Could We Lose the Progress We’ve Made in the Middle East?

When Donald Trump appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to the post of senior adviser and charged him with brokering Middle East peace, most of the veteran diplomats, scholars, and pundits who watch the region reacted with derision and disbelief. A vituperative blogger noted in 2017 that, “he is entirely in over his head and dangerously ignorant on policy matters.” Against the odds, however, Trump and the Kushner-led White House Middle East team have delivered a new era of peace in the Middle East. Would a Biden administration mean the end of the road for that era? Or could there be more good news ahead?

Few appreciate the break with history that the Trump administration’s Middle East policies represent. The conventional wisdom that guided generations of diplomats, experts, and leaders—that the road to Israeli-Arab peace is through Palestine; that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will inflame the “Arab street”; that annexation will lead to war—have all proven wrong. The Arab world moved on, but the world of Arabists remained stubbornly mired in the same tropes that have animated it since 1967. Call it ignorance, call it groundbreaking—but there can be no denying that the Trump team achieved both historic changes and a fundamental realignment of the region. But much of this narrative appreciating Team Trump’s work ignores the pernicious role of the Obama administration in fueling that transformation.

Though they may not say it openly, the national security staff that walked in the door on the first days of the Obama presidency had a contrarian view about the Middle East. In their view, the U.S. focus on alliances with Sunni Arab powers had delivered little tangible progress against terrorists and dictators, and little peace. It was time for a Shiite-first policy, and though the vision initially faltered in the face of Iranian opposition, once at the table, the Islamic Republic and the Americans shared the hope that a revitalized U.S. relationship with the ayatollahs could drive deeper changes—though each likely had different views of what such a change might look like.

In addition, both the Obama administration and the Trump administration that followed had one clear imperative: no new wars in the Middle East. Of course, the region has a vote in international affairs, and in the turmoil of the Arab Spring, Obama joined a war to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He also ultimately sent troops back to Iraq, into Syria, and to Yemen during his tenure. Trump, while less inclined to deploy boots on the ground, notably oversaw a joint U.K.-French-American bombing in response to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and ramped up (and then down) U.S. troop presence in many of the same countries as Obama.

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