President Trump undertook the first substantive foreign policy initiative of his presidency on April 5 when he authorized U.S. military action in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun the previous day. However, the four-minute long firing of 61 cruise missiles at the Al-Shayrat airbase generated as many questions as it provided suggestions for the direction in which President Trump’s policies toward the Middle East might evolve. Members of the administration subsequently sent mixed messages about whether the air strikes appeared to signal a shift in the U.S. approach to Syria, and the lack of any real follow-up has reinforced perceptions that policymaking under President Trump will be more reactive and on a case-by-case basis than proactive and indicative of a grander strategic design.
U.S. allies, partners, and adversaries have spent the opening ten weeks of the Trump presidency searching for clues about how one of the least predictable administrations in modern times intends to engage internationally. Most presidents take office with a set of policy proposals and manifesto commitments that provide a degree of insight into the issues and priorities they intend to focus on. To be sure, even the best laid plans can be overtaken by unanticipated events, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks that took place nine months into George W. Bush’s presidency in 2001. But few U.S. presidents have entered the White House with such uncertainty over key elements of their policy agenda and after all the bluff and bluster of an election campaign volatile even by the standards of America’s polarized politics.
A Preference for Hard Power
Despite the absence of clearly defined lines of policy, a publicity-shy Secretary of State in Rex Tillerson, and the near-daily Tweets that do at least offer inroads into the presidential mindset, it is possible to piece together various signs that collectively point to the direction of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. At a macro-level, the February announcement that the U.S. government will seek to boost defense spending by US$54 billion and cut the budget of the State Department by up to 28 percent indicates an instinctive preference for hard power over soft power in pursuing U.S. interests abroad. Large increases in the proposed budgets for defense procurement and combat operations signal also that the U.S. military footprint – which already has become more visible in the Middle East since January – will grow further.
Further indications of the directions of U.S. policymaking in the Middle East become apparent from the appointments made to relevant positions within the defense and security establishment in Washington, DC. As Laura Rozen has documented, senior officials on the National Security Council include Derek Harvey (head of the Middle East team at the NSC and the White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa), Joel Rayburn (responsible for Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria), and Michael Bell (responsible for Gulf affairs). All three are serving or retired colonels in the U.S. Army and bring a wealth of expertise to their new positions; Harvey was heavily involved in the U.S. response to the insurgency in Iraq after 2003, Rayburn authored the official account of the Iraq war for the U.S. military and subsequently wrote a book entitled Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance, and Bell served in the Gulf War in 1991 and, more recently, was lead writer for Kuwait’s National Security and Defense Strategy, as well as the National Military Strategy of the Kuwaiti Armed Forces.
A hawk on Iran
Principal appointments beyond the NSC paint a similar picture. The Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, is a supporter of enhanced cooperation with U.S. security partners in the Gulf, a hawk on Iran, and opposed the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ during the Obama administration. Although the pivot to Asia was always more rhetoric than reality and did not signify a U.S.‘abandonment’ of regional partnerships, Gulf officials latched on to the phrase to encapsulate everything they disliked about Obama’s approach to the Middle East. Mattis has instead advocated a forward deployment of U.S. military assets to the Gulf to help contain Iran and other regional threats such as the Islamic State. Particularly on Iran, Mattis holds views that will be music to the ears of leaders in Gulf capitals such as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, namely that that the U.S. must work closely with its regional partners to vigorously enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the international community in July 2015.
On another burning regional issue, Mike Pompeo, the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was previously a co-sponsor, as member of the House of Representatives for the 4th Congressional district in Kansas, of the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act of 2015 (H.R.3892). Pompeo’s record is likely to go down well in the United Arab Emirates, which has spearheaded a relentless campaign to intervene in regional affairs and roll back Brotherhood influence across the Middle East and North Africa since 2011. This has led to Emirati military involvement in the war in Yemen and in the civil conflict in Libya in a show of force that UAE policymakers are likely to emphasize in their meetings with U.S. counterparts. Indeed, Politico has reported that the UAE’s influential Ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, has spoken frequently about Middle Eastern issues to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and closest confidante.
Close Cooperation with Gulf States
With the above in mind, and noting also that Secretary of State Tillerson has longstanding working relationships with ruling circles in Gulf States from his time as CEO of ExxonMobil, U.S. policy in the Middle East during this opening phase of the Trump administration is likely to emphasize several features.
— The Trump administration will prioritize the application of hard military power over soft power and will work closely on foreign and security policy and counterterrorism with selected regional partners.
In the Gulf, these will be the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where enhanced U.S. security guarantees will be given in exchange for expecting Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to intensify cooperation on issues such as administration policy toward Islamist groups and Iran. Getting regional partners to shoulder more of the costs of security – as with NATO partners in Europe – will be consistent with the ‘America First’ approach championed by President Trump. Reports that the U.S. may also lift human rights restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain also fall into the general expectation that American partners ‘step up’ their contributions to regional security structures.
— The primary focus of U.S. policies in the Middle East will be on securing regional stability and countering terrorism (however vaguely defined), working closely with the abovementioned partners where possible.
Air operations in Mosul, areas of Syria held by Islamic State, and Yemen have all intensified greatly since President Trump took office. The fact that forces from the UAE partnered with special forces from the U.S. in the controversial raid on Yakla in Yemen on January 29 is illustrative of the fact that the UAE is the closest Arab counterterrorism partner the U.S. has in the region. U.S. forces have worked with UAE counterparts in Afghanistan for years and this joint raid is likely the harbinger of more such activities to come, and the UAE hosts the Sawab Center for countering ISIS messaging and the Hedayah Center for countering violent extremism, both in close coordination with the U.S. -- Projected cuts in U.S. aid policies and refugee programs threaten to gut U.S. soft power just as the country gets more involved in the series of intractable regional conflicts that lack clear or imminent political or military endgames.
Searching for military solutions to the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen over political approaches risks feeding into the narratives of U.S. adversaries and reinforcing the refugee crisis that has caused so much knock-on political damage in Europe. Yemen is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe caused by blockade-induced famine, massive internal displacement, and economic dislocation, and this is a time for the international community as a whole (not just the U.S.) to step up rather than scale back its efforts.
— In keeping with the general tenor of policymaking in the Trump presidency thus far, diplomacy is likely to be based more around personal ties and proximity to the president than the institutions of state (and their international governance counterparts) built up over decades.
This naturally represents an opportunity to U.S. partners in the Middle East which operate in broadly similar ways, as evidenced by the visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi to the White House. As noted above, it appears that Jared Kushner – rather than Secretary of State Tillerson – is becoming the go-to person for governments that wish to establish a direct line into the corridors of power. It remains to be seen what impact this personalized style of policymaking will have on the actual formulation and subsequent implementation of policies as they move beyond the declaratory and the soundbite and transition into the bureaucratic chain of command. As the healthcare debacle last month indicated, translating rhetoric into policy can be hard at the best of times, but will potentially be even more difficult for the largely politically untested Trump administration.