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Learning From Trump in the Middle East

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If Joe Biden becomes the next U.S. president, many anticipate that his administration will offer a “return to normalcy,” for better or for worse. Despite the ways in which the Trump administration’s foreign policy has overpromised and underdelivered, there are certain aspects where Biden’s foreign policy team could learn from Trump’s approach, especially in the Middle East.

 What to Keep

Embrace audacity: Trump prides himself on breaking the rules. Although he tends to do so for the pursuit of personal benefit, Trump’s willingness to challenge conventional assumptions about foreign policy, especially by reaching out to adversaries and questioning arrangements that no longer serve American interests, hold some lessons for Biden. Although Trump has left troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria despite promising to bring them home, ending endless wars remains a popular position that Biden should embrace and implement. Trump’s popularity among his base derives in part from his disregard for the status quo, though he often fails to follow through. Biden’s administration could bring the institutional capacity required to actually implement a foreign-policy agenda that reflects the wishes of the American public, rather than the hawkish agenda of the foreign policy establishment.

Reconsider relationships: Other than Turkey as a NATO member, the United States does not have a formal alliance with any country in the Middle East. However, Washington acts as the security guarantor for states including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Trump’s willingness to question previously ironclad alliances with NATO countries like the United Kingdom and Germany have alarmed foreign policy experts due to the potential for destabilization. (Trump’s admiration for dictatorships and disdain for democracies has likewise prompted concern.) However, alliances and security partnerships are not ends in themselves. If a relationship no longer serves the interests of the United States, it should be renegotiated. In the case of the Middle East, a region whose strategic importance is widely acknowledged to have declined, the ongoing material and reputational costs associated with U.S. military presence long ago surpassed any benefit the United States derives. Therefore, a Biden team could learn from Trump’s willingness to question the utility of existing relationships, and prepare to renegotiate those that no longer serve U.S. interests.

What to Change

Trump appeals to many Americans’ resentments towards Washington, and Biden’s team should be wary of alienating Americans by ignoring widespread frustration with failed wars in the Middle East. Yet despite Trump’s instinct for American grievances, the majority of his policies in the Middle East have perpetuated a pattern of U.S. policy toward the region that exacerbates insecurity and human misery. The following are the most urgent policies that a Biden administration must change:

End U.S. support for the war on Yemen: The U.S. role in contributing to what the UN has termed the “world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe” is unconscionable. Not only has Trump doubled down on the Obama administration’s misguided decision to support the Saudi bombardment of Yemen, he has overridden congressional objections to rush additional arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states by lying about an emergency threat posed by Iran. The Biden administration must immediately withdraw all U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and insist that Saudi Arabia end hostilities and support a political rather than a military resolution of the conflict.

Restart diplomacy towards Iran: The “Iran deal,” or the JCPOA, offered Iran a path toward greater economic prosperity and global re-engagement, while preventing it from developing a nuclear weapon. By leaving the deal and pursuing a policy of “maximum pressure” toward Iran, the Trump administration has allowed Tehran to continue enriching uranium, making the region less safe while contributing to the hardship of the Iranian people. By demanding the reimposition of sanctions, the United States is trying to coerce others into adopting this counterproductive stance, while creating incentives for countries like Russia and China to pursue an alternative global financial system in order to avoid U.S. sanctions. Iran does not threaten US security, yet Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s obsession with Iran has damaged both the authority and safety of the United States. A Biden administration must restart diplomacy with Iran, renegotiate a nuclear deal in exchange for lifting sanctions, and encourage other Gulf countries to adopt less combative stances toward Iran.

Pursue diplomatic rather than military solutions: Every year since taking office, Trump has submitted a budget that slashes funding for U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid. In contrast, a Biden administration should prioritize funding the State Department, USAID, and other institutions that contribute to nonmilitary solutions abroad. Although he claims that he will end endless wars, the Pentagon budget has ballooned under Trump; in contrast, a Biden administration must reallocate resources to address the challenges that actually threaten Americans, from pandemics to climate change.

The Trump presidency is both the result and the reflection of the deep dysfunction that characterizes U.S. politics, and especially foreign policy. If Biden wins, he and his team will have to address Americans’ dissatisfaction while also moving the United States toward a policy of international diplomacy and global engagement. 

Annelle Sheline, PhD, is a research fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.