Is Trump's foreign policy more 'Let's Make a Deal' or 'Press Your Luck'?
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Against the backdrop of the counter-Islamic State campaign, the civil wars in Syria and Yemen and efforts to forge strong ties with Israel, recent reports suggest that the Trump administration is placing a renewed focus on combating Iran’s network of sectarian-based militant groups and terrorist organizations, even as inter-Arab tensions are on the rise. 

The Trump administration has also, reportedly, engaged in direct military action against Iranian-backed elements, threatening U.S. and U.S.-backed personnel in Syria.  The administration will have to determine how best to manage a more direct and aggressive approach to Iran’s proxy network in the midst of inter-Arab disputes.


This all comes on the heels of Donald Trump’s first overseas trip as president, which included stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel — two U.S. partners that perceive Iran as their greatest threat. The Middle East leg of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE’s oversea trip also signaled a commitment to  formalizing a “new coalition” between Sunni Arab states and Israel to counter Iran, highlighted through the symbology of Trump conducting the first known, direct flight between Saudi Arabia and Israel.


However, it does not appear that all of Trump’s team are on the same page. Trump’s unequivocal support for Saudi Arabia and the president’s apparent, tweeted support for the isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt stood in stark contrast to Trump’s own team.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, offered a more measured call for mediation. Defense Secretary Mattis expressed continued commitment to Qatar because it hosts critical basing for U.S. forces conducting military operations throughout the region. In addition, this week, the Department of Defense signed a $12-billion agreement with Qatar for the purchase of up to 36 F-15 aircraft. 

While the specifics of the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East is ripe for debate, a first-order question must be asked and answered: Is the Trump approach consistent with U.S. interests, or is it more a reflection of a Saudi and Emirati worldview and more narrow, regional interests?

Could it be that the "America First" president is, in actuality, putting Saudi and Emirati interests ahead of U.S. interests? Is this, in fact, an "America First" approach? At this point, the Trump administration appears to have a vision for the region but lacks a clear, broader strategy and seems to be reactionary in their engagement.

Qatar’s dalliance with Iran, support for Hamas and assistance to certain Salafi-jihadists groups fighting in the Syrian civil war remains an issue of significant concern. And the United States must rebuild trust with the Saudis and the Emiratis, following perceptions of abandonment after the nuclear deal with Iran during the Obama administration.  

Yet, in crafting our policy toward Iran, the United States must not blindly bend to the unadulterated promises or the deepest grievances of our regional partners.  This would not be leadership or a policy of "America First." 

We must lead and coordinate a strategy that first and foremost secures U.S. interests and works in collaboration with regional partners. Upholding commitments to allies and partners is certainly a U.S. strategic interest, but it does not mean that we should adopt their worldview wholesale and in ways that run counter to U.S. interests.

Where is this all leading?  It appears the Trump administration intends to set the conditions for a strategic choice with Iran: Face the consequences of the United States, Israel and Sunni Arab coalition, or negotiate. While this strategic choice may be the only option to change Iran's behavior, this approach is fraught with the potential for miscalculation and escalation — particularly if it involves countering Iranian-backed groups head-on in Syria in the absence of a broader strategy. 

What's more, it remains unclear whether the United States has calibrated its responses, or more importantly the responses of this “new coalition,” to control for the reaction that will most certainly come from Iran.

While we agree that a tougher stance toward Iran is needed and that the United States must be more aggressive in combating Iran's malign activities in the region, an operational-centric or "kinetic-only" approach will not achieve the Trump administration’s objectives. On the contrary, this stepped-up, operational approach must be part of a broader strategy that includes setting the political conditions — particularly in Syria and Iraq — for operational gains against Iran's malign threat network to be both made and sustained.

If we are correct that the Trump administration is setting up this strategic choice with Iran, what are some of the specific steps that the United States should take to shape the region towards this goal? We believe the United States should:

  • Differentiate between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people.
  • Create daylight between the interests of Russia and Iran.
  • Confront Iran’s destabilizing actions through calibrated financial and direct and indirect operations.
  • Maintain and grow forward posture of U.S. and partner forces and exercise Arab Gulf defense plans more frequently and overtly.
  • Formalize a long-term, sustainable U.S. military presence in Iraq.
  • Make the cessation of hostilities in Syria a central policy goal to both end the killing and protect civilians (enroute to political negotiations and stabilization efforts with European and regional allies and partners). 

We are at an inflection point in the Middle East. There is an opportunity to reset the strategic context, as well as our partnerships. We must now take a more state-based, policy approach to the region, and we must put managing — not amplifying — the politics of regional states at the center of our overall approach. Otherwise, our partners in this effort might pull us into fighting their fight — instead of us protecting our interests.

In the final analysis, one thing is clear; Trump must first decide to become a foreign-policy president; a president who not only listens to and leverages his national security and foreign policy team but also puts securing U.S. interests first. We can never forget that, sometimes, being a good leader means checking the impulses of our partners and channeling them into a strategy that can deliver better results for all. 

Alex Gallo is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as a professional staff member with the House Armed Services Committee. Follow him on Twitter @AlexGalloUSA. Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and the deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

 The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.