Few who work on North Korea think the Iran deal was a bad deal. Asia specialists would kill for the kind of deal we Middle East specialists spend so much time griping about.
In the same way, I understand why neither the Israelis nor the Gulf partners would ever want the United States to reduce the roughly 35,000 U.S. servicemen we have stationed in the Gulf region alone. But the United States has global obligations, and there is real opportunity cost to tying up so many U.S. resources in a region energy markets are making less important while the Pacific region grows in strategic significance. In that context, even the Obama era’s most quixotic efforts to disentangle the United States from the Middle East look more excusable.
The second way in which the Trump administration is constricted by a very narrow focus, though, is the lack of appreciation for the way in which the United States has achieved most of its gains in the Middle East—either against the Islamic State or Iran—operating as part of coalitions. Those same coalitions both enable and constrain U.S. actions.
Against the Islamic State, the United States assembled a broad coalition of nations to claw back Iraqi and Syrian territory. Thirty nations contribute to the military coalition—with many more contributing diplomatic, intelligence, and humanitarian support. It is fair to say that few of these nations support an effort to carry the fight to Iran once Daesh is defeated—though I know that some members of the Trump administration’s national security staff are eager to challenge Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq.
The same goes for the other members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany, and the European Union—all of whom helped negotiate the nuclear deal with Iran. We Americans often describe Iran as a “rogue state,” but if the Trump administration is seen to be undermining the nuclear deal, it will not be Iran that our international partners consider rogue. The secretaries of State and Defense both understand this, and the president should as well. If the deal collapses, and the United States is seen as being the one to blame, multilateral diplomacy is no longer a viable option to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Only a military strike—or series of military strikes—would suffice. This might be what some within the Trump administration want, and it’s certainly what many regional partners want, but it’s neither what America’s allies or Trump’s voters want.
Ironically, six months into the Trump administration, there has been a lot more continuity in U.S. Middle East policy than change. But some members of the Trump administration remain obsessed with the former administration. In recent months, the top Gulf, Syria, and Iraq experts at the National Security Council—all career civil servants, but all suspected of having too many close ties to the Obama administration—have been unceremoniously returned to their home agencies. Members of the administration go on Fox News and proclaim former Obama administration officials—who they had previously and incongruously denounced as naïve and incompetent—are running a vast conspiracy within the U.S. civil service to undermine the president’s agenda.
All of that creates a toxic environment whereby members of the Trump administration might be tempted to do things not because they are wise but simply because they reverse things the Obama administration did. When it comes to the Iran deal, that would be a mistake of epic proportions.