Two ways to read the story
- Quick Read
- Deep Read ( 6 Min. )
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are in the Middle East this week, reassuring allies that the US commitment remains strong. But with contradictions between President Trump and his advisers continuing to surface, about the only certainty is that US Middle East policy is in flux: a chaotic transition in the US vision for its role in the region. On the pair’s itineraries: Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and more. Subjects include Syria, the Kurds, ISIS, and Iran. The administration’s goal: shrink the unsustainable commitment of the past two decades without it looking to the world (and regional friends and enemies alike) like a retrenchment. Regional experts say the confusion and unease besetting US allies in the region won’t end anytime soon. Says Jon Alterman, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington: “The Middle East is still trying to figure out how to understand the Trump administration, and trying to understand what is transient and what is likely to prove enduring – and it’s not obvious.” And he adds: “Pompeo can promise continuity and stability, but this president values his ability to constantly surprise people.”
For months the State Department has been consumed by debate over whether presidential tweets constitute US foreign policy.
Now the consternation and uncertainty that lie behind that debate have taken hold among America’s friends and allies in the Middle East, after a series of tweets and White House pronouncements from President Trump over the last two weeks that suggested a new low in US interest in and commitment to the region.
Mr. Trump walked back some of those statements Monday. But the clarifications – what some saw as reversals – did little to clear up deepening confusion over US Middle East policy.
This week two of the president’s top foreign policy advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, are in the region reassuring allies that the US commitment remains strong.
But with contradictions between the president and his advisers continuing to surface, about the only certainty is that US Middle East policy is in flux, as the administration tries to figure out how to fulfill the president’s promise – repeated in a tweet Monday night – to bring America’s “endless wars … to a glorious end.”
Indeed, below the surface of a breakdown of typical foreign policymaking and of repeated administration shifts on US commitments in the region is a broad and chaotic transition in the US vision for its role in the Middle East. The administration’s goal: shrink the outsize and unsustainable commitment of the past two decades without it looking to the world (and regional friends and enemies alike) like a retrenchment.
That transition seems unlikely to conclude any time soon, regional experts say, and in the meantime the confusion and unease besetting US allies in the region will continue.
“The Middle East is still trying to figure out how to understand the Trump administration, and trying to understand what is transient and what is likely to prove enduring – and it’s not obvious,” says Jon Alterman, senior vice president in global security and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
The current consternation over US Mideast policy began with a surprise tweet from Trump Dec. 19, in which he said the 2,200 US troops fighting ISIS in Syria would be coming home in short order. The apparent policy reversal sent former Defense Secretary James Mattis packing. A few days later, the president announced that Iran could “do what it wants” in Syria – contradicting Mr. Bolton, who recently had appeared to expand the purpose of the US role in Syria to staying put as long as Iran had its own forces and proxies there.
Then last week a definitive-sounding Trump declared to cameras at the opening of a cabinet meeting that Syria was “lost long ago” and had none of the “vast wealth” that might keep the US interested. “We’re talking about sand and death,” he said. “I’m getting out, we’re getting out of Syria.”
Debunking a 'false narrative'
But now Secretary of State Pompeo and Bolton are in the Middle East, seemingly intent on reassuring key regional allies that contrary to appearances and presidential pronouncements, the US remains a committed partner.
Previewing Pompeo’s extraordinary eight-day, eight-country trip that began in Jordan Tuesday, one senior State Department official said the secretary of State’s aim was to debunk the “false narrative” that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East. “We are not going anywhere,” the official said.
Reinforcing that point, Bolton said before arriving in Turkey Monday that the US has no timetable for a Syria pullout and would not leave until its goal of crushing ISIS to the point where it could not reemerge was achieved. The president appeared to shift toward that depiction of policy Monday, saying the US would still be leaving Syria, but not until ISIS is defeated.
But Bolton also said the US troops would stay in northern Syria until Turkey guarantees the security of US Kurdish allies in Syria – angering Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who snubbed Bolton by nixing an expected meeting with him in Ankara Tuesday. On Monday Mr. Erdoğan wrote in The New York Times that Trump was right to withdraw from Syria, and that Turkey could look after US interests there.
