What Does ‘America First’ Mean for the Middle East?
Based on his inauguration speech, President Trump’s core message seems to be “America First.” Time will tell how this vision will translate into US policy, specifically in the Middle East.
One thing remains clear: President Trump views the Middle East through an entirely different prism from that of Obama, and also of George W. Bush.
In the past, US Middle Eastern policies were often guided by two US priorities: the Cold War and oil. The Cold War is gone, and the US has dramatically reduced its dependency on Middle Eastern oil. Today the main challenge is radical Islam, which has wreaked havoc across the Middle East, Europe and America.
Unlike Obama, Trump has vowed to “eradicate radical Islam from the face of the earth.” Radical Islam grew massively under Obama due to a perceived US weakness. Restoring US deterrence should therefore be a top priority for the Trump administration. This will likely include upgrading US military capabilities and strengthening ties with major US allies, like Israel. But it remains an open question if the US can take the lead when Trump has promised to withdraw America from the world stage.
The radical Israel-bashers, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who wrote the book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, have argued — inaccurately — that Israel is a “liability” for the US. According to those authors, the interests of the US and Israel do not converge.
In reality, Israel is one of America’s most loyal and valuable allies. Israel and the US share fundamental democratic values and both face the threat of radical Islam. And unlike US allies in Europe and in Asia, the Jewish state is capable of defending herself by herself and provides Washington with invaluable battle experience, advanced technology and intelligence.
President Trump will likely offer Israeli Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu political protection at the UN and other anti-Israel international forums in return for a more active Israeli role in the battle against radical Islam. Trump’s appointment of David Friedman as the next US ambassador to Israel indicates a more pro-Israel approach in the conflict with the Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Trump has blamed Obama’s pro-PLO bias as the main obstacle to peace. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will therefore be forced to climb down the tree on which Obama had placed him.
Trump has vowed to defeat ISIS, which might lead to a tacit US-Russian cooperation in Syria and beyond. President Trump will likely avoid the failed Bush policy of encouraging the spread of democracy in the despotic Arab world. Instead, Trump will probably seek allies in the Arab world based on common foes rather than shared values.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the Iranian nuclear agreement, but it remains unclear what he will do about it. What is clear is that Trump regards the radical Iranian regime as a source of instability in the Middle East and a global engine for radical Islam, which threatens the US and Israel.
Trump has warned Iran not to provoke US forces in the Persian Gulf. A confrontation between the Trump administration and Tehran seems unavoidable. What remains unclear is whether Trump will choose a direct military confrontation, or prefer a proxy war with the Islamic Republic.