When President Donald Trump presided over the signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain last week on the South Lawn of the White House, his critics cast the event as a real-life enactment of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in which Trump played a minimal role in a meaningless accord involving two tiny Arab nations that had never made war on the Jewish state. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is indeed an apt analogy, but it was Trump’s critics—not the president—who were shown to be naked.
The Abraham Accords are the most significant development in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the last 25 years. Not only have the Palestinians lost their veto over normalization between Israel and other Arab states, but the entire “Resistance Alliance,” led by Iran, has revealed itself as incapable of placing obstacles in the way of Israel’s integration into the Arab state system. True, the UAE and Bahrain are small powers, but behind them looms Saudi Arabia, which is by far the most influential Arab state. Without Riyadh’s tacit support, the celebration on the White House lawn would never have materialized. If Trump wins the election in November, there is a good chance that Riyadh will normalize relations with Israel—to say nothing of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Morocco, and Sudan, who are also waiting in the wings.
To be sure, the Palestinian seat at the next White House party will likely remain empty, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will simmer away for many years to come. But that is true of many dozens of sectarian and nationalistic conflicts around the world, including those in Spain, Belgium, Italy, and Ukraine—to confine the list only to Europe. No one in the world has a plausible solution to the Palestinian question, and the best diplomatic minds have devoted more time and effort on it than any other question on the planet for reasons that are now beginning to recede into history.
Trump’s diplomacy posited that the best way to manage this conflict was not to blow more hot air into a punctured balloon, but to reduce it to its true geostrategic proportions. Thanks to this strategy, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems likely in time to become the Eastern Mediterranean equivalent to the Western Sahara conflict: an insoluble but localized dilemma with a specific set of local human costs. The debilitating lock that it has placed on American strategic thinking for decades has been broken. In breaking that lock, Trump has created a process to end the Arab-Israeli conflict—which unlike the local Israeli conflict with the Palestinians, had real geostrategic significance.
It is equally notable that Trump’s masterstroke came by breaking the hold of the Washington foreign policy establishment on the Middle East peacemaking business. In denigrating his accomplishment, the leading lights of American foreign policy have also conveniently erased from memory their unblemished record of outrageously bad predictions.
What will happen, former Secretary of State John Kerry was asked in a television interview in 2016, if President Trump would make good on his campaign promise to move the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? “You’d have an explosion,” Kerry answered, “an absolute explosion in the region, not just in the West Bank, and perhaps even in Israel itself, but throughout the region.”
In both tone and content, Kerry’s hysterical prediction was representative of views of a sizable chunk of the foreign policy establishment, which has responded to every major step that Trump has taken in the Middle East with the claim that he was simultaneously destroying America’s regional alliances and driving the United States toward war. The idea that he might actually have been engaged in the revitalization of the Arab-Israeli peace process was so absurd in their eyes that it never warranted serious consideration—both because they despised Trump, and because they were beholden to a set of wrongheaded in-group premises that they believed and insisted for decades were written in stone.
The Middle East experts got the region consistently wrong, egregiously wrong, and Trump got it right. How could this be? After all, Trump has no hidden personal reserves of learning and expertise on which to draw. By all accounts, and there is no reason to disbelieve them, he has no patience for long intelligence briefings or for detailed policy discussions, either. And yet his judgments on the region have been far better than those of impeccably credentialed experts with decades of experience at the highest levels of American statecraft. What does Trump know that they don’t?
In seeking answers, it helps to recall that Trump is not the only world leader who has scored significant Middle Eastern successes in recent years. He shares that distinction with the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. By inserting a relatively small contingent of forces into Syria and helping Assad to murder Syrian civilians with impunity, Putin reshaped the Syrian civil war and revitalized Russia’s influence in the Middle East.
The same circles in Washington who have failed to give Trump credit for his Middle Eastern achievements also downplayed the possibility that Putin’s Syrian initiative might pose a threat to American interests in the region. “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work,” President Barack Obama said in late 2015, when the major Russian intervention was just getting underway. Obama’s dictum was faithfully parroted by nearly the entire American foreign policy elite, which heralded the inevitability of Putin’s failure.
