The Trump administration’s conduct regarding the Middle East is of grave concern to those mindful of geopolitical power dynamics. Over the past four years, President Trump has failed to make effective policy changes in the tumultuous region. Instead, his administration made decisions that upset America’s allies and entirely negate past progress. By disregarding the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict in favor of normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab states, as well as escalating tensions with Iran, Trump has unilaterally shifted global dynamics in the Middle East. His actions raised the already toxic levels of aggression and stoked instability which will be problematic for future administrations. For his Middle East policy, I assign a D to President Trump and his administration.
In regards to Israel, the Trump administration persistently maintained close ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sacrificed American morals to help Israel progress as a global power. However, by normalizing relations between Israel and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Trump excessively promoted the agreements without admitting to the incentives for signatories, nor confronting the increased isolation of Iran. Recently, Morocco agreed to begin normalizing relations with Israel, provided that the U.S. supports Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the disputed region of Western Sahara–an instance of Trump defying U.N. dialogue in favor of the administration’s priorities. The Trump administration also coerced Sudan into normalizing relations with Israel in order to finally be removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list. These budding alliances between Arab states and Israel corner Iran, heightening geopolitical tensions that are also tied to religious and ethnic identity. In a region with a deep history of unrest, isolating Iran through greater Arab-Israeli relations lowers the threshold for dangerous conflict.
Perhaps the crown jewel of Trump’s Israeli policy is the Abraham Accords, signed by Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Through the Abraham Accords, Trump sought to normalize relations between Israel and Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) states. While the deal formalizes diplomatic and economic ties between Israel and MENA states, it disregards the threat to peace negotiations with the Palestinians. This lapse in policy could motivate the Palestinians to rise up against Israel, similar to what happened in the Intifadas. Violent uprisings caused by political rifts have often increased power for terrorist groups like Hamas in the Palestinian territories. The Abraham Accords may incite a Palestinian rebellion and spur a new wave of violence, only adding to Middle Eastern geopolitical tensions.
Despite his actions with Israel, Trump’s most alarming move in Middle East policy was his decision to exit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Though many criticized the deal as an incomplete plan that did not go far enough in limiting Iran’s power and unreasonably relaxed economic sanctions, the deal was groundbreaking and imperative for maintaining stability in the Middle East. After leaving the JCPOA in 2018, Trump reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran which the administration justified as a way to prevent Iran from funneling money into terrorist organizations. If Trump’s goal is to eliminate terrorism, a more effective strategy would be to diminish a group’s membership by eliminating the organization’s social appeal for new members. Instead, by reimposing harsh sanctions, the Trump administration only stifled Iran’s economy, leading to detrimental economic regression and greater public distress. As a result of Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA, Iran has reinstated its nuclear program, and satellite imagery shows evidence of increased activity near Natanz, among other shifts. On January 11, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dashed the new administration’s potential to renegotiate the JCPOA by claiming that Iran was al-Qaeda’s “new home base”, a claim that experts say is exaggerated and will likely worsen U.S.-Iran relations.
In addition to leaving the JCPOA, U.S. forces assassinated General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, nearly starting a war with Iran. This move by the Trump administration showed a level of aggression and offensive action that alarmed many of Trump’s critics, though the President claimed that it was in order to curb Iranian aggression. Contrary to Trump’s claims of justification for the assassination and what it would accomplish, as a result of Gen. Solemani’s death, Iranian distaste for American hegemony ballooned, U.S. troops in the region were endangered, and the legitimate threat of war consumed the minds of citizens, politicians, and national security officials. In condemnation of the action, scholars of international law and U.N. experts assert that the assassination was not legally justifiable–another instance of Trump’s departure from U.N. allegiance.
Trump’s Middle East policy is nothing short of shocking. Actions in the Middle East by the Trump administration have been short-sighted and damaging to U.S. foreign relations, leading to questions of where America now stands on the global playing field. Of additional concern, the siege on the Capitol, incited by Trump, has further increased anti-American sentiments and distrust abroad. It is yet another spear in anyone’s hopes to rectify U.S.-Middle East relations. The damage inflicted by the Trump administration is not irreparable, but it has undoubtedly worsened U.S. prospects for improving relations in the Middle East and slashed America’s ethos. As a result of Trump’s Middle East policy, in the coming months and years, the U.S. must tread carefully in order to avoid creating a regrettable situation.