On Friday, President Donald Trump departs on a jam-packed nine-day international trip that he’s reportedly dreading. The past week has clearly been the worst of his brief presidency and perhaps revealed one of the worst series of self-inflicted wounds in the history of the presidency.
So why isn’t he looking for a foreign getaway to change the channel, strut the world stage and talk matters of high policy, war and peace with world leaders? One reason of course is that if you’re looking for happy times, let alone success, you don’t ordinarily travel to the Middle East. Trump’s first two stops are Saudi Arabia and Israel. Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
And yet, strange at it may seem, Trump actually has a Middle East strategy, or at least a reasonably coherent approach. And he’s counting on a set of successful meetings with the Saudis, other Arab state leaders, Israelis and Palestinians to demonstrate that it’s working. But Trump should be very careful about claiming quick tactical victories. After all, it is the Middle East. And while the locals don’t want to cross Trump by saying no, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to cooperate, let alone fall into line with what he’s proposing.
Describing Trump’s approach is pretty straightforward.
You’ve heard of the axis of evil—the one famously articulated by President George W. Bush in 2002 to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Trump’s strategy for dealing with the threats and challenges the United States confronts in the Middle East appears to revolve around the creation of the opposite: an “axis of good.” This new alignment is composed of Israel and a coalition of Sunni Arab states comprising Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies, Egypt, Jordan and possibly the Palestinian Authority. To be sure, these countries have had serious differences with each other and with Washington, and they continue to have conflicting interests, agendas and priorities. Still, over the years, they have managed to set aside their differences and to cooperate with the United States—at times very effectively—on important issues.
This putative U.S.-Israel-Sunni Arab entente is held together by several objectives they share in varying degrees: destroy ISIS; roll back Iranian influence; and deliver some kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace. At the core of this organizing principle is the kind of transactional deal that appeals to the president: the Sunni Arab states, led by the Saudis, will help Washington promote progress on the now-defunct peace process; and in exchange, the United States will adopt a much tougher policy against Iran. According to this logic, the Sunni Arabs, suffering from Palestinian fatigue, are now prepared to drag and entice their Palestinian brothers into a deal, and the much-weakened and desperate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will have little choice but to go along out of fear of being left behind.
So, what are the chances this “axis of good” strategy can actually succeed? The president’s initiative does take into account some legitimate new factors, especially the growing alignment of Israeli and Sunni Arab interests and it may, therefore, gain traction. But Washington’s approach seems driven more by hope than experience. Trump is banking heavily on the Arabs and Israelis to fall into line. But all are masters of manipulation and procrastination. The president may well declare his first Middle East foray a success—after all, he badly needs one—but it’s by no means clear whether this new alignment is a sturdy structure or a house of cards vulnerable to strong and shifting desert winds. Here are four reasons why Trump should curb his enthusiasm.
1. A Sunni Arab coalition is wishful thinking.
Whether it comes to fighting ISIS on the battlefield or pushing back against Iran, the Sunni Arab states aren’t likely to be particularly effective or united. The United States benefits from access to bases in the Persian Gulf to support military operations against ISIS, and some of the Sunni Arab states provide valuable intelligence on ISIS and other Islamic extremist threats. Nonetheless, they have made and will continue to make a negligible contribution to the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS for several reasons. First, the Saudis, whose regional leadership is crucial to getting the U.S.-Israel-Sunni Arab entente off the ground, currently place a higher priority on winning their struggle with Iran—and many in the country see ISIS as a counterweight to Iran. Second, the Saudis fear that direct military attacks against the Islamic State will trigger more ISIS infiltration, subversion and terrorist attacks inside the Kingdom, as well as alienate the all-important Saudi religious establishment, whose ideology and propaganda inspire Jihadists but whose support the regime needs. Third, there are huge political and technical obstacles to Arab political and military unity. Indeed, when Trump meets in Saudi Arabia with the Saudis and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE—he will confront an organization that has made notoriously slow progress in overcoming these roadblocks. The GCC is just too divided and risk averse to work together more effectively to face Iranian missile, maritime and cyber threats to their security; and we’ve seen how little they have contributed to the fight against ISIS in the region.
