Donald Trump’s first priority on his maiden voyage as president must be to restore trust between the United States and its longstanding partners in the Middle East. America’s friends and allies in the region are eager for calm after years of turmoil and mutual suspicions under Presidents Bush and Obama. But it would be a mistake for Trump to ignore the Middle East’s deep dysfunction in his search for a feel-good narrative. Maybe not now—but soon—he will need to deliver some tough messages to regional leaders about the demands of citizens for justice, basic human rights and good governance. Most importantly, he will have to understand that relying on the U.S. military and cutting arms deals are hardly sustainable solutions to the region’s permanent crisis.
The two of us come from different perspectives. Michael is a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and Brian at the left-leaning Center American Progress. Last year, our two think tanks came together for a unique project in this age of partisan polarization in Washington—a bipartisan, on-the-ground study of the drivers of instability across the Middle East, based on a series of visits and dialogues in and about the region.
What we found is that while we disagree on a lot of issues—like the Iraq war and the Iran nuclear deal—we agree on one central idea: The United States has to stay engaged in the Middle East. Like his predecessor, President Trump has complained vigorously that America has spent trillions on inconclusive wars over the last few decades, and openly fantasized about walking away from the region and its troubles. That, we are convinced, would be a costly mistake.
The president’s basic impulse to restore trust with America’s partners in the Middle East is not wrong. The 2003 Iraq war, America’s inconsistent response to the 2011 Arab uprisings, and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal all shook the confidence of America’s historic partners in the region, including the two countries Trump will visit—Saudi Arabia and Israel. Rebuilding those relationships is essential.
To rebuild ties, Trump should keep in mind a key lesson from predecessors’ mistakes: rushing to pursue magic-bullet solutions to the region’s enduring conflicts often causes more harm than good. There is no single cure-all for the Arab-Israeli dispute, Sunni-Shi’ite tensions, or the fight against terrorism.
Neither a grand diplomatic bargain nor a military campaign will resolve the daunting demographic, social, economic and political challenges Middle Eastern countries face. With one wobbly exception—Tunisia—the so-called Arab Spring has left the region no more democratic and no less angry. And when it comes to regional stability and security, the path to peace lies not through Jerusalem or Riyadh alone, but rather through every country’s capital individually.
Intuitively, Trump and his top aides seem to grasp this. In his first four months in office, they have sent messages of support to Middle Eastern leaders. Unlike Bush’s “freedom agenda” and the broad outreach Obama first laid out in a series of speeches, both of which prioritized publics over leaders, Trump has simply sought to steady relations with leaders by shrugging off criticisms of his partners’ human rights records and sending messages of support. Establishing personal rapport and trust with kings, sultans, and presidents may be a necessary first step, but it should not be the end goal – that won’t produce lasting stability.
In the Middle East, optimists are the ones who say things have never been so bad; pessimists recognize they could still get worse. Consider what the United States faces: a fight against the Islamic State not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Egypt, Libya, and Afghanistan; Iran’s continued regional meddling; aging leaders that portend possible succession struggles in Algeria, Palestine, Oman, and Iran; Turkey and Qatar financing radicalism; Al Qaeda regrouping and waiting in the wings; and an unprecedented refugee crisis that risks a “lost generation” and has upended security in the region and politics in Europe.
As Trump seeks to deal with a region in crisis, he should avoid seeing the U.S. military or the Central Intelligence Agency as the solution to every problem. This was the limitation of Bush’s 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq: It sacrificed long-term stability for short-term quiet. In effect, Bush rented rather than won loyalty from Iraqi Sunni leaders and incentivized further sectarian struggle. Today, as the United States and its partners consider Iraq’s future post-Islamic State, the same pattern could repeat if arms and money for militias substitute for a more holistic, long-term strategy. In Pakistan, the face of U.S. policy for decades has been not the State Department, but rather the Pentagon and CIA—and U.S. engagement there has not uprooted the religious extremism that overshadows Pakistan’s internal politics and regional engagement.
Too much reliance on military and intelligence tools can worsen anti-Americanism, fueling the perception that the United States cares only about its own narrow interests, not the struggles and aspirations of the people affected by its massive global influence. Lucrative military aid packages can also disincentivize countries from solving their own security problems. Why should the Pakistani military defeat the Taliban if that group’s existence brings Islamabad billions of dollars? Or take Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are fighting a war against an Iran-backed movement called the Houthis: Offering unconditional military partnership without a smart political strategy is only going to make that country’s woes deepen, and fuel more extremism.
Trump is right to be cynical about nation-building. Decades on bureaucratic autopilot have left the State Department and USAID sclerotic. Money should never be a metric of effectiveness. Pouring resources into conflict zones often catalyzes debilitating dependence and corruption, rather than good governance.
But the cure for a broken finger is not amputation of the arm. Massive cuts to the tools of diplomacy, as the Trump administration proposed, are counterproductive. Just as overstaffing is ineffective, so too does understaffing cripple the folks on the ground who are tasked with figuring out how to implement their orders from Washington. If and when the United States and its allies defeat the Islamic State, as Trump has promised, we’ll need diplomats and aid workers to help keep the forces of chaos at bay. And all throughout the region, the painstaking, often frustrating work of civil servants is vital to advancing America’s overall interest in a peaceful, stable and thriving region.
The Trump administration needs to integrate security and military cooperation with credible diplomatic and political efforts to resolve the bloody conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Blank checks may please partners, but they do not bring peace. While Trump must, of course, coerce unwilling adversaries, he must also exercise leverage with partners to ensure they undertake the necessary reforms and compromises to translate military victories into sustainable order.
So, yes, as Trump flies to Riyadh, he should be thinking about how to win back America’s wayward friends and allies in the Middle East. But he also must start planning how to tell them some harsh truths.