Five years later, Putin shows no signs of being bogged down. On the contrary, the experts now tell us that he “played a weak hand masterfully”—i.e., it worked. Putin’s success rests on three main elements, which, as it turns out, are also the keys to understanding the success of Trump’s diplomacy.
The first element pertains to the question that is always at the forefront of Putin’s mind: “Who-Whom?” Who is sticking it to whom? First formulated by Vladimir Lenin and later honed by Joseph Stalin, the question originally referred to the “correlation of forces” between capitalism and communism. For Putin, that basic axiom applies also to relations between the Russian Federation and the United States as well as to his own personal relations with rivals and potential rivals. It even guides Putin’s behavior during social interactions. Former President George W. Bush recalls that during an official visit to Moscow, Putin made a point of comparing his dog to the president’s diminutive Scottish terrier, Barney. “My dog,” Putin said, “is bigger, faster, and stronger than Barney.”
Trump’s personality is also hardwired for one-upmanship, as his recent admission regarding plans to kill Bashar Assad suggests. “I had a shot to take [Assad] out if I wanted,” Trump revealed. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis had rejected the idea. “Mattis was against most of that stuff,” Trump continued. “[H]e didn’t know how to win.”
Trump’s anecdote was double-barreled: First, it fired a warning shot at Assad, reminding him that Trump spoke his language and was fully prepared to crush him, while, secondly, it targeted Mattis, or, more precisely, Mattis’ carefully crafted image as a fearsome warrior.
Labeling “Mad Dog” as a namby-pamby loser calls to mind Trump’s penchant for branding his rivals with demeaning nicknames. Many observers regard this practice as undignified and adolescent. However uncouth it may be, it is politically effective; his talent for disparagement is undeniable. Trump is probably the greatest master of the put-down in American politics since Lyndon Johnson. He quickly spots weaknesses in his rivals that others do not see, and he exploits those vulnerabilities with a speed and economy of effort equal to the savviest of courtroom cross-examiners. Such talent can be honed with practice, but at root it is characterological, available only to those who, by their God-given nature approach every social interaction as a zero-sum contest from which one party must emerge the victor and the other the loser.
For Trump, winning is everything. If he loses, he scrambles to shift the blame and to generate the false appearance of victory. His buildings are always better, his steaks are always juicier, and his crowds are always bigger, because he is Trump, the very definition of a winner. This trait is easily caricatured. But while Trump’s critics have written volumes on how his lack of humility and graciousness has damaged the national interest, what such efforts invariably overlook is that the folkways of the American elite are not the universal norms of mankind. In their essence, these claims are partisan diatribes, not serious analyses.
When dealing with the ruthless and unsentimental Middle East, Trump’s obsession with winning is in fact a net positive. Trump may be hated by some, but leadership in the region is not a popularity contest; it is a contest of raw force, whose outcome is very often a matter of life or death. From the lowliest shoeshine boys to the loftiest rulers, Middle Easterners suffer recurring nightmares about the gruesome fate that will befall them when their enemies—political, ethnic, or religious—gain the upper hand through war or revolution and seize control of the state. The videos documenting the torture, beheadings, and mass murder that have emerged from the Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemeni wars have made the nightmares even more frequent and more vivid.
In sum, the Middle East is a region obsessed with “Who-Whom?” Trump may not have any life experience in the region, but his personality, like Putin’s, is hardwired to its frequency. As a result, he hears the region more clearly, communicates better, and can solve problems with greater efficacy, than the Beltway mandarins and their prize pupils.
The same wiring that leads to Trump’s triumphs in the Middle East puts him at odds with the American foreign policy elite, which is, in a word, melioristic. Americans start from the assumption that safeguarding the national interest in the Middle East means making the region a better place. When Obama the schoolmarm scolded Putin the wayward pupil over Syria, counseling him that his effort to prop up Assad “won’t work,” he assumed, quaintly, that the Russian leader was trying to “solve” the “Syrian crisis.” Nothing could have been further from Putin’s mind, of course: Putin sent troops to Syria to make Russia top dog. Similarly, Trump’s instinct is to win in the Middle East—and to win on his terms—or to quit the game entirely and to proclaim the quitting victory. When he hears the foreign policy elite’s “solutions,” which require more troops but no path to victory, their words are physical torture to him.
