Trump Has Let Down Israel and Saudi Arabia
After taking office in January 2017, President Trump made it a priority to reaffirm America’s commitment to its Middle East allies, most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia. With so much turmoil in the region, Jerusalem and Riyadh had been facing major threats to their national securities, leading the president to choose the two as his first stops on his first overseas visit.
In Saudi Arabia, in May 2017, President Trump pledged to the leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries “to strengthen America’s oldest friendships.” The president then alluded to the historic meeting between King Abdul-Aziz and President Franklin Roosevelt, highlighting the longstanding nature of the US-Saudi partnership.
Just a few days later in Jerusalem, President Trump declared that he’d come to the Jewish state to “reaffirm the unshakable bond between the United States and Israel.”
In both speeches, along with his words of gratitude and affirmation, the president then conspicuously singled out one country for its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East. He told his audience in Riyadh that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the “regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region.” The president then invited the other world leaders to join him in pushing back against the theocratic regime, declaring that “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran.”
There is little doubt that, over the past decade, the mullahs have made substantial progress in their quest for regional domination. Indeed, Iran has been building a vast military infrastructure across the northern Middle East, gaining footholds in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. What’s more, on the Arabian Peninsula, Iran has been able to exploit the civil war in Yemen, providing military and propaganda support to the Houthi rebels — another group who, for all intents and purposes, is just one more Shiite militia on the theocratic regime’s long list of proxies.
Less talked about than these strategic gains made by Iran, however, has been what lies on the flipside of this coin: the struggle for regional mastery. That is, Iran’s gains have amounted to diminished levels of security for Israel and Saudi Arabia. Where Iran has made advances, the Saudis and Israelis have seen their positions deteriorate.
The Saudis and their coalition of Arab partners remain locked in conflict in Yemen, unable to bring to a halt the consistent flow of weapons from the Iranians to the Houthis. This past March, the Houthis marked the third anniversary of the Saudi-led military campaign against them by firing seven ballistic missiles at strategic targets within Saudi territory. Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman articulated the pressure that Saudi Arabia is feeling on its southern border, along with the need for his country to fight back, declaring: “This is not something about choice here. This is about security and life for us.”
The threats to Israel’s security on its northern border are no less profound. Hezbollah and its Iranian patron are filling Lebanon with rockets and missiles, aimed at Israeli population centers and strategic sites. Hezbollah is reported to have amassed up to 250,000 rockets in Lebanon, with their arsenal only getting bigger. And in neighboring Syria, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) continues to enhance its presence; there are at least ten known IRGC and Shiite militia positions located south of Damascus, encroaching on the Golan Heights.
Considering these regional conflicts through an American lens, the fact that the United States’ greatest regional adversary is very much on top, while its two most important allies continue to struggle, is as good of an indicator as any that the strategic position of the United States — and its geopolitical interests in the Middle East — are in shambles.
All that said, until Iran’s gains are reversed, not only will America’s allies be unable to restore their desired levels of national security, but the United States will have little hope in reestablishing its strategic position and upholding its traditional system of alliances in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, although Israel and Saudi Arabia have proven capable of putting up a good fight, their capabilities are limited. While Israel can deliver punishing blows to the IRGC in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Jewish state doesn’t have the means to shape the outcome of a civil war in an Arab country. In the case of Syria, this includes the added burdens of putting pressure on the Russians and breaking Iran’s strategic foothold in the war-torn country. Similarly, while the Saudis can deal setbacks to the Houthis in Yemen, as long as the rebels’ flow of arms from Iran continues at a steady pace, the war there will go on for the foreseeable future.
Shaping the outcome of the Syrian conflict and pursuing President Trump’s stated objective of isolating Iran requires heavy lifting that Israel and Saudi Arabia simply aren’t capable of. These two Middle East allies are regional powers wrapped in a broader conflict with global implications. The great game in the Middle East is being fought by two American allies who aren’t great powers. Building leverage against Russia and attacking the financial lifeblood of Iran’s strategic hold on Lebanon, Syria ,and Yemen requires the help of Israel and Saudi Arabia’s superpower ally. Leveling devastating sanctions in order to stem the flow of weapons and resources to the IRGC and its proxies is a task uniquely reserved for the United States.
In the days following his May 2017 visit to the Middle East, President Trump was in Brussels for a NATO summit. He was there to convey to America’s European allies a message much different than the one he delivered in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Offering little in the way of gratitude or affirmation, he chided the other NATO members for not doing their “fair share” for the alliance. His scolding included the accusation that “23 out of the 28 member-nations are still not paying what … they’re supposed to be paying for their defense.”
Now, the president may or may not have been right about America’s friends in Europe, but contrasting this message with the commitments he made to Israel and Saudi Arabia provides a striking dichotomy in his Middle East policy. In the same week that he warned NATO members that the United States would be willing to continue providing only so much of a commitment to the alliance if the Europeans were not willing to do their fair share, he went out of his way to reassure America’s Middle East allies of his commitment to their security.
But, as it turns out, in the case of Israel and Saudi Arabia, these two allies are undoubtedly pulling their weight, while it’s the United States that’s not doing its fair share. These are two longtime US allies that are fighting for their lives in the world’s most volatile region but that are not receiving sufficient support from their traditional partner.
Today, Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s national securities are in no better shape than when President Trump visited Jerusalem and Riyadh one year ago. Moreover, Iran is no closer to being isolated. If the president wants isolate Iran and live up to the commitments he made to America’s allies, he’ll need to make significant adjustments to his Middle East policy.