President Trump’s Middle East policy is simple: Back our friends and scare the hell out of our enemies, and negotiate where possible with our competitors like Russia and China. By and large it’s working, unlike the catastrophically failed polices of the previous two administrations. Trump did what he said he would do and succeeded. You wouldn’t know that from the #fakenews media.
Start with Israel: The Muslim strategy to destroy Israel hasn’t envisioned war–not at least since 1973–because Israel in all cases would win. Instead, the objective is to ring Israel with missiles and force Israel to retaliate against missile attacks in such a way that the “international community” would respond by imposing a “settlement” on Israel that would leave Israel vulnerable to further missiles attacks, and so forth. This is stated explicitly by Palestinian strategists cited by Haviv Rettig Gur in The Times of Israel.
George W. Bush and Obama gave aid and comfort to the encircle-and-strangle strategy by tying Israel’s hands. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wouldn’t let Olmert attack Hezbollah with full force in 2006. Rice thinks the Palestinian movement is a branch of the U.S. civil rights movement (if you don’t believe that characterization, read her book “Democracy,” which I will review for Claremont Review of Books).
Obama sandbagged Israel during the 2014 Gaza rocket attacks, suspending delivery of Hellfire missiles to the Jewish State. Israel is the only country in the world that embeds human rights lawyers in every infantry company to make sure that its soldiers keep collateral damage to a minimum.
Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese militia, has 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel, and many of them can hit any target in the country. In the case of a major rocket attack from Hezbollah against Israel, military logic dictates the preemptive neutralization of rocket launchers embedded in civilian populations–what an Israeli strategist close to the PM described to me as “Dresden.” There would be tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Trump will not tie Israel’s hands in the case of attack, and will not interfere with Israel’s ability to defend herself. That makes Israel’s deterrent against Iran credible.
Hillary Clinton insisted that the “technology of war,” in particular the rockets ringing Israel, would force Israel to accept a phony peace agreement whose main effect would be to bring the rocket launchers closer to Israel. The photograph below shows the runways and main terminal building of Israel’s international airport from an Arab village in Judea: Hand this over to the Palestinians and primitive short-range missiles can shut down the Israel economy. There’s an easy way to stop the rockets, which is to kill the people who shoot them. That might mean killing the human shields whom the cowardly terrorists put in front of the rockets, but under international law, a country acting in self-defense has every right to kill civilians.
For that reason alone, anyone who claims to be a friend of Israel must support Trump against the alternative. One can criticize Trump all day with justification, but the existential issue of Israel’s survival requires Jews to support him. Jewish never-Trumpers are infected with what our rabbis of antiquity called “baseless hatred.”
The second big issue is Saudi Arabia, which competed with Iran for decades as the biggest funder of terrorists and religious extremists. After Trump’s March 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia, where he read the riot act to assembled Arab leaders, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has centralized control of the government and seized hundreds of billions of dollars of royal family assets. The $800 billion of royal family wealth targeted is larger than the national reserves of the kingdom. As I wrote in Asia Times last week, Saudi Arabia has gotten its first real government, as opposed to the family regime that allowed every crazy cousin to write checks to terrorists. Of course, the kingdom well might get its second, third and fourth real government in short order if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fails. But the de facto coup is a huge blow to Sunni jihadism and a victory for American policy.
Prince Mohammed and his father King Salman had visited Moscow in late September, and the Russian and Chinese press express guarded optimism about the regime change (see the cited Asia Times article). Russia and China have a great deal to fear from Sunni jihadists (virtually all their Muslim citizens are Sunni) and a Saudi ruler willing to close the tap is good for them. As I wrote, its win-win-win-win for the U.S., Russia, China and Israel.
That ought to scare the Persians plenty. The Saudis get very bad press for chopping up the Houthi-led tribes in Yemen, Iran’s allies. They are making a horrible example of the Houthi for the edification of Iran. That is disgusting, to be sure, but that’s the way things are done in that part of the world. The Assad government in Syria did much worse, deliberately bombing civilians to drive out the Sunni majority in order to replace it with Shi’ite colonists.
The Saudis don’t have much of an army, and their air force depends on Pakistani mercenaries, but they do have nearly 300 fourth-generation aircraft (F-15’s, Eurofighters, and Tornadoes) as well as a huge stock of Chinese-made medium range missiles. They can hire Pakistanis or Egyptians to fly them if necessary. Iran has tough soldiers but no air force to speak of. If it comes to war (which it shouldn’t) between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran will suffer badly. A dozen power plants provide more than half the country’s electricity, for example, and could not be defended in case of war.
There isn’t much to do about Iran now that its economic ties point eastwards to China, except to terrify the Tehran mullahs. That’s old-fashioned balance of terror–not my favorite way of doing things, but a policy that worked reasonably well during the Cold War. It’s easy to talk about tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement–but now there are two rail lines linking Iran to China, and the West’s influence in the region has vastly diminished. Unfortunately, grand gestures may not bring grand results, and the U.S. has to play tought and sometimes dirty.
Ultimately any regional issue depends on the strategic position of the United States with respect to China and Russia. We continue to lose ground, and Trump hasn’t yet offered an initiative to reverse it (I would begin by a crash program for missile defense, including space-based systems).
There are any number of things to criticize in the administration’s handling of the Middle East. I would have preferred a tougher approach to Iran’s presence in Syria in our negotiations with Russia over a cease-fire, and a more supportive stance towards the Iraqi Kurds’ aspirations for independence (although as Daniel Pipes observes, the fact that the independence referendum backfired was the Kurds’ own fault). And I would like the president to keep his campaign promise to move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
But overall, Trump’s Middle East policy has been a success, in striking contrast to his predecessors. The supposed Middle East mavens among the preening NeverTrumpers (Max Boot, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Bill Kristol et. al) made a mess of things, and Trump has gone a long way to cleaning it up. That’s not bad for one year in office.