Benign Neglect

In March 1, 1970, the front page of the New York Times reported that then-Nixon administration adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan had advised that the issue of race in the United States “could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’” Years of racially inspired violence and polemics had “created opportunities for martyrdom, heroics, histrionics, or whatever,” and Moynihan advised that the U.S. government’s focus on racial problems actually helped stoke them.

While Gulf Arab governments seem deeply relieved that they enjoy the support of the Trump administration after eight years of coolness under President Obama, the Trump strategy toward the Gulf is less different from Obama’s than they would like. In fact, it’s not so different from Moynihan’s approach to race. Despite the perception that President Trump is doubling down on relationships in the Gulf, it is more accurate to see his strategy as disentangling the United States from intimate relationships that he believes have outlived their utility. While the tenor of conversations has changed, the Trump administration represents a continuation of a growing U.S. distance from the Gulf and not a reversal of it.

In the view of many Americans, diminishing U.S. ties to the Middle East are part of an “America First” strategy and are long overdue. Not only did the war in Iraq cost more than a trillion dollars and more than 4,400 U.S. combat deaths, but it also yielded inconclusive results. It seems to have fanned the flames of extremism, given Iran an upper hand in the neighborhood, and yielded a weak Iraqi government that, almost 15 years after the war, U.S. officials must still visit on unannounced trips.

The Levant provides little relief. The Syria war has devolved into an endless blood feud, inviting expeditionary forces from Iran and Russia to buck up a dictator. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has defied solution for seven decades, and many Americans see it as an unsolvable religious conflict. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 failed to meet the high hopes Americans had for it, Lebanon has been limping for all of recent memory, and so on.

The Obama administration drew the Middle East’s ire—and especially that of the leadership—by seeking to nudge the region more firmly toward reform. The administration’s self-confidence in both the morality and inevitability of its vision struck many Arab leaders as smug and naïve. Further, they read President Obama’s lack of emotional connection with his regional counterparts as condescension.

President Trump has sought to reverse those feelings. In contrast to Obama, he has eagerly sought to build emotional ties with regional leaders. Many in the region read his exuberant visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, and his supportive tweets toward the Saudi leadership since, as signs that the U.S.-Gulf relationship has been restored to the status quo ante. In this telling, President Obama was an aberration, and President Trump is an affirmation of American steadfastness.

That reading is inaccurate on several levels. First, President Trump’s effusive warmth does not indicate a strategic U.S. recalculation. As is becoming increasingly apparent, he returns warmth to all who show it to him. In addition, however, the president’s warmth is not a good predictor of administration policy. For example, President Trump has been outwardly quite warm to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, yet in August the U.S. government quietly cut aid to Egypt by more than $95 million and decided to hold another $195 million in escrow until U.S. human rights and democratization concerns in Egypt were addressed. He has been warm to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, but he has done little to reverse Iran entrenching itself more deeply on Israel’s northern border.

Second, the Trump administration has taken itself out of resolving some of the most important conflicts in the Middle East. For example, Americans continue to be marginalized in discussions over the future of Syria, there is little active mediation of the war in Yemen, and U.S. diplomacy over Qatar’s fight with its neighbors has been ineffectual. If the administration argues that it is focused on Iran—which one could argue—one must admit that all of these conflicts advance Iranian interests at the expense of U.S. interests. If one argues instead that the administration is focused on a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, one would need to think about what the essential components of a successful agreement would be. Is the United States considered a powerful and committed guarantor of an agreement? Has the president timed his effort well? It is hard to see how either point is a source of much encouragement.

Robust arms sales are certainly occurring, and they will likely continue. But there is no collection of arms that will genuinely deter Iran or any other enemy in the Gulf. Much of the Iranian arsenal still dates from the time of the Shah, and the Gulf Arab states have stocked up on the latest and greatest munitions for decades. The pattern has led to what we see in Yemen: The Gulf Arab states spending billions of dollars a year to fight a war on which Iran is spending perhaps $100 million per year, and in which the Gulf Arab states feel threatened and the Iranians feel secure.

Many in the Middle East are mistakenly taking proxies of U.S. commitment for actual commitment, and they represent nothing of the kind. Regional governments seem to feel that they have a freer hand to act, and the United States will back them as it always has.

In truth, something subtler is happening. An “America First” mantra has prompted a reduced U.S. focus on the Middle East and increased the willingness to delegate responsibility for outcomes, even if they are unsatisfactory. If the states there want to fight, the United States will sell them weapons.

But the region’s problems are only solved by negotiation, and many of the most successful negotiations have had a strong U.S. role. That requires a strong U.S. commitment and not a free hand. It requires a U.S. conviction that the region matters. Despite the warmth, neither that commitment nor that conviction have been evident.

(This commentary originally appeared in the November edition of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.)

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program