To be sure, Sunni Arab states have demonstrated a greater will and capacity to conduct coalition operations in Yemen, but by and large the campaign against Houthi rebels has been a disaster. The Saudis have also assembled a 34-state Islamic Military Alliance Against Terrorism (IMAAT), which conducted large-scale exercises in the Kingdom in early 2016, and Riyadh has made noises about sending Saudi special forces to Syria to fight ISIS. And there certainly has been a lot talk from the region over the past several years about forming an Arab League and Egyptian-led joint military force. These schemes have yet to come to fruition in part because Saudi Arabia is focused on Iran while Egypt’s priority is defeating the Islamic insurgency it faces at home. Nobody should hold their breath waiting for the Sunni Arab states to create a NATO-like military alliance. And selling the Saudis hundreds of billions of dollars of new weapons, as the administration has just announced, is not likely to accomplish that goal.
2. No one’s really on the same page.
The United States and the Sunni Arabs also have different priorities when it comes to their Iranian playbook. The Saudis and their Sunni Arab allies both want to roll-back Iran’s regional power. But they also lack the will and capacity to push back aggressively against the Islamic Republic. In contrast with Iran, they have no access, reliable allies, or tools to wield in Syria or Iraq. In Iraq, in fact, the Saudis and the Gulf states have made little effort to drive a wedge between the Shia-led government and its Iranian patrons—and they have eschewed active engagement with the Iraqi government as a way of leveraging greater support to Iraq’s beleaguered Sunni population.
What the Saudis and their Gulf allies really want is for the United States to take on the burden of cutting Iran down to size. But as long as Washington seeks to preserve the nuclear agreement with Iran, there will be limits on how far it can and will go in reversing Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior. No matter how much the administration sees Iran as a menace in Iraq and Syria, the Iranians are nonetheless supporting the U.S.-backed Abadi government in Iraq and Washington is allowing Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad to remain in power in Syria in the absence of a viable alternative. Moreover, the options the United States has to rollback Iranian influence in these two countries are limited, and pursuing them could jeopardize other important U.S. objectives, such as liberating Mosul and Raqqa and defeating ISIS as it tries to reconstitute itself elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.
Simply put, the Saudis and their Sunni Arab allies are likely to be disappointed in how far Washington will go in rolling back Iran’s influence in the region. The administration may be prepared, if the costs and risks are low and the likelihood of success is reasonably good, to deter and contain Iran, but rolling back Iran’s entrenched positions in Iraq and Syria is likely a bridge too far. Washington needs to remain wary of Riyadh trying to lure the United States, with empty promises, into doing their “dirty work” for them, as Trump said in October, 2013.
3. The other axis is stronger.
Although the axis of Iran, Hezbollah, various Shia militias, the Assad regime and Russia has its weaknesses and limitations, it has proven its mettle in Syria’s civil war. The politically inconvenient reality for the Sunni Arabs is that this axis is more determined, more united and more effective than they have been or are likely to be in the future. For all their vaunted financial and military support to Sunni forces in Syria, the Gulf states are no match for a coalition prepared to deploy and sacrifice their own forces in Syria and Iraq and for whom the stakes are very close to existential. Jordan and the UAE have participated symbolically in coalition strikes, and Amman has hosted training for Syrian opposition forces and intelligence. But with the exception of Kuwait, Gulf state support for Syrian refugees has been woefully inadequate. And if the Arabs won’t do their fair share on the humanitarian side, can we seriously expect they’ll do more with regard to fighters or peacekeepers?
