Trump’s mixed messages on the Middle East

President Trump’s State of the Union address revealed no clear foreign policy vision or coherent Middle East strategy.

Trump State of the Union Reuters
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence react to President Donald Trump's second State of the Union address on February 6, 2019 [Leah Millis/Reuters]

Although President Donald Trump did not spend a lot of time on the Middle East issues in his largely self-congratulatory State of the Union address before Congress on February 6, what he did say on these matters was a mix of positions reflecting isolationist strands of his “America first” approach on the one hand, and some neo-conservative positions on the other. 

A large part of Trump’s strategy is to keep his political base happy in the hope that it will continue to stick with him through the 2020 elections. This means he has to fulfil, or show that he is fulfilling, his campaign promises from 2016.

His political base from 2016 included: white working-class Americans from rural areas and the industrial heartland who came to see the Iraq war of 2003 as a mistake and questioned why the US was spending so much blood and treasure in the Middle East; Christian evangelicals who not only espouse strong anti-abortion sentiments but are uncritically supportive of Israel; and Republican party foreign policy hawks who were adamantly opposed to former President Barack Obama for signing the Iran nuclear deal, pulling US troops out of Iraq and supposedly being weak against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and other terrorist threats against the US homeland.

In other words, Trump and much of his political base believe the US should stay away from Middle Eastern conflicts (like the Iraq war of 2003) unless they have a direct bearing on the security of the US and Israel. With ISIL nearly defeated (at least territorially) in Syria and Iraq, Trump believes that US troops should now “come home” from the former, but should stay in the latter to “watch Iran” as he said in a recent interview.

Many observers in the US and the Middle East have interpreted the new Iraq strategy as a way for Trump and his foreign policy team (namely, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) to either try to foment regime change in, or take military action against, Iran. To make such a policy credible and to deter other US adversaries, Trump wants the US military to be unrivalled in the world. 

If all of this sounds confusing, it is because Trump does not have a clear foreign policy vision. In his mind, the US should not be the world’s policeman, nor should it pay for the defence of others, but if the US sees an enemy that it must confront, it will do so with overwhelming force. Trump does not care what happens inside a country (hence, human rights is not a concern), nor is he interested in solving other nations’ conflicts or rebuilding countries devastated by strife. Those things are better left to others. 

This kind of go-it-alone strategy when need be but minimising US involvement overseas sits very well with his political base with the exception of the foreign policy hawks. The latter have liked his toughness against Iran and his strong support for Israel but have been uneasy with his equivocal support for NATO, his coziness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his desire to bring US troops home from Syria and Afghanistan before their missions have been achieved.

After two years of being afraid of criticising Trump publicly, the hawks have grown more courageous in recent weeks. For example, the Republican-led Senate recently passed a non-binding resolution that essentially rebuked Trump for precipitously wanting to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan. 

This is the backdrop to the Middle East portion of Trump’s State of the Union address, which he used to shore up his more isolationist political base and mollify the hawks, while reminding everyone that he alone sets the foreign policy agenda.

In the speech, he reminded his base that he “pledged a new approach” to foreign policy compared with his political rivals in the 2016 campaign, and cited figures of what he said were the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: $7bn in monetary costs (which some analysts have disputed), and the deaths and wounding of 7,000 and 52,000 Americans, respectively. He emphasised that “great nations do not fight endless wars”. This was his way of saying that he was going ahead with the withdrawal of troops from Syria despite military advice to the contrary and was not going to get bogged down in future conflicts in the region. 

He also touted his decision (and campaign pledge) to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US Embassy to that city, and bragged about his decision to “act decisively” against the “radical regime in Iran” by pulling out of the “disastrous” nuclear deal and imposing very tough sanctions on Tehran. Trump added that he would not ignore Iran’s anti-American stance and its threats to impose “genocide against the Jewish people.” 

Such rhetoric kills two birds with one stone. He placated both the Christian evangelicals as well as the hawks with his staunchly pro-Israel stance while hinting to the neo-conservative wing of the latter that the US was going to do what it can to bring about regime change in Tehran.

While saying different things to please his different supporters, Trump seems to be relying on a lot of wishful thinking. Pulling out of Syria while keeping troops in Iraq is likely to be insufficient in preventing the ISIL from emerging in the near future, nor will it have much effect in deterring Iran. And unequivocal support for Israel while ignoring the Palestinians is a recipe for disaster down the road. But if Trump can hold this coalition of supporters together by touting his fulfilment of various campaign pledges, at the end of the day that is all that matters to him as he eyes re-election in 2020.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.