10/19/17 The Shrinking America
It is not clear when when American power began to erode … Maybe when the last US troops left Iraq … or perhaps when President Barack Obama decided not to support the protestors in Iran … or it could be the day Obama decided not to take actions against the Syrians, after they released chemical weapons on their civilian population … However, the sense that America is withdrawing from the Middle East has accelerated rapidly, since the Presidency of Donald J. Trump began.
Under President Obama, there was a clear policy. You could agree or disagree with that policy, but you had a good sense of the rhymes and reasons behind American actions. In the current Trump era, everyone is clueless. Speaking to American diplomats, when you ask them — off the record — what the US foreign policy is at the moment, on any given issue, a pained expression crosses their face. They simply have no idea.
It comes as no surprise that one day the new US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, states he believes the settlements on the West Bank are part of Israel, and 24 hours later, the State Department has to walk back the Ambassador’s remarks, stating that Friedman was wrong. It is absolutely no surprise, therefore, that when Israel announced 2,400 new building starts in the West Bank, and the creation of the first new settlement constructed in many years, that the Israeli government has no concern regarding any American protests.
It is no shock that the Palestinian Authority can enter into a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, an entity the United States defines as a terrorist organization, and that the United States barely voices an opinion. It is dreadful, although not surprising, that when the Kurds, the most democratic and pro-American group in the Middle East (and notably, the group that has most helped the United States in its fight against ISIS) gets attacked by the Iraqi Army — which the US trained, with the assistance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (incidentally, the same group that President Trump attacked in his speech just last week), Trump states that we (the US) are “neutral in this dispute”.
And when Israel is concerned about Iranian troops, possibly positioning themselves on the Syrian border near Israel, with whom does Israel confer today? Not with the US, but with Russia — whose Defense Minister is currently visiting Israel, and whose President the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with again this week.
Last Thursday, the Trump administration announced it was pulling out of UNESCO, in large measure, because of the way UNESCO treats Israel. Had Israel been consulted in advance of this grand gesture, or given a heads-up? The answer is, no.
The list of disengagement and apathy continues to unfold. On Friday, just hours before President Trump spoke about Iran on National Television, the White House circulated talking points. I sat down with a number of Middle East experts trying to discern exactly what plan the US was going to propose. None of us were sure. Now, a week later, it is still not clear what the US plan regarding Iran is meant to be. Raqqa, the capital of ISIS has fallen. The strategy put in place by the last Administration has worked. It is possible the demise of ISIS might even have been hastened by more aggressive American bombing, called for by the Trump administration, albeit with a resultant increase in collateral damage. But what is the US policy for the day after? Nobody knows.
In short, American policy in the Middle East is in total chaos — and that is without even bringing up the state of American-Turkish relations. President Trump seems to thrive on choas, the rest of the world less so. This chaos has created a power vacuum in the Middle East. Vacuums, however, do not remain empty for long, and nations throughout the Middle East (and other places in the world) have concluded that the current American foreign policy is unpredictable and unreliable. As a result, countries are making alternative arrangements.
For some in the Middle East, and especially in Israel, the Trump Presidency began with high hopes. Those hopes have primarily been replaced by the fear of the unknown, that is American foreign policy under Trump. For the past 50 years, Israeli has relied on the US, as its most important ally. Few in Israel doubt that Trump is sincere in his rhetorical support for Israel. Many, however, fear he may not be able to translate that rhetoric into reality — especially in a time of crisis.