and inconvenient reality staring him in the face. There may be more need for continuity with Barack Obama’s Middle East policies than he imagined or bargained for. Indeed, in the cruelest of ironies, Trump may well end up following any number of policies in his own administration that he roundly castigated in the previous one.