Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan, an old adage says. An exception is the peace agreement among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, likely to be followed by several other Arab states. Added to this is Kosovo’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem in the context of normalized relations with Israel, the first Muslim-majority country to do so.
America’s boisterous president trampled over the conventional wisdom of the whole foreign policy establishment in the United States as well as Europe, and in both the “left” and “right” wings of American policymaking.
The Europeans and most of the Democratic Party insisted that a resolution of the Palestinian statehood issue was a precondition for peace, while the Bush-McCain-Romney wing of the Republican party insisted that American influence required massive military deployment in the region.
How wrong they were, and how right Trump was. The neo-conservative, interventionist wing of the Republican Party has been wrong-footed as much as his Democratic opponents.
When Trump announced the withdrawal of the tiny contingent of American troops in Syria in September 2019, a paroxysm of protest went through the Republican foreign policy Establishment. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned shortly afterwards.
Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies called Trump’s decision “a complete debacle.” The Hudson Institute’s Michael Doran, a former National Security Council official, declared that Washington had no choice but to back Turkey in Syria. Michael Makovsky of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs complained that “Israel now faces more pressure and threats from Iran.”
But Trump did not lean on Turkey. Nor did he leave the field open to Iran. On the contrary: He let Russia contain Turkey’s ambitions in Syria by containing the Sunni jihadists backed by Ankara. That was a courageous thing to do in the midst of a witch-hunt against supposed “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, a charge concocted out of thin air by Trump’s political opponents.
As Trump told a September 3 campaign rally, “If I get along with Russia, is that a good thing or a bad thing?” To get US troops out of the Middle East, there is no choice but to get along with Russia. One might mention China as well. I will return to that issue later.
American backing for Sunni jihadists during the Syrian Civil War required Russia to intervene in 2015. A top Israeli security official told me of a conversation with Putin in which the Russian leader explained that Syria had become a magnet for Russian Muslim jihadists from the Caucasus, such that Russian security demanded a solution to the conflict.
Both the George W Bush Administration under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Obama Administration under Hillary Clinton and her European chief Victoria Nuland wanted to cut Putin off at the knees. Putin responded by deploying Russian fighter aircraft and ground troops in Syria.
In fact, Russia acted as a stabilizer in Syria, leaning against the region’s spoilers – Iran and Turkey. Israel flew hundreds of sorties against Iranian proxies in Syria during the past year under the tolerant eye of the Russian military.
Trump’s decision to assassinate Iran’s irregular warfare chief Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad Airport last January 3 answered Iran’s September 2019 drone attacks on a Saudi oil facility, among other Iranian provocations. Russia condemned it and European foreign ministries warned against military escalation, but Trump had made his point: Iran would pay a heavy price for its pinprick warfare against its Arab neighbors.
Without getting a bit of blood on his hands, Trump could not have convinced Gulf leaders to take the risk of a peace deal with Israel.
No-one but Trump wanted a deal with Russia in the Middle East (no-one, of course, but the Israelis, who have a frosty but efficient relationship with the Russian military). But Trump understood that America’s “endless wars” in the region with the objective of supporting majority rule (Shi’ites in Iran, Sunnis in Syria) only made matters worse.
Where the Palestinian issue is concerned, Hillary Clinton’s memorable phrase applies: “What does it matter anymore?” Palestinian nationality exists only because the Arab states refused to accept the existence of the State of Israel. Between 1947 and 1950, approximately 800,000 Arabs left the new State of Israel and approximately 800,000 Jews left Arab states.
The Arabs left under wartime conditions, some enticed to leave by their leaders, some to escape the war, and some driven out by the new Jewish State. Arab regimes expelled Jewish populations that in the case of Iraq and Persia had lived there for 2,500 years. The Jews of Baghdad, a wealthy and cultured community, left with the clothes on their backs.
This population exchange was similar to many other such exchanges during the 20th century: Greeks and Turks after World War I, ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, Hindus and Muslims after the partition of India, and so forth. In every other case the refugees were absorbed by their ethnic and confessional kinsmen in the receiving country.
Uniquely in the case of the Palestinian Arabs, the refugees were isolated as a stateless population rather than absorbed. They were not absorbed for the sole reason that the Arab states wished to maintain them as a hostage population, a pledge for the eventual liquidation of the Zionist State. Uniquely among all displaced populations, the Palestinian Arabs maintained refugee status past the first generation, a designation given to no other refugee group in history.
The Palestinian Arabs had no independent national aspirations until the 1960s; perhaps half of them had emigrated to the Jewish part of Palestine from other Arab countries under the British Mandate, because Jewish investment created jobs. Their raison d’etre as a putative nation was the liquidation of the State of Israel; that is why Palestinian leaders refused even to consider the 1998 Clinton plan that would have created a state in 95% of the West Bank, or what Israel calls Judea and Samaria.
European diplomats bemoaned Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem (in fact, to West Jerusalem, which has been Israeli from the outset). What made this so controversial? The conventional wisdom in the world community held that the Arab obsession with the liquidation of the State of Israel must be humored. If the world didn’t recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, many Arabs reasoned, it didn’t really recognize Israel. What is Zionism without Zion (Jerusalem)? Trump’s decision threw a bucket of cold water in the face of Arab leaders and told them that Israel was there to stay.
Faced with American reluctance to keep boots on the ground and the emergence of Israel as the strongest technological and military power of the region, the most enlightened and far-sighted among the Arab leaders, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, walked away from the wreck of previous regional diplomacy and made peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia probably will follow.
That leaves Iran and Turkey as the odd men out. If the United States acts adroitly, it can keep them off balance indefinitely. Ankara and Tehran have conflicting as well as coinciding interests. Russia meanwhile has been fighting proxy wars with Turkey in Libya as well as Syria. Trump’s improvisatory, unpredictable and often infuriating management style is well suited to America’s strategic requirements in the region.
Managing the continuing mess in the region will require a Bismarckian combination of flexibility and nastiness. Trump’s biggest success may well be his handling of relations with Russia, whose English-language publications livestreamed the Sept. 15 signing ceremony at the White House while the major American media buried the story at the bottom of their websites.
Trump’s biggest problem remains China. Iran and Turkey are constrained by extreme economic problems; if China decided to give them substantial financial backing (rather than the token support that Beijing has provided to date), America’s position in the region could change rapidly for the worse.
China, to be sure, has no interest in a regional war, simply because it is the biggest importer of oil from the Persian Gulf. Trump’s initiative helps stabilize the region, and that serves Beijing’s economic interests for the time being. Barring a global escalation of tensions with the United States, China probably will continue to act cautiously in the Gulf.