How Trump is reshaping American foreign policy in the Middle East

An excellent piece by Walter Russell Meade in the Wall Street Journal this morning clarifies recent moves made by the Trump administration in the Middle East.

Scuttling the Iran deal and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem demonstrate a direct challenge to Iran (and Russia) in the region and allow the U.S. to confront our enemies with a renewed sense of purpose.

President Obama chose to "manage the decline" of U.S. power in the region.  The Trump administration has changed that policy into one of direct confrontation with Iran and, consequently, strengthening our Arab and Israeli allies in the region.

The Obama administration reasoning in agreeing to the Iran nuclear deal was that U.S. power was ebbing in the region, and rather than risk a long, ruinous war with Iran over its nuclear program, we should settle for the status quo:

The Iran deal, President Obama and his supporters believe, accomplished all that and more.  By taking the nuclear issue off the table, at least for the time being, the agreement averted the danger of a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation.  Moreover, it weakened hard-liners inside Iran by undermining their core argument that Iran faced an external threat requiring permanent social mobilization even as it strengthened moderates by tying the country ever more closely to the world economy.  If supported by the West, the Obama administration believed, moderates would gradually consign the Islamists to the political fringes.

From this perspective, the deal was a masterstroke of diplomacy.  Its supporters now fear that Iranian and American hard-liners, energized by the failure of their more accommodating rivals, will steer the countries toward a policy of confrontation ending in war – and that the result of this war will be to accelerate rather than retard American decline in the Middle East and beyond.

President Trump's approach is different.  His instincts tell him that most Americans are anything but eager for a "post-American" world.  Mr. Trump's supporters don't want long wars, but neither are they amenable to a stoic acceptance of national decline.  As to the wisdom of accommodating Iran, Team Trump believes that empowering Iran is more likely to strengthen the hard-liners than the moderates.  As Franklin Roosevelt once put it in a fireside chat, "No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it."

The Trump administration believes that far from forcing a U.S. retreat, Iranian arrogance and overreach in the Middle East have created a golden opportunity for the assertion of American power.  It hopes the emerging alliance of Arabs and Israelis will give America local partners who are ready to bear many of the risks and costs of an anti-Iran policy in exchange for American backing.  Israeli air power and Arab forces, combined with the intelligence networks and local relationships the new allies bring to the table, can put Iran on the defensive in Syria and elsewhere.  This military pressure, along with economic pressure from a new round of sanctions, will weaken Iran's hold on its proxies abroad and create political problems for the mullahs at home.  If they respond by restarting their nuclear program, Israeli-American airstrikes could both stop the process and inflict a humiliating blow to the regime's prestige. 

The nuclear deal allowed Iran to become far more aggressive and adventurous in the Middle East.  But that policy means that the Iranians have become overextended and vulnerable to the kind of pressure the U.S. and our allies can bring to bear.  Whether it's military or economic pressure doesn't matter.  Both will weaken the mullahs' hold on the population and make supporting Hezb'allah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen far more difficult.

As for the embassy move to Jerusalem, it's an injection of reality into the Palestinian thinking about the peace process.  The Israelis and their U.S. allies are moving on without the Palestinians, and if they want a deal, perhaps the time is now to get one.  Some kind of agreement is still not very likely.  But the embassy move changes the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian equation for the first time in many years.

The U.S. policy is not without risk.  But intelligently managed, the U.S. confronting Iran will re-establish American dominance.  That makes any risk of a larger conflict worthwhile.

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