The Kurds, whose traditional lands spill across the region’s borders into parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, seek varying degrees of autonomy. Turkey sees that as a threat, and considers the US-allied Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, to be terrorists.
Indeed, Bolton left Turkey Tuesday afternoon without securing a commitment on the Syrian Kurds’ security – although some US officials remained behind to continue negotiations.
So which is it: a presidential pullout from “sand and death,” or an enduring US commitment to the Middle East and friends and allies there?
The urgent Pompeo and Bolton forays into the region may calm some of the jitters, but regional experts say the uncertainties over US policy are unlikely to subside as the US moves by fits and starts to transition out of more than two decades of a hyper-commitment to the region.
Much of the Middle East, and above all US allies from Saudi Arabia to Israel, thought they were getting, in Trump, an American president who was on their side and would stick with them, says Mr. Alterman of CSIS.
But now a region that has “gotten used to a large-scale American commitment” is finding that the Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, is learning “we have to be judicious about the commitments we make and the resources we pour into the Middle East,” Alterman says.
Moreover, he says the region is being buffeted by an administration that has yet to figure out, any better than the previous one, “what a normal American presence in the Middle East looks like.”
For some observers, Middle East allies are beginning to realize like everyone else that while presidential tweets may not be hard and fast edicts, they do seem to point the direction in which Trump intends to take policy.
Aligning 'brain and gut'
“We’ve seen this happen before, where the president announces a broad goal that seems to suddenly shift direction and leaves his top aides with the urgent task of recalibrating US policy,” says James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. “What we’re witnessing at the moment is both Pompeo and Bolton acting to realign the administration’s thinking with the president’s gut.”
This alignment of “brain and gut” can be a “hard slog,” Mr. Phillips says, and can require a round of “damage control” – which is how he characterizes the basic theme of the Pompeo and Bolton Mideast trips. But he adds that both advisers will encounter skepticism in the region – including over whether or not they actually represent the president’s thinking or are conveying presidentially vetted policy.
“There’s a nervousness [in the region] for sure,” he says. “The president has undercut his aides before and hurt their credibility.” But he says there are also signs that Trump’s aides are able to influence and soften Trump’s gut pronouncements – as with the president appearing to draw closer to Bolton’s slow-walking and conditioning of a US Syria withdrawal.
No one seems to know exactly where US Mideast policy is headed, but some clues as to the contours and priorities of that policy are likely to come out of a speech Pompeo is set to deliver in Cairo, probably Wednesday.
“The secretary will speak on the US remaining a force for good in the region,” says one senior State Department official. One likely subset of that theme: that the Trump administration priority of countering Iran’s “malign activities” in the region remains unchanged, with or without a Syria withdrawal.
Underscoring that priority is Pompeo’s itinerary, which will take him to each of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s six members, including Saudi Arabia. The GCC countries will want to hear more about US intentions on Iran, but US officials say that in Saudi Arabia, Pompeo will also deliver the message (intended for congressional ears as much as for Riyadh) that the administration remains dissatisfied with the level of “credibility and accountability” in the kingdom’s deliberations on the murder of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi.
A reversal in tone
One thing officials and regional experts alike say Pompeo’s speech is almost certain to be: a reversal of the tone set by President Barack Obama a decade ago in his own Cairo speech, in which he announced a new beginning for US relations with Muslim countries, including respect for moderate Islamist political participation.
“I’d expect to hear a much different speech about Islam and the future of the Middle East from Pompeo,” says Phillips. “Rather than an Obama-esque opening to political Islam, it will be much more of a pro-Egyptian-regime, anti-Islamist-ideology speech.”
Alterman says he expects Pompeo to underscore “continuity and stability” in US policy in the region – including a reaffirmed commitment to countering Iran.
Pompeo may not name Obama in his speech, officials with knowledge of the secretary’s intentions say. But he will forcefully reject the previous administration’s engagement with Iran, including the international nuclear deal from which Trump has withdrawn the US.
It remains to be seen, however, just how far a speech that promises continuity in the US commitment to the region will go in reassuring allies who can expect to see more upheaval in US Mideast policy in the coming months, Alterman says.
“Pompeo can promise continuity and stability, but this president values his ability to constantly surprise people,” he says. “So Pompeo will try to reassure and the president will go on trying to surprise – and where the balance comes out, nobody knows.”