Putin is the other constraint on the effectiveness of Trump’s axis of good, specifically as it pertains to Syria and Iran. The president clearly has no desire for a proxy war against Russia in Syria and in fact seems ready to allow the Russians to play the senior role there. And whatever their differences, Moscow and Tehran share a common goal of checking U.S. influence. With an aversion to getting involved in nation-building and few allies on the ground save the Kurds, Trump will be looking not for a confrontation with Putin, but for some kind of deal with him. At a minimum, that may involve maintaining Assad in power. This is certain to disappoint the Saudis, who are prepared to fight to the last Syrian and American to remove Assad but reluctant to do much on their own.
4. When it comes to the peace process, Trump will have to pay to play.
Several new factors have emerged to inspire the president’s confidence that he can cut what he calls “the ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, including his much-improved relationship with Israel and common fears of Iran and Sunni Jihadists that have drawn Sunni Arabs and Israel closer together. Trump seems to want the Sunni Arabs for more than window dressing.
In the administration’s eyes, the Arab states will play an instrumental role in this so-called “outside-in” approach, pushing and offering to support Palestinians and reaching out to Israel. This strategy appears to be based on the somewhat dubious notion that the tough issues between Israelis and Palestinians—borders, Jerusalem and refugees—can somehow be finessed or made more tractable by Arab state participation in the peacemaking process. And as a thought experiment, he might be right. But the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions on the core issues are likely too great to be bridged by anything the Gulf Arabs are willing or able to do.
Trump might get a breakthrough if the Israelis and Palestinians are willing to lower their expectations and settle for an interim accord based on economic incentives for Palestinians; restrictions on Israeli settlements; intensified security cooperation; the transfer of more West Bank land controlled by Israel to Palestinian control; and the resumption of final status talks on the core issues. And the Arab states might help in this regard by reaching out to Israel incrementally through gestures such as establishing telecommunications links and expanding business contacts as Israel takes steps to reach out to the Palestinians. But there are long odds against this approach, which is in essence a continuation of the failed Oslo logic.
More likely, Palestinians will require some parameters for permanent status talks to play the interim game, which they fundamentally mistrust, and the Israelis will have difficulty accepting those parameters. Plus, the Arabs will want cover to play the interim game—either by pressing the Israelis to accept the 2002 Saudi-initiated Arab peace Initiative (which calls for a Palestinian state based on June 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as the capital) and/or a full-throated U.S. endorsement. In short, if Trump wants to play this game, he will need to pay to play. Without serious give from the Israelis too it’s hard to imagine creating sustainable progress, let alone the ultimate deal. Indeed, sooner or later the focus of the peace process will shift from interim to the issue of final status, where not only Israel and the Palestinians are in conflict, but likely Israel and the U.S. too. And to say the least, this would result in some serious broken crockery with Washington when Israel pushes back.
Trump is likely to return from his Middle East trip feeling either frustrated at the magnitude of the task or bullish because none of the parties wants to annoy him (yet). There’s probably enough common ground between the U.S., Israel and the Arabs on confronting the threat from transnational jihadi terror and Iran to avoid major fissures in the embryonic Israel-Arab-U.S. entente. And on the peace process, Trump might—if he pushes—get Netanyahu and Abbas to sit with him (which would be their first public meeting since 2010) and perhaps announce some follow-up measures. But it’s a very long way to the “ultimate deal” from there.
The Middle East is littered with the remains of schemes and dreams of great powers who wrongly believed they could impose their will on small tribes. Perhaps Trump will succeed and cut some “deal” as several of his predecessors managed to do. But Trump may well find that Israel and the Sunni Arabs are not nearly as reliable, effective or unified as he would like, and that more than likely, conflicting agendas; risk-averse and manipulative locals, the sheer difficulty of the issues and challenges in the region, and the locals’ domestic politics will stir up a witches’ brew of trouble that will prevent transformative change. Indeed, Trump is likely to discover that the region, like health care, is more complicated than he thought. And like his predecessors, he is almost certain to find that, at best, the Middle East is a problem to be managed—not one to be transformed according to the president’s desires.