international analysis and commentary

Trump’s Middle East predicament


Donald Trump is at it again: he is trying to prove to his supporters that he is serious about pulling American troops out of the Middle East, as promised during the 2016 election campaign. And once again, the national security institutions are doing whatever they can to make sure that the United States maintain a presence in the area; over the past two years this has involved behind-the-scenes pressure, public criticism, resignations and slow-walking the President’s directives.

In the case of Trump’s decision to “abandon” the Kurds, the opposing argument is loud and clear: if we do not keep our word, nobody will be able to trust us. Not surprisingly, this was the same argument used broadly to criticize Barack Obama after his decision not to attack the Syrian government in 2013, when Bashar al-Assad had apparently crossed the “red line” defined by the White House regarding chemical weapons attacks. Obama did go back on his public threat – although it is known that in private there were doubts about the true authorship of the Ghouta incident – but he ultimately stated how proud he was of not having given in to the group think in Washington at the time, and avoiding another regime change war in the Middle East.

Trump has been more consistent with respect to his stated goals – if we avoid giving too much weight to his day-to-day tweets and public comments. And although he finds little support around Washington, he knows that in the rest of the country, the aim of bringing the troops home has widespread support. Indeed, while most commentary on Trump’s 2016 victory has focused on economic discontent, immigration, and various aspects of identity politics, much less emphasis has been given to the other essential pillar of the President’s victorious campaign: to stop wasting trillions on endless wars.

World’s nations where the US is operating against terrorism (January 2019). Source and details here


One reason the media seems to downplay this point despite widespread support for limiting foreign military interventions, may be that it does not fit neatly into the narrative of a polarized country between left and right; indeed, a strong majority of the US population believes not only that the Iraq War was a disaster – a point that was critical in the election of the last two presidents – but also that we have little business in Syria, and should finally bring the troops home from Afghanistan.

A November 1 article in The New York Times acknowledges the bipartisan sentiment among military veterans as well, under the headline “Trump’s Opposition to ‘Endless Wars’ Appeals to Those Who Fought Them”. The Times cites veterans of various stripes disillusioned by the length and lack of results in the recent wars in which they fought.

In this context, the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi represents a sort of insurance policy against criticism of Trump’s anti-interventionist push. Some establishment critics have attempted to turn the tables on the President by saying that the successful raid shows that we need precisely everything Trump is against, but the President can now forcefully rebut claims that he is abandoning the fight and favoring the return of ISIS.

The elimination of Al-Baghdadi probably will not move the needle much in terms of Trump’s long-term support, but it certainly strengthens his position in the clash with the national security institutions, and represents an important point crossed off his bucket-list for the 2020 election. The President needs to show success, a need that is driving his diplomatic efforts to reach deals with the key players of his first term: China, above all, although further progress with North Korea is also tempting. The former is essential for economic reasons as well, to counter charges that the trade war is causing an economic slowdown. If the Trump negotiation method brings results, then he can shore up support among those agricultural and business interests that have started to sour on him due to the short-term effects of his multifront tariff strategy.

An urgent need for President Trump, of course, is to get through the impeachment process. Until now the Democrats have failed to meet the standard previously set by Nancy Pelosi herself of an initiative with broad bipartisan support; every Republican in the House of Representatives voted against the resolution establishing rules for the impeachment process on October 31st, contradicting the popular narrative around Washington that Republicans are ready to break ranks as soon as they are given the opportunity.

The impeachment inquiry remains a partisan affair, with different interpretations of the President’s actions. The Democrats are holding out hope that the simple, clear accusation of Trump putting his own political interests above the nation’s foreign policy will ultimately be enough, but they are not taking too many chances, carefully managing what statements get leaked to the press, and moving to avoid a prolonged process that could damage them by leaving the focus on impeachment during next year’s election season.

As of now, the President faces an uphill road to re-election, even if he gets through impeachment. Trump’s weakness remains the economy, despite what many believe about the overall strength of the major indicators. Healthcare, unstable working conditions, low wages and high living costs remain key drivers among the electorate, as the 2018 mid-term elections showed. It is no coincidence that a candidate focused on fighting for the people against Wall Street and large corporations, Elizabeth Warren, is moving towards front-runner status in the Democratic primaries.

If Warren does end up the nominee, the “populist” shift of 2016 will be cemented, further weakening the narrow interpretation of a political divide based on identity politics: both candidates will be heavily critical of the establishment policies of the past few decades. The President will do his best to blunt the Democrats’ momentum on the economy, but it will not be easy; on foreign policy, at least, he aims to show that he can both reverse the series of endless wars, and project an aura of toughness at the same time.

Time is running out for Trump to mark victories against the “deep state” in this area, yet he seems to have taken to heart the warning given to him by Fox’s Tucker Carlson when he came close to bombing Iran in June of this year: if he started a war against Iran, “he could kiss his chances of re-election goodbye.”