Why Trump cannot merely contain Iran

In the Middle East, the US has done more good when it helps create order and liberty than when it simply opposes bullies.

In a May 8 ceremony at the White House, President Donald Trump holds up a signed proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement.

As he promised as a candidate, President Trump has taken the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The pact certainly came with potential flaws in containing Iranian weapons. Yet the withdrawal poses an even bigger issue: Will the US now bring a new order to the Middle East, one that can deal with Iran in other ways?

Much of Mr. Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign affairs has so far focused on what he opposes, such as the US being overextended as a superpower. On that point, he has strong support. Nearly half of Americans agree that the US needs to “pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home,” according to a Pew survey last July.

Yet US presidents must be careful what they oppose, for they may later be asked what they favor. Real power is affirmative of certain values and not simply a matter of playing defense.

Now that he has ripped up the nuclear pact and sowed great uncertainty, what is Trump’s vision for the Middle East, one that would help curtail Iranian adventurism and solve other issues that make it the world’s most volatile region? Iran’s fingers run through many conflicts, forcing the bigger question of how to create a regional security system. Can the US eventually bring Iran into a new order rather than merely contain it?

To his credit, Trump has continued the fight to defeat Islamic State, tried to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and used force against Syria to curb its use of chemical weapons. The US Navy still guards an area that exports nearly half of the world’s oil. Trump also backs reforms in Iraq and Saudi Arabia that are curtailing religious aggression and meeting the aspirations of young people.

Shaping a sustainable order in the Middle East takes leadership in values, not just the raw power of military might and economic sanctions. The best way to contain Iran would be to have a region committed to individual liberties and democracy. What role does the US have in achieving that goal?

One bit of advice that Barack Obama gave Trump during their transition in 2017 was that the office of the presidency is bigger than any one president. Each new chief executive, no matter what views he may bring in, has quickly discovered he is bound by a legacy of values, laws, and traditions. The long legacy of the US in the Middle East still demands it be a responsible player. And much of the responsibility lies in helping the region define a better future for itself, not only fend off the latest threat.

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