President Trump returned from his first overseas trip convinced that he had unified the United States’ historic Arab allies, dealt a strong blow against terrorism and calmed the waters of an unruly Middle East. Since then we have seen a series of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, and an open split within the Arab world. What is going on?
The premise of Trump’s strategy was to support Saudi Arabia, in the belief that it would be able to fight terrorism and stabilize the region. In fact, Trump gave a green light to the Saudis to pursue their increasingly aggressive, sectarian foreign policy.
The first element of that policy has been to excommunicate its longtime rival, Qatar, breaking relations with that country and pressing its closest allies to do the same. The Saudis have always viewed Qatar as a troublesome neighbor and are infuriated by its efforts to play a regional and global role by hosting a large U.S. military base, founding the Al Jazeera television network, planning to host the 2022 World Cup and punching above its weight diplomatically.
It’s true that Qatar has supported some extremist Islamist movements. So has Saudi Arabia. Both are Wahhabi countries, both have within them extremist preachers, and both are widely believed to have armed Islamist groups in Syria and elsewhere. In both cases, the royal families play a game of allying themselves with fundamentalist religious forces and funding some militants, even while fighting other violent groups.
In other words, their differences are really geopolitical, though often dressed up as ideological.
The open split between the two countries will create much greater regional instability. Qatar will now move closer to Iran and Turkey, forging deeper alliances with anti-Saudi groups throughout the Muslim world. The battles among various factions of militants in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and North Africa will heat up. The terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, are viewed in Iran as being part of a Saudi-inspired campaign against it. We should expect that Iranian-backed militias will respond in some way. So much for regional stability.
And the United States is in the middle of it all, keeping close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates while directing U.S. regional military operations out of its base in Qatar. Trump has issued anti-Qatar tweets, but U.S. troops will have to live with the reality that Qatar is their host and close military ally in the war against the Islamic State.
For a superpower such as the United States, the best policy in the Middle East has always been to maintain ties with all regional players. One of the great successes of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy was that they were able to woo Egypt into the American sphere, while simultaneously preserving an alliance with the shah of Iran. For decades, Washington was able to play a Bismarckian game of cultivating good relations with all countries, indeed better than these nations had with each other.
Two seismic events altered the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. The first was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which ushered a radical revisionist power into the region, and then triggered a reaction from countries including Saudi Arabia. Iran’s promise to spread its version of Islam led the Saudis to ramp up their own efforts to spread their ideas and influence. The results were poisonous for the Muslim world, radicalizing communities everywhere.
The next earthquake was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which destabilized the balance of power. Iran’s ambitions had been kept in check by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had fought a bloody eight-year war against it. With Saddam gone, Iran’s influence began to spread in Iraq, where it is now the most important external influence on the Baghdad government. Iran’s alliance with Syria became central to President Bashar al-Assad’s survival. Its relations with Shiite communities everywhere, from Yemen to Bahrain, have been strengthened.
If the Trump administration wants stability in the Middle East, it should help broker a new balance of power. This cannot happen purely on Saudi terms. Iran is a major player in the region, with real influence, and its role will have to be recognized. The longer Washington waits to do this, the more the instability will grow. This would not cede anything to Tehran. Iran’s influence would be countered by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others. The goal would be a Middle East in which all of the regional powers felt invested enough that they would work to end the proxy wars, insurgencies and terrorism that continue to create so much death, destruction and human misery… Welcome to the Middle East.