Respect vs. humiliation: What pushes Trump to leave the Mideast

Why We Wrote This

Policy makes strange bedfellows? The Middle East, a region of boundless conflict, has nevertheless brought two American presidents who could hardly be more different to the same conclusion: The U.S. needs to leave.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Donald Trump, accompanied by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley (center) and U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, prepares to address the nation on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama came to more or less the same conclusion: The Middle East costs the U.S. more in blood and treasure than it’s worth. Their approach and means of expression were vastly different, but, says Ken Pollack, a former CIA Middle East analyst, “in the end it’s more or less the same objective. He wants out.”

Mr. Obama’s strategic shift could be summed up simply as “Asia pivot.” But Mr. Trump’s motivations in the Middle East appear to be less about global strategies and more about visceral reactions to what he sees as U.S. failures there.

His worldview, in which U.S. commitments abroad are a waste of the country’s resources, demands respect for U.S. power while disdaining those who rely on it. The Middle East has cost the U.S. trillions, and its wealthy oil kingdoms that have relied on the U.S. for their security have delivered little in return.

But another piece of the motivational puzzle from 40 years ago is complicating Mr. Trump’s impulse to leave. “There’s no question,” says Mr. Pollack, “Trump has carried deep inside him the humiliation and the sense of shame from the [Iran] hostage crisis.”

Donald Trump is not the first president to entertain the notion of getting the United States out of the Middle East.

That would be Barack Obama.

President Obama’s dream of leaving behind a region that has bedeviled the U.S. for a half century may have been couched in loftier terms of policy and strategy. But in the end both presidents came to more or less the same conclusion: The Middle East costs the U.S. more in blood and treasure than it’s worth.

“There is a consistency of this desire to get the United States out of the region between the two administrations,” says Ken Pollack, a former CIA Middle East analyst and National Security Council official who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“Trump’s is an infinitely cruder, less sophisticated version of what Obama said,” he adds, “but in the end it’s more or less the same objective. He wants out.”

Mr. Obama’s stated reason for seeking to redirect America’s focus from the Middle East can be broadly reduced to two words: Asia pivot.

But in the end, what the Obama administration said would be a “rebalancing” of resources came to very little – a few hundred Marines in Australia, and a regional trade deal (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) from which President Trump later withdrew the U.S.

Still, with China on the rise and challenging the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region, the world’s most prosperous and dynamic, Mr. Obama wanted to shift U.S. resources – military, diplomatic, and economic – to the new century’s up-and-coming arena.

And to some extent, that objective has continued under the Trump administration.

Even in the aftermath of this month’s missile strike in Iraq that killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and despite the heightened Mideast tensions that have followed, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has continued to speak of shifting troops and other resources away from the Mideast (and other regions) to Asia.

The reason? To confront China, singled out in the Trump administration’s first National Security Strategy in 2017 as America’s chief strategic competitor.

Yet despite that consistency, President Trump’s motivations for wanting out of the Middle East appear to be less about grand global strategies and more about visceral reactions to what he sees as U.S. failures there.

Add to that a worldview that broadly sees U.S. commitments abroad as a waste of the country’s resources. It’s a worldview that at the same time demands respect for – and fealty to – U.S. power, while disdaining those who rely on it for security, especially if they are not paying dearly for it.

The Middle East – with its endless wars that have cost the U.S. trillions of dollars with little to show for it, and its wealthy oil kingdoms that have relied on the U.S. for their security – has to Mr. Trump’s way of thinking cost the U.S. too much in blood and treasure while delivering little in return and doing little to solve its own problems.

“Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand,” Mr. Trump declared in March 2019 as he announced at the White House a deal with Turkey that would supposedly allow U.S. forces to exit Syria. “Now we’re getting out. We were supposed to be there for 30 days,” he added, “and that was almost 10 years ago.”

Last week, when Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham reminded Mr. Trump in an interview that he had run for office on an exit from the Middle East, and that the Iraqi government was now on record demanding the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq, he responded, “I’m OK with it” – before adding that, privately, that is not what the Iraqis are saying at all.

Luis M. Alvarez/AP
President Donald Trump embraces Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham after inviting her on stage during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit Dec. 21, 2019, in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Mr. Trump’s impulse to get out of the Middle East results from a gut-level, who-needs-them frustration, some foreign-policy experts say – an outlook on the region that has only solidified as the American shale revolution has reduced U.S. dependence on Mideast oil.

“If there is a strategy to what this president is doing in the Middle East, I just don’t see it,” says Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs under President Reagan, and a noted regional expert.

“What I do see is that he speaks for the average American Joe who is impatient with problems that don’t get solved, and who … [agrees] when Trump says we’ve been taken for a ride by these ‘allies’ and they have made fools of us,” Mr. Murphy says. “Trump looks at [the Middle East] and says, ‘You are just bleeding us white, so why don’t you just go away?’”

Mr. Trump may be frustrated by the Iraqis, who tell the world they want to kick the U.S. out; or the Saudis, who apparently balked at an embryonic Mideast “deal of the century” peace plan that brushed over a political solution for the Palestinians; or certainly by Afghanistan, which has cost the U.S. over a trillion dollars and counting.

But to truly understand Mr. Trump’s frustration with the Middle East and his desire to leave it behind, one must go back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the taking of 52 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, some historians and foreign-policy experts say.

“The Iranian revolution, which led to the hostage crisis and an energy crisis, was one of Trump’s formative experiences in thinking about America’s role in the world,” writes Brookings Institution foreign-policy analyst Thomas Wright in a recent post on the Brookings website.

When it comes to Iran, he adds, “he does have an obsession with avoiding a humiliation.”

Mr. Wright cites an October 1980 interview on NBC with Mr. Trump, then in his mid-30s, in which the flashy New York City real estate mogul boils down American foreign policy to matters of respect and humiliation.

America “should really be a country that gets the respect of other countries,” Mr. Trump told NBC journalist Rona Barrett. That the Iranians “hold our hostages is just absolutely and totally ridiculous,” he said, “a horror … I don’t think they’d do … with other countries.”

Fast-forward 40 years, and President Trump tweets the day after the Soleimani strike that “if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have … targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago). … The USA wants no more threats!”

“There’s no question Trump has carried deep inside him the humiliation and the sense of shame from the hostage crisis,” says AEI’s Mr. Pollack. Tough talk about putting adversaries in their place and avenging past wrongs may sit well with the president’s core constituency, he adds – but so does what he calls the “equally strong demand that a [Fox commentator] Tucker Carlson represents to avoid another Middle East war and instead get us out of the Middle East.”

So where does that leave Mr. Trump and his impulse to get out?

Don’t expect anything fast to happen, Mr. Pollack says. Instead he expects the recent pattern of several hundred troops out here, then a few hundred back in there as things happen, to continue for a while.

“One of the interesting things about this is that Trump and Obama represent the isolationist and retrenchment extremes of their parties,” Mr. Pollack says. He expects the more traditional and internationalist moderates of the Republican leadership will stand in the way of any precipitous withdrawals by Mr. Trump – the same way he says Democratic moderates toned down Mr. Obama’s disengagement.

But he says the writing is on the wall when it comes to the trajectory of the U.S. in the Middle East – especially if Mr. Trump wins reelection.

“If he gets a second term,” Mr. Pollack says, “I wouldn’t want to bet we’d be there in any significant numbers by the time he leaves office.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.