Paul Pillar

Trump's Trip and Taking Sides in the Middle East

President Trump flies to Saudi Arabia with a policy trajectory that involves weighing in heavily in local Middle Eastern rivalries, so much so that there is talk not only of twelve-figure arms sales to the Saudis but even an “Arab NATO”.  To understand how misguided is such strong taking of sides in those rivalries, recall by way of contrast the circumstances under which the real NATO was created.  Western Europe was still struggling to recover from the destruction of World War II.  It faced a Soviet Union with huge armed forces that had played the biggest role in defeating the Nazis, had already crushed freedom and extended the Soviet empire across the eastern half of the continent, and posed a threat to continue the Soviet juggernaut into the Western half as well.  That adversary was led by a tyrant as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the one who had been defeated in the war against Nazi Germany.  In addition to its potent conventional forces, the USSR tested its first nuclear device just five days after the North Atlantic Treaty took effect.  The Western European countries over whom the United States extended its security umbrella were democracies with which it shared important political and social values.  And for the United States, the USSR was not only a threat in Europe but a superpower that was a worldwide political, strategic, and ideological competitor.

Nothing remotely resembling such conditions exists today in the Middle East.  Russia, the legacy state to the USSR, has been active in Syria because Syria is the only foothold that Russia has in the Middle East, dwarfed by the U.S. presence in the region.  And none of the other sorts of political and strategic circumstances that underlay the creation of NATO can be found in the region either.  Thus any U.S. allying and side-taking in that region consists of taking sides in local rivalries—between Arabs and Persians, Sunni and Shia, Israelis and Arabs, and between pairs of states that compete for influence in their area the same way in which states in other regions compete.  The United States does not have direct or significant interests in those rivalries, and certainly not enough to justify weighing in so much that it makes other people’s rivalries its own.

As usual, Iran is used as chief bogeyman, a habit that extends well beyond the Trump administration.  It has become common to see serious commentary in prominent places that takes as given that anything good for Iran or Iranian interests must be opposed, that takes as given that Iran is and always will be an arch adversary, and that makes these assumptions while making no attempt to analyze exactly where Iranian and U.S. interests do and do not collide, or where and how Iranian conduct differs from that of its regional rivals whose side the U.S. takes.

Future historians will note the odd American preoccupation with this distant middle power that poses negligible threat to the United States itself.  The preoccupation is all the odder when one bothers to make comparisons with other states in the region, especially ones that, like Saudi Arabia, are leading regional rivals of Iran. 

Conventional military power?  Iran is vastly exceeded by Saudi Arabia, and also outstripped by the United Arab Emirates and Israel, in military spending.  Its military capability is way behind that of the region’s preeminent military power, Israel.  Regional domination through military means is out of the question for Iran.

Nuclear weapons?  Iran, by submitting itself through negotiation to stringent monitoring and restrictions on its nuclear activities, has closed all possible pathways to a nuclear weapon.  It is not Iran but instead another state that has introduced nuclear weapons into the region and keeps the Middle East from becoming a nuclear weapons-free zone.

Destabilizing activities? In the region’s biggest ongoing conflict in Syria, Iran, rather than trying to upset the status quo, has been trying to preserve it by backing the incumbent regime, which has been in power for decades.  The Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have been most aggressive in stoking rebellion, in the course of which they have shown little worry about aiding extremists in the process.  Iran has been backing the incumbent regime in Iraq as well, which the United States also backs.  The Saudis have been slow to warm up to that regime because it is dominated by Shia.

Use of armed forces outside one’s borders?  Currently the most devastating instance of this by any regional state, to the point of causing a humanitarian catastrophe, has been the armed intervention in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  Iranian aid to the other side in that civil war has been trivial by comparison.

Terrorism?  The strongest state-specific connection of the sort of radical Islamist terrorism, as represented by al-Qaeda and ISIS, that has long been the biggest terrorist concern for the United States is to the intolerant Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, which for many years tried to deal with the problem only by exporting it to others.

Relationship to American political and social values?  An irony of Mr. Trump’s trip, given its focus, is that he is leaving Washington on the same day that Iranian citizens are electing a president.  A choice is being freely made at the voting booth, between candidates with different policies and orientations, and the outcome of the election will matter.  Despite all the shortcomings of democracy in Iran, there is far more of it there than one finds in the Gulf Arab states, and especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Trump has useful business to conduct in Saudi Arabia, but there was no good reason to give that country the honor of being the first foreign soil on which a new U.S. president would step.  For decades, the first foreign trip by each new U.S. president has been to one of the immediate neighbors, Canada or Mexico.  With this president, the latter country probably didn’t have much of a chance since being labeled as a nation of rapists and drug dealers.  And in Canada, there would be the uncomfortable issue of immigrants fleeing illegally across the border from the Trump-led United States.  But even other traditional Western allies that share liberal democratic values did not get the honor of the first visit (although Trump’s trip will later take in a meeting of NATO—the real one).

Despite Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and travel policies, he can expect a warm welcome from Saudi officialdom.  That won’t be because of any sharing of American values.  It will be for all the wrong reasons.  Trump’s liking for authoritarians and the family-based methods of his own rule are very familiar and comfortable concepts for the al Saud.  Trump’s disinclination to pester any foreign regimes about violations of human rights assures the Saudis that he will not get on their case regarding that subject.  The president with all the anti-Muslim rhetoric need not fear demonstrations from ordinary Saudi citizens who view him less favorably than the regime does, because there is no First Amendment in the kingdom and such popular demonstrations are not permitted in Saudi Arabia.  Most of all, the regime likes Trump because he so willingly and unreservedly takes its side in its local rivalry with Iran.

The idea of America First thus gets totally lost amid the contests for influence around the Persian Gulf, with not America’s interests but rather the rivalries and ambitions of other states driving U.S. policies.  The concept already was lost regarding the reflexive side-taking on another local conflict involving Trump’s next stop on this trip, Israel.

The president’s itinerary was said to have been conceived with a religious theme, in which each of his first three stops would be associated with each of the three great monotheistic religions: Islam, Judaism, and—with a visit to the Vatican—Christianity.  The basic idea was nice, but the local differences and rivalries still intrude, and the itinerary will be seen by many as evidence of insensitivity toward those differences.  Despite Saudi Arabia’s status as the locale of Islam’s holy places in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is not to be equated with Islam.  Even most Sunnis do not identify with Saudi Wahhabism, and the lack of identity and even antagonism is all the greater with Shia.  The Israel stop on the trip bumps into the fact of Jerusalem having special significance for all three religions, which is why it has long been seen as an especially difficult issue in any final status negotiations determining the fate of the Palestinians. This fact underlies what already have been difficulties in arranging the details of a scheduled visit by Trump to the Western Wall.

As for the Christianity stop, one can only wonder what thoughts there are in the Vatican right now about the news that for a new ambassador to the Holy See, Trump has reached into that bastion of Catholic values: the Newt Gingrich household—where the prospective ambassador, Callista Gingrich, was mistress number two before becoming wife number three.