Lead From Behind No Longer: James Robbins

Unlike Obama’s idealism, Trump’s results-based foreign policy could help stabilize the Middle East.

The United States faces critical challenges in the Middle East. Whether instability in Syria fomenting a refugee crisis, the spread of the Islamic State group and its extremist ideology, or the rising power of Iran, conditions in the region are more threatening than they were when President Barack Obama took office. The new Trump administration will have its work cut out for it.

The greatest change will be in the focus of America’s relationship with the region. The Obama administration adopted a passive, collaborative, at times apologetic posture that viewed the U.S. as often the cause of international problems, rather than the solution to them. Obama seemed to view the United States as a neo-colonial power that had to make amends for its past transgressions. The new administration will dispense with this contrite approach in favor of more muscular, interest-based strategy, under the rubrics of “peace through strength” and “America first.”

The style of U.S. relations with the region will also change. The cautious, risk-averse “lead from behind” method the Obama administration pioneered will likely be replaced by a more frank, open and honest approach to policy in which creating good optics is less important than achieving solid results.

A Trump foreign policy will be less concerned with nation-building abroad than domestically. The president-elect identified U.S. military intervention as a major cause of destabilization, particularly in the Middle East, spanning the last two administrations. In a major foreign policy address in August, Trump said that the “current strategy of nation-building and regime change is a proven failure” that has “created the vacuums that allow terrorists to grow and thrive.”

Whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt or elsewhere, the Obama administration has left greater instability than it found in 2008. The U.S. will be far less likely to turn to the military instrument of national power to attempt to shape regional outcomes, given the failure of the Obama administration’s “smart power” policies.

The war on terrorism, meanwhile, will shift explicitly toward halting the spread of radical Islam. The Obama administration was unduly cautious in discussing Islamic extremism for fear of offending Middle East and domestic Muslim sentiments. But this unwillingness to publicly identify the root cause of instability made it difficult to adopt an offensive posture in the war of ideas.

The Trump administration, by contrast, will likely make this ideological struggle central to its counter-terrorism policies. In August, the president-elect pledged to host an international conference to discuss the issue, and to work with regional partners such as Israel, Jordan and Egypt “and all others who recognize this ideology of death that must be extinguished.” The comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy will involve “joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS, international cooperation to cutoff their funding, expanded intelligence sharing, and cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable their propaganda and recruiting.”

While the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be generally more realist than those of his predecessors, it will not ignore the values that serve as the basis of Western civilization and American culture. An important aspect of going on the offensive against radical Islam will involve challenging aspects of the ideology that are abhorrent to Western values, whether abuse of women, cruel death-sentences for homosexuals, religious oppression, or other odious aspects of Islamic extremism. Trump has pledged to “be a friend to all moderate Muslim reformers in the Middle East” and to “amplify their voices” for reform and change.

The U.S. will also shift focus with respect to Iran. It is all but certain that the Iran nuclear agreement, the most lauded diplomatic achievement of the Obama administration, will be significantly revised, if not scrapped outright. Under the agreement’s framework, the Islamic Republic received billions of dollars in unfrozen assets and gained access to trade opportunities previously blocked by sanctions, in exchange for a promise not to develop nuclear weapons in the near future. However, the deal did nothing to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program, and has insufficient verification protocols to allow the international community to know if Tehran has even made good on its promise to cease all nuclear weapons-related activities.

In essence, this deal puts Iran on an internationally sanctioned path to nuclear capability, rather than preventing it. Since the deal was never legitimized as a formal treaty (principally because the Obama administration lacked the political muscle to pass such a deal through the U.S. Senate), U.S. participation can be dispensed with quickly – although the agreement might continue on without American involvement. Simultaneously, the Trump administration will need to formulate a serious strategy for dealing with other aspects of Iranian rogue behavior (like its extensive support for international terrorism), which have been empowered by the benefits it has gained under the nuclear deal.

Regional partners will hopefully welcome a more results-based, less aspirational approach to regional stability. Obama’s idealistic view of transforming the Middle East outlined in his 2009 speech in Cairo has led to increased instability, growing threats from international terrorism, and destabilizing refugee flows into Europe and the United States. President-elect Trump’s peace through strength policy offers a new opportunity for regional actors to work with the U.S. to recreate stability, end the threat of radicalism and forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions.


james robbinsJames S. Robbins is senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and the author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.”

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