How Trump Really Could Make a Difference in the Middle East

How Trump Really Could Make a Difference in the Middle East

Jonathan Ernst

Two presidents, two trips to the Middle East in their first year in office. That is where the similarities end.

I was in Cairo for President Obama’s much-celebrated speech in 2009 as a guest of Shafik Gabr, Chairman of Egypt’s Artoc Group for Investments and Development. Mr. Gabr has spent a small fortune and a good part of his life trying to build bridges between his country and the United States, visiting members of Congress, convening educational forums, hosting scholar exchanges and the like. He wants to educate Americans about Egypt; he wants us to know that Egypt has a peace accord with Israel and a record of women’s rights. He was, like so many in the region, excited that President Obama vowed a “reset” with the Middle East following the war-torn Bush years. 

Obama did not disappoint. It is impossible to overstate how euphoric Gabr and his business and political colleagues were, how convinced that a page had been turned in their relationship with the U.S. “The speech,” Gabr said later, “met or went beyond expectations in the Arab world.”

Related: Seven al Qaeda Militants Killed in U.S. Raid in Yemen

Their enthusiasm was short-lived. Several months later, Gabr hosted another forum, at which speakers vented their disappointment in the lack of follow-through from the Obama White House. “Since [the speech], there has been little progress on the ground. Now Arab Main Street is beginning to suspect that it was all just rhetoric.”

The disappointment merged with outrage when President Obama called for the immediate resignation of Egypt’s president and long-time U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak as the country became engulfed in protests. At the time Gabr told me that while sympathetic with those demonstrating for better wages and more open elections, he believed the protests had been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was sowing discord for its own purposes. “The United States is siding with chaos if they force Mubarak out now.” How right he was.

Obama’s Cairo speech was the first in what some mocked as his “apology tour.” The president noted that there was “tension” between the U.S. and Muslims, which had been “fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims.” Some thought that the tension had been fed by events such as the 1983 attack on the U.S. Army barracks in Beirut that left 307 dead, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Tower which killed or wounded 1,048, or the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Dar es Salam and Nairobi that killed and wounded thousands. And, of course, the attacks of 9/11.

Related: The New Weapon That Could Make Military Drones Even More Lethal

During his tenure, Obama tried to rebalance our relations with the Muslim world. In Cairo, he described the situation for the Palestinians as “intolerable” and called for a two-state solution. He vowed to “personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires.” That didn’t happen.  As Obama told Time Magazine’s Joe Klein, “This is just really hard.” 

It turned out that Israel was not ready to abandon their settlement–building just because Obama asked them to. Their resistance soured U.S.-Israeli relations, which darkened further as Obama pursued a “legacy” deal to curb Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. 

Courtesy of Obama acolyte Ben Rhodes, we now know that the Obama White House lied to the American people about that deal. The negotiations were not stimulated by the election of a supposedly moderate president, Hassan Rouhani and the prospect of warmer relations, as Obama claimed. Instead, they had begun several years earlier. Iran was driven by economic desperation; Obama wanted a foreign policy win.

The false narratives about the Middle East and the Iran deal were fed to and repeated by reporters favored by the White House. The spin continues. The liberal media portrayed the recent re-election of Rouhani as uncertain, suggesting that President Trump’s tough stance against the country would drive Iranians to support a hard-liner. 

Rouhani was reelected in a landslide.

Related: Trump the Diplomat? Will He Charm or Harm US Relations?

Donald Trump has taken a very different approach in his first visit to the Middle East. He emphasized four things:

•  Islamic extremism must be stamped out.

•  The U.S. will support those willing to join in that effort.

•  Iran’s bad behavior cannot be tolerated.

•  The U.S. will, above all, pursue our own interests.

He also wanted to do some deals, and that he did, inking agreements that could lead to $350 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s speech was shorter than Obama’s. He inserted himself into his speech more sparingly than did his predecessor, who invoked the “I” word 53 times.  Trump said, “The United States has taken firm action in response to the use of banned chemical weapons by the Assad Regime.” Obama said, “That’s why I ordered the removal of our combat troops.” And, “I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture.” And “I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed.” In repairing our rifts with the Muslim world, Obama apparently walked alone.

Related: Israeli Minister Expresses Concern Over U.S.-Saudi Arms Deal

Trump made no apologies for the U.S., and made clear that our policies are based on “Principled Realism, rooted in common values and shared interests.” Expanding on that theme, he promised, “We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention.” Trump also promised, “We are not here to lecture…”

In other words, no more Professor Obama. 

One editorial writer for the English-language Arab News gave Trump two thumbs up, writing, “We feared a president we were led to believe hates our values and culture, but we got one who sipped our coffee, joined us in sword dancing and told us last night that the US is not here to impose its way of life, but to offer us a helping hand if we choose to take it. We thought that when Trump said “America First,” he meant we would be neglected and left to our misery. But it is his predecessor Barack Obama who did that when he opted to lecture and profess instead of adhering to his own red line when Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.”

No wonder our allies are cheering.