Power and Strategy: The President Needs to Order His Priorities in the Middle East

To many leaders in the Middle East, the Trump administration is a breath of fresh air. The president’s statements about battling extremism and reinforcing the status quo, and his general disinterest in the region’s domestic conditions, are a huge relief after President Bush and President Obama pursued regional strategies that tied domestic repression to fomenting radicalization.

To others in the region, the Trump administration is a menace. They not only see it pursuing anti-Muslim (and pro-Israel) policies, but they also see it tipping the region toward greater militarism and conflict.

The two sides agree on one point, though: The Trump administration has many Middle East policies but no visible strategy, and that makes it harder for any of them to cooperate with the United States.

There is no shortage of things the U.S. government would like to do in the Middle East. From Yemen to Syria, and from Iran to Libya, the list is long. Some involve counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and counter-radicalization. Some involve resolving interstate conflicts, and others resolving intra-state conflicts. There are a host of military basing issues and prepositioning issues. The United States has strong energy interests in the region, and its agricultural trade is robust. The Middle East is also an important locus for many issues the United States cares about globally, including human trafficking, money laundering, and proliferation.

The United States cannot emphasize all of these things simultaneously. It must make tradeoffs, deferring some things it would like to do and doing things it does not want to do in order to pursue the more important things it needs to do.

A strategy helps guide necessary tradeoffs. The Obama administration’s strategy, especially in its latter years, prioritized diminishing hostilities with Iran in order to freeze the nuclear program and nudge the Iranian government toward a less confrontational relationship with the rest of the world. The second Bush administration, especially in its middle years, focused on regional domestic reform as a way of attacking the drivers of terrorism. These were not the only things the U.S. government did, either in the Middle East or around the world, but few doubted their primary importance.

Nine months in, the Trump administration does not have a similarly robust strategy. It is alarmed by Iranian behavior, but it neither seems to have a theory for what causes it nor a plan to change it. The administration is fighting the Islamic State group (ISG), which Iran and Russia are also fighting, without an end game. It wants to stabilize Iraq, find a solution in Yemen, and end the chaos in Libya. Meanwhile, envoys talk about the importance of Arab-Israeli peace with not much to show for their efforts.

None of this is to minimize the difficulty of constructing a strategy. Instead, it is to point out the large number of conflicting policies that need to be ordered and coordinated.

Those looking for order and coordination have been frustrated. The Trump administration has shown a keen interest in holding its cards close to the vest. As a candidate, Donald Trump bitterly criticized the Obama administration in October 2016 for revealing that it planned to launch an operation on Mosul. As President Trump, he appears to take glee in surprising his audiences. He wants to keep enemies off balance.

But in private conversations, officials of allied governments—and of supportive international organizations—just shrug their shoulders and smile uncomfortably when asked about the White House. They never thought the presidential election was about them, and they are not trying to re-litigate the outcome. But they are baffled at how they might support the president, frustrated that the president seems so disinterested in supporting them, and unclear what it all means for the role of the United States in the future. They speak with U.S. diplomats, but the diplomats do not have a much better sense of where the policy is going than they do. Instead, U.S. officials overseas have serious debates over whether a tweet represents U.S. policy, and they wonder when vital senior positions in the State Department will be filled. It is no better for officials in Washington.

When the president talks about “Making America Great Again,” he is partly talking about regaining American leadership in the world. But there was a vital element to that leadership: America was able to lead because the government had a sense of purpose, the world had a sense of where the United States was trying to go, and many around the globe agreed with the direction.

Compared to now, the Cold War was an easier time. While thoughtful people differed on the best way to confront Soviet aggression, there was little debate that it was the principal security priority. The current national security debate is in disarray, not only in the Middle East, but also more broadly. Should we be preoccupied with armies or with terrorists? Are environmental issues or health issues that know no boundaries the real human killers? The president inherited this world, he did not make it.

Today’s complex world makes it all the more important not only that the president fill the myriad of senior positions in his government that remain vacant, but also that he shape debates within his senior ranks so his nominees can advise him on the issues that confound him. This is not an effort to usurp his authority or render him powerless. As president, he decides. But the U.S. government has an elaborate system intended to shape options for the president to choose between, and to weed out bad ideas. That system is broken, filled with acting officials who fear ruining their careers by crossing the wrong person.

As a candidate, Donald Trump relished being disruptive. As a president, the massive tools at his disposal are weakened when the people operating them cannot anticipate his decisions or divine his preferences. Governments around the world want to help the United States, but they do not know how. They neither understand U.S. policy nor its direction. A strategy would strengthen the president, not make him more constrained.

This commentary originally appeared in the September 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).

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