Over the past two weeks, I have been asking the same question to my friends in the Middle East: Do you feel as good about the president’s trip to your region today as you did two weeks ago?
So much of significance happens daily with this president that it’s sometimes tough to even remember what happened a few short weeks ago. But, even accounting for the generous curve against which this president is graded diplomatically, the president’s critics should acknowledge that Donald Trump had a successful trip to both Saudi Arabia and Israel. He managed to reset strained relationships with the Gulf allies in Riyadh, and in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu was bound and determined that Trump would be welcomed with a warmth seldom afforded to the previous occupant of the White House.
But boy, did it all go downhill from there.
The second half of the president’s trip was miserable. The president declined to back the NATO alliance and alienated his fellow G-7 members on everything from Russia to climate change. Air Force One had barely left the European continent before an exasperated Angela Merkel loudly suggested Europe could no longer count on the United States to lead.
Since returning to the United States, meanwhile, the president has announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accords—a decision that confounded strategists across the political spectrum since the accords themselves were designed in such a way as to impose few real costs on the United States. The primary effect of Trump’s decision—especially when taken together with his lukewarm feelings toward NATO and his earlier withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership—has been to abdicate American leadership on the global stage.
So I’m curious about whether our Gulf and Israeli friends still feel as confident about this president as they did two weeks ago. If so, let me offer two big reasons why they should not.
The first is that the president is busily torching the same international alliances that have served as the backbone of U.S. power in the post-war era, and this will affect the ability of the United States to work in the Middle East.
In 2014, for example, largely through the hard work of Brett McGurk and other U.S. diplomats, the United States put together a coalition of 69 nations to defeat the Islamic State—which included literally every nation in Western Europe aside from Switzerland. At the very least, that coalition lent the United States legitimacy as it went about waging yet another military campaign in the Middle East. But many of these nations have made tangible contributions to the military campaign as well: As of two days ago, eight other countries apart from the United States and Iraq had conducted air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, and 11 other countries had done the same in Syria. These allies and partners help share the financial burden, as well, of a campaign that costs $13.1 million each day to execute.
Now try to imagine, if you will, President Trump putting together a similarly large and burden-sharing coalition in the Middle East.
The same goes for tricky diplomatic issues like Iran. The Obama administration was able to get each and every member of the UN Security Council—including Germany, and in addition to the European Union—on board with a strategy to retard the development of Iran’s nuclear program. Leaving the merits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action aside, this was a remarkable diplomatic feat, which was complemented by the naval coalition the United States built to help intercept Iranian arms shipments as well as the multilateral sanctions regime the United States built to pressure Iran to the negotiating table.
Again, try to imagine this president’s ability to do the same should Iran begin to cheat on the deal or should Iran attempt to increase its other malign activity in the region.
Because working as part of broad coalitions has not been an option for Israel (after the Suez Crisis), and because our Gulf partners are only now beginning to operate as part of independent coalitions, neither the Israelis nor the Gulf partners fully appreciate how much the United States benefits from being the kind of country that others feel inclined to follow. And so they might not realize the cost of the things Donald Trump is now doing.
But there’s another reason neither the Israelis nor the Gulf Arabs should feel as comfortable about this president now as they did two weeks ago, and that reason is follow-up.
On the one hand, Israelis and Gulf Arab partners gush about the level of access they’re getting from this administration. And to the credit of the Trump administration, people like Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis indeed seem more willing than most to take a phone call or trade text messages after hours with their diplomatic partners.
But on the other hand, how much faith can one have in the ability of the administration to follow through on any of its promises? This administration—despite hailing from the same party that controls both houses of Congress—has somehow failed to score any major legislative victories in the first six months of the year and faces an uphill battle to do so before the August recess. That should be evidence enough that while this administration can undo a lot of the things the Obama administration did, it struggles to accomplish anything—like actually passing a health care law, or getting tax reform—that requires creativity or execution.
And who, exactly, is going to follow up on any commitments made by the president in Riyadh and Tel Aviv? The Department of State, which is missing its entire mid-level leadership and key ambassadors and whose budget was just slashed? The Department of Defense, which has also struggled to fill the key civilian policy jobs? (Almost six months after I left the Pentagon, for example, a new deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East Policy has yet to be named.) Or the National Security Council, whose senior Middle East official did not even go on the president’s trip? (Two lower-level subordinates met the president’s traveling party in Riyadh and Tel Aviv.)
Finally, it’s great that Jared Kushner has been so active diplomatically, especially with the Saudis and Israelis, but does anyone in the Middle East read U.S. newspapers? Are they in any way concerned that Kushner might be facing a long and time-consuming hassle over another diplomatic back-channel he reportedly tried to establish? Is he really the guy you’re going to work through to accomplish anything of substance?
I wrote prior to the trip about the disconnect between the United States and the region and how the president’s esteem among regional leaders was at its apex as it approached something of a nadir at home. How long until our regional partners, though, wake up and realize this? They haven’t made the kind of Faustian bargain with this president that, say, American Evangelical Christians have, but they have certainly placed their faith in a man who is undermining the very power that has made American so attractive to the region’s leaders (if not its wary peoples) for the past century.
This warmth cannot last, and I suspect that it is only a matter of time before the region’s more intelligent leaders begin to pine for the colder—but steadier—relations under this president’s predecessor.