Peace in the Middle East has been the holy grail for American presidents for decades, stretching back at least to Jimmy Carter. And every American president who has tried to bring peace to this violent and riven part of the world has failed.
But don't worry. President Trump is on the case, and he's sure that Mideast peace is "something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years." You can get a further sense of his Solomonic grasp of this intractable conflict from an official White House press statement about his visit to Israel Monday, which stated that Trump would "promote the possibility of lasting peach." (Emphasis mine, typo all theirs.)
God only knows what Scooby Doo antics our visibly declining president will get into as he continues to amble and ramble his way around the world on his eight-day foreign tour. But one thing is for sure: President Trump will make zero progress on peace in the Middle East.
Let's take stock of the region.
Yemen. A U.S.-backed Saudi war has reduced Yemen to a smoking wasteland. Saudi air strikes have killed thousands and injured tens of thousands of civilians, while a humanitarian crisis has gotten consistently worse as the Saudi war has dragged on for over two years now. Much of the country is now on the brink of famine, and a cholera outbreak has infected 30,000 Yemenis, killing hundreds. Al Qaeda continues to operate in eastern Yemen.
America's president responded by visiting Saudi Arabia this weekend and announcing the biggest arms deal in American history. That should help.
Syria. After six years of devastating civil and proxy war that has left most of the country in ruins, hundreds of thousands dead, and many millions more fleeing the country in terror, Syria is mired in a stalemate of sorts, in which neither Bashar al-Assad nor the supposedly "moderate" rebels seem capable of prevailing or governing.
America's president responded by firing 59 missiles at Syria.
Libya. Years after the Obama-approved American intervention, Libya is still wracked by civil war between a complex and rapid-shifting collection of militias, governments, and Islamist groups. Just last week over 140 people were killed in a bombing raid, which quickly led to retaliatory attacks.
Iraq. It's been nearly 15 years since George W. Bush's criminally foolish invasion, and today, Iraqi forces continue the process of very slowly pushing ISIS forces out of Mosul. Fighting there has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, and while it looks as though the Iraqi government will be able to defeat ISIS at some point, the group still carried out a string of suicide bombing attacks last week that killed over 50 people.
Israel. There are no signs whatsoever that Israel has any intention of giving up the occupation at the root of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. On the contrary, its extreme-right government continues to steal yet more land in the West Bank to expand settlements and further entrench its system of apartheid. Nothing Trump says or does during his visit has any hope of changing that.
Iran. The only legitimately good news to come out of this region in months is the elections in Iran, where the moderate Hassan Rouhani decisively defeated the conservative hardliner Ebrahim Raisi — and moderates did very well in local elections as well. Iran is a quasi-democracy at best, but despite the fact that Raisi had the backing of hardliner factions, most notably Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the election was not overturned as it was in 2009. And as Trita Parsi argues, it is a sign that the Iranian people — especially young ones, who voted for Rouhani by spectacular margins — want "diplomacy, detente, and moderation" instead of confrontation with the West.
The Middle East has long been drastically over-emphasized in American foreign policy. Today, fracking and renewable energy have diminished the need for foreign oil (and climate change demands we stop using it altogether as soon as possible). That coupled with the rise of India and China, and the profound economic difficulties America's allies have gotten themselves into in Western Europe, makes the Washington foreign policy establishment's monomaniacal focus on the Middle East downright ridiculous.
The Middle East still deserves attention, of course. But insofar as peace in the region is able to be influenced at all by American policy, the U.S. ought to rebalance its diplomatic commitments to be more in line with expressed values and a drastic reduction in the use of force. On the diplomatic front, rapprochement with Iran and a distancing from Israel and Saudi Arabia — so long as those latter two nations remain an apartheid state and a brutal, backward, extremism-spreading dictatorship, respectively — are two long-overdue options.
On the military front, there is simply no reason to think that continuing omnidirectional low-level intervention is doing anything but drastic harm. From one side of the region to the other, there is nightmarish violence and catastrophic political instability, seriously exacerbated by several consecutive botched U.S. interventions — in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen — every one of which was disastrously misconceived from the start. American meddling is not the only reason things are so bad, but it is a very large one.
Trump is not going to overturn diplomatic or military policy in the Middle East, nor is he going to make a world-historical deal and succeed where his intellectually superior predecessors failed. The Saudis manipulated him with shameful ease, displaying his face on a luxury hotel and distracting him with shiny baubles. It's a safe bet that the Yemen war will now only become more brutal, until the Saudi-backed faction can manage to win, or everyone else is dead.
The result will surely be similar in Israel. Now, to his credit, Trump did express some muted criticism in a speech for Israel having failed to achieve a lasting bargain with the Palestinians. But that is not remotely sufficient to actually influence Israeli policymakers — who accurately viewed his election as an even larger blank check, and stepped up the pace of new settlement-building accordingly.
Even more fundamentally, even if Trump were committed to real foreign policy change, which he is not, there is no sign whatsoever that he is even capable of remembering the names of the countries with major ongoing interventions, much less bending the vast military bureaucracy to his will. For as long as he's president, the United States will pour billions of dollars and the lives of American soldiers down the drain for no benefit to anyone.