President Donald Trump arrives in Saudi Arabia as an American leader promising a dramatic change in US policy toward the Middle East. Of course, this means he will not be bringing the kind of message that his predecessor brought to the region in his famous Cairo speech of 2009. Back then the Arab street took Obama’s call for human rights and dignity seriously. This culminated in the uprising of the Arab Spring in 2011.
In fact, the Arab street had combined Obama’s Cairo rhetoric with the Bush policy of Iraqi democracy — leading to the highly successful Iraqi democratic election of 2010 — to expect a revolutionary US engagement that seriously promoted both human rights and democratic governance. Instead, what the Arab street got from Obama was a calculated political withdrawal from the region. This led to the reemergence of a widely detested Egyptian military system and the continuation of a horrific Syrian dictator. These two crucial Arab states refused to yield to the empowerment of the Arab as citizen. In 2011 and 2012 the Arab street expected the constitutional institution of freedom and liberty; what they received instead was the ear-shattering quiet of Washington indifference.
So what will Trump’s message be if democratic governance is now off the table? Expect a message of strength without strategy, using an ad hoc future program comprising a distinct hesitancy to put any real muscle (troops) into the game. Trump campaigned against both the Bush policy of active democratic engagement and Obama’s unwillingness to commit to practically any support. According to Trump, neither policy worked.
However, the logical conclusion from this contradictory Trump campaign rhetoric is that US policy in the Middle East has been a futile proposition. The distinct implication of his criticism is that, without a course of action that is multilateral in character (but with an essential and agreed-upon US-Russian component), nothing can be accomplished. In other words, US policy alone is essentially unworkable because it cannot be successfully both strong and weak at the same time. Such a unilateral policy must eventually deteriorate into a series of one-time military events without any follow-up. Worse still is the serious prospect of Trump’s military episodes eventually being challenged by Russia and Iran.
Trump will address a large group of Sunni heads of state and other Muslim leaders. Naturally, ISIS and al Qaeda will be utmost on the presidential agenda. But to thoroughly defeat ISIS and its ilk will require a substantive US strategy to replace extremism with moderation, and to end the Syrian civil war without Assad in power. This can not be done without the assistance of Putin and the Kremlin.
But Trump does not have the domestic political capital to achieve any kind of rapprochement with Moscow. In fact, his very hold on US political power (with regard to the Russian investigation) has become somewhat tenuous. Meanwhile, through his own negligence or culpability, his political situation worsens by the day. But a message of Sunni moderation without a bilateral (US-Russia) or a multilateral (Russia, Europe and China) strategy, to successfully end the Syrian civil war without Assad is impossible. Trump, Pence and the entire US defense and foreign policy establishment must realize that Washington now faces serious geopolitical competition. Simply put, the White House and Pentagon can no longer dominate the entire Middle East.
Furthermore, as much as events in the Middle East remain outside the power of the US to singularly manage, the same is true for Russia. Since the end of the first Cold War (we are now in our second) — with the steady expansion of NATO into the regions of the old Warsaw Pact — Russian global strategy has been primarily reactive to that NATO expansion. The 2015 Russian incursion into Syria is a primary example. The Kremlin’s Syrian policy has more than proved its point. Unilateral German-American uber-power in Europe can now be seriously challenged anywhere on the globe (especially the Middle East). Russia will not be backed into a corner without a serious push back, and that push back can come from anywhere near to the Russian border. However, unlike any other country, Russia is the world’s unique European and Asian power.
The Sunni Arab world and Israel must understand that they need to cooperate in order to deter Iran (now and in the future). But without a US-Russia understanding on Europe, such Arab-Israeli cooperation will never be enough in the Middle East. In fact, if there is to be any cooperation in the Middle East, it must not only have a US-Russian component but an Israeli, Sunni Arab and Iranian one as well. In other words, since the expansion of NATO, the world has become a very complicated and unstable place. No longer is there an easy dividing line through the old German enemy. The US-German alliance has now become the world’s dominate military/economic relationship through their respective roles in NATO and the EU. Europe and the Middle East have now become essentially a new US-Russian contested region.
For global peace to be maintained — within this new geopolitical construct of a unified Europe and a cooperative Middle East — unilateral military power alone must be replaced with a revolutionary non-hegemonic security structure. Iraq must be maintained as a neutral buffer zone between Iran and the Sunni world. The Iranian perception of “offensive deterrence” — through the extension of its empire across the Levant — must be eliminated through the eventual prospect of a roll-back of all foreign forces from the Gulf to Turkey and all the way to Egypt. Nuclear weapons must be eliminated in both Europe and the Middle East, but only after conventional Russian, French and German military power are diminished in offensive capacity. The US commitment to the NATO structure must be replaced by the prospect of an agreed-upon formula for a new (European only) defensive security system.
The Arab states can no longer rely on US power alone to provide for their permanent security. Only local and global cooperation can guaranty security for all. What is true for the Arab states is also true for Israel. Whether the US government has the inclination and the vision to describe the situation accurately remains to be seen. In anticipation of this new reality, President Trump’s Arabian message to the region will be closely scrutinized by everyone.