This president might be able to pull off an act of statecraft that has eluded the United States since FDR. No modern American president has ever been able to put a sustainable Middle East collective security framework in place. Trump just might be the first.
The U.S. emerged from World War II as an economic and military superpower. Its economic and security interests now spanned the globe. Many of those interests lay in the Middle East — historically one of the most important crossroads of economic activity, as well as an arena of chronic turbulence.
The Middle East continues to be a pivotal point in global competition to this day. Unfortunately, the U.S. has never come up with a good long-term arrangement to look after its interests in this part of the world.
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower championed the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), modeled on NATO. Unfortunately, that pact collapsed, for reasons detailed well in Mike Doran’s 2017 book, “Ike’s Gamble.” Ever since America has whipsawed between overbearing intervention and indifference.
President Carter trotted out the “Carter Doctrine” warning foreign powers to stay out of the region. He followed up with a half-hearted effort to field a U.S. intervention force. He scored a major coup by brokering the Camp David Peace Accords, normalizing relations between Egypt and Israel. But his term ended in humiliation, with the Iranians taking U.S. embassy staff hostage.
President Reagan intervened in the Lebanese civil war, sending in 800 Marines as part of a multinational peacekeeping force. That ended with the disastrous terrorist bombing of the U.S. barracks in Beirut.
President George H.W. Bush spanked Saddam Hussein. President George W. Bush finished the job. Sandwiched in between, President Clinton took a swing (and missed) at the Middle East peace process.
President Obama tried to walk away from the region altogether. He left a mess. The Islamic State was running amok; Iran was emboldened; Syria was a disaster, and Libya was worse.
Donald Trump inherited mayhem. And, he took up the challenge.
It’s hard to argue, U.S. interests aren’t more secure now than when he started. He has crushed ISIS, stiff-armed Iran, and strengthened relations with key allies like Egypt and Israel.
What Trump has not figured out how to do is marry his instincts — to eschew endless wars, regime change, and nation-building and to make allies carry their share of the load — with a long-term framework for safeguarding America’s interests in the Middle East.
Early in his presidency, Trump pitched the idea of what was originally called the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance (MESA). While short of something like NATO, it was a serious proposal for a collective security regime that could deal with the region’s two biggest agents of destabilization: the regime in Tehran and transnational Islamist terrorism.
Progress, however, was sidelined by disputes among the Gulf nations. Meanwhile, U.S. attention was focused largely on the mission of eliminating the ISIS caliphate.
Now, however, America’s leadership moment may be back. The U.S. has demonstrated it’s not backing away from the Middle East. Our allies see that Trump shares their vision of a stable, prosperous region unencumbered by terrorism, extremists, Iranian surrogates, and nuclear proliferation.
That said, making MESA a reality is far from an easy lift. For starters, the Arab states don’t agree on what kind of agreement they want. Saudi Arabia has indicated it wants MESA to exclusively focus on security. Other countries, like Oman for example, would like the emphasis to be on economic cooperation with the security element secondary.
The biggest problem, however, remains the unresolved disputes among the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. There had been hopes that a resolution was coming at the end of last month but nothing came to fruition.
Still, the level of animosity seems to have definitely dropped. Oman just went through an unprecedented but apparently successful transfer of leadership. Meanwhile, every nation sees the need to stabilize relations with Iran and no one sees that happening without the active backing and engagement of the Americans.
Washington has every reason to step up its diplomatic game. If Trump wants a credible common security framework, it will take American leadership to make it happen.
America’s approach to the Middle East has cycled between indifference and perilous action for the better part of 75 years. If Trump wants to break that cycle and replace bipolar engagement with a solid, steady, sustainable security system, there may never be a better time than now to go for it.