But Trump does recognize that pulling out of the Middle East precipitously will entail intolerable costs for America’s allies. His mind therefore moves inexorably to the only logical conclusion: The allies must step up and bear more of the burden so that America can step back. Trump therefore defines the Middle East problem as one of rebalancing between America and its alliance partners.
This definition brings us to the second and third elements that help explain why Putin and Trump both defied Beltway wisdom and emerged as winners. The second element to Putin’s success was a very simple formula, which some thinkers have held to be the essential rule of politics: supporting friends and punishing enemies. Nothing would be more alien to Putin’s “Who-Whom?” mindset than to weaken his allies—the Assad regime and Iran—while strengthening his rival, the United States.
Fortunately for Putin, he faced off not only against a hopelessly fragmented Syrian opposition but also an America that, under Obama, was at its most melioristic. If Obama had placed the Russian-Iranian alliance in a “Who-Whom?” frame, he would have defined hobbling the alliance as a top priority of the United States. Instead, he attempted to turn Moscow and Tehran into partners in solving Syria and stabilizing the region, and he cajoled and threatened America’s allies—Israel, Turkey, and the Arab states—not to obstruct his effort to realize this new partnership, with the goal of safely reducing America’s troop commitment in the Middle East.
Like Trump, Obama focused on rebalancing. But whereas Trump seeks to reorder the responsibilities between America and its allies, Obama sought to rebalance away from the allies. Like Trump, Obama openly criticized allies as “free riders” who expected the United States to provide security but don’t pull their own weight—but he also went a step further, by abandoning the traditional conception of the United States as the leader of a regional security coalition whose purpose is to contain Russia and Iran. Instead, America’s allies must learn, as Obama publicly counseled Saudi Arabia, to “share the neighborhood” with Iran. Similarly, the Israelis must reconcile with the Palestinians; the Turks must get over their problems with the Kurds; and the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs must open up their political systems.
When Obama looked in the mirror or read his press reviews, he saw himself in the resplendent robes of the peacemaker, creating a more open and “inclusive” Middle East. Meanwhile, America’s horrified allies saw no such robes. The greatest symbol of Obama’s new Middle East for them was Syria, where 500,000 died and over 10 million were driven from their homes and a new alliance between Russia and Iran ruled over the rubble. To them, it was obvious that the American emperor was naked; he was heading for the exits in the region, and shipping pallets of cash to Iran on his way out.
America’s allies offered the United States an alternative policy, the one that Donald Trump eventually adopted—a path that focused on returning the United States to its customary role as the leader of a regional security coalition whose primary goal is to contain Iran.
America’s allies were hardly shy about giving the same advice to Obama, who ignored it: The Saudis, for example, had counseled the Americans behind the scenes “to cut off the head of the snake,” meaning to focus on the Iranian threat. What the Saudis were saying in private, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said openly in public. In March 2015 he came to Washington and in his famous address before both houses of Congress, he warned that the West had signed up to a bad deal that was paving Iran’s path not just to a bomb but to regional domination. In September 2016, in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu said that “for the first time in my lifetime, many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy.” He continued: “Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS. Our common goals are security, prosperity and peace. I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals, work together openly.”
Like the president he served, John Kerry, who was still the secretary of state, knew better. “Let me tell you a few things that I’ve learned for sure in the last few years,” Kerry said at a public event. “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. I want to make that very clear to all of you.” Kerry, it’s worth remembering, had made an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement his top priority during the first two years of his tenure. After many intensive rounds of diplomacy, he failed entirely; yet he remained convinced that the strategic priority of the United States was to continue failing, in the service of what he saw as immutable diplomatic principles.
“By taking a different approach, we achieved different outcomes—far superior outcomes,” Trump said in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday morning. “We took an approach and the approach worked.” Trump, who had much less experience in the Middle East than Obama or Kerry, was able to chart a different path because the path was very clearly lit, and because he wants to win.
Michael Doran is Director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.