The charges against US foreign policy under President Donald Trump are as varied as his critics. The foreign policy establishment mandarins have led the indictment, insisting that the norm-breaking president weakened US alliances and strengthened the country's opponents. What is overlooked is the fact that the Trump administration pursued a successful Middle East policy. And it succeeded precisely because it challenged well-established assumptions. In the end, Trump will hand over to President-elect Joe Biden a region more stable than it was four years ago and an alliance network stronger than what Trump inherited. This is a worthy legacy to be squandered by the Democrats when they are determined to eviscerate whatever Trump eviscerates.
None of the revisionist powers in the world has defeated Iran. Trump's successes have confused his critics. Initially, many in the comment section insisted that if Trump pulled the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Washington would stand alone and not be able to maintain multilateral economic sanctions. In the end, the European co-signers of the agreement may have complained – but more importantly, European companies have complained. The next pillar of wisdom to fall was the idea that if the United States backs off the deal, Iran would rush to the bomb. Tehran has accelerated some parts of its nuclear activities, but the country is still years away from an atomic bomb. The sabotage of the Iranian nuclear facilities by unconfirmed intelligence actors has brought the nuclear goal post further out of Tehran's reach. And finally, the final idea was that Trump's assassination of the famous Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani would start a war. Instead, it provoked a rocket attack on a relatively unoccupied potion at a US military base in Iraq – with sufficient advance warning from Tehran to Washington, which was passed on via the Swiss.
The dire reality is that the clerical oligarchs were ready to negotiate with both winners of the 2020 US presidential election. A regime that cannot stabilize its currency or protect its people from the effects of a pandemic needs to be exempt from sanctions and understands that Washington is the path to the global economy and financial system. The problem is, Americans who will appear at the table after January 20 may despise Trump's max pressure strategy so much that they fail to appreciate the many benefits.
For decades, the received wisdom insisted that Israel could not be integrated into the Middle East if it could not deal with the Palestinians. This curious argument contradicted Washington's own experience with Arab-Israeli peacemaking: after all, former President Jimmy Carter's Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel contained only a superficial allusion to the Palestinians. Jordan signed its own peace treaty with Israel in 1994, while the Palestinian question once again remained unsolved. Yet successive US governments appointed their various envoys and wasted time and political capital on a conflict that had always eluded resolution. The notion that the Arab Street and its sensibilities were being invested in the Palestinian cause was a rare academic truism that found an audience in the Halls of Power.
To their credit, Trump and his advisors were not weighed down by historical memory. They paid little attention to established precedents and did not shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem in hopes of subjugating the two sides to their will. Iran's imperial rampage had created opportunities as Sunni Arab potentates were more concerned about Tehran's drafts than about Palestinian aspirations. And a new generation of Arab citizens was not animated by a conflict that had been celebrated for so long. However, this was an opportunity that only a US president hostile to Iran could have seized. Hostility to Iran is the currency of trust in today's Arab world. The United Arab Emirates led the way in making peace with Israel. And then came Bahrain, the stalking horse for Saudi Arabia.
There are many lessons to be learned. Further peace treaties are possible if Biden does not return to the path of former President Barack Obama to teach the House of Saud that it must share the Middle East with the Islamists on the other side of the Persian Gulf. And as soon as the crutch of Arab solidarity is removed from them, the Palestinians will come to their senses and return to the negotiating table.
The Middle East is of course not just a region of nations vying for influence. It is a place of intense sectarian conflict and civil war. The problems of the Arab world have not gone away: Syria remains the domain of the Assad family and Yemen is a humanitarian catastrophe. Paradoxically, however tragic, these conflicts do not appear to have disrupted the strategic direction of the region. Iran is no stronger because of Assad's triumphs, and Saudi Arabia is no weaker because of its futile intervention in Yemen. Indeed, the Saudis have recognized the cost of their Yemeni misfortune and are looking for a way out of their plight.
Over the past decade, the United States and its allies have faced frequent threats from non-state actors. It was the Shiite representatives of Iran in Iraq who injured the US armed forces. It was not long ago that the Islamic State marched towards Baghdad and Hezbollah threatened Israel. A president known for rejecting his predecessor's legacy was smart enough to keep up the Obama administration's campaign against Islamic State, which eventually reduced the caliphate to rubble. And when Iran ran out of its treasury, it had to cut subsidies to its deadly protégés, including Hezbollah. While these militias are by no means disfigured, they are less dangerous today than they were before the Trump presidency.
Trump's norm-breaking may not have always served the United States well. But the Middle East was a land of stale assumptions and failed strategies. Trump's penchant for disruption came in handy in a region that needed to be shaken. He succeeded because only an iconoclastic president could stabilize the Middle East.