Trump's Middle East Policy is Both Immoral and Out of Date | Opinion

US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the US military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, December 26, 2018. SAUL LOEB / AFP

There are many tripwires to a catastrophic regional war today in the Middle East. Tensions between Israel and Iran have soared in Syria, where the two sides exchanged aerial and missile strikes over the weekend. The brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen persists, with peace negotiations in Jordan recently falling apart. And in Iraq, U.S.-Iran tensions have been used by hawkish U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton to request plans for military strikes against Iran, leading Pentagon officials to voice "deepening fears" that Bolton "could precipitate a conflict."

Amidst increasing tumult, the Trump administration has centered its Middle East policy on redoubling America's commitment to a host of despotic regimes and casting a singular focus on Iran as the source of all regional ills. Despite President Trump's announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, the fixation of his many hawkish advisors on Iran and the Middle East shows no signs of abating.

Contrary to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent assertions in Cairo, U.S. political interventionism, wars, and collapse of states in the Middle East have immensely damaged the region over the years. The people of the region require the chance to undergo organic political change and manage their own affairs, societies, and futures. The long running U.S. reliance on military intervention and dictatorial regimes has served to produce widespread political despair and spawn extremism. A hands-off policy should become the default U.S. approach towards the region, as too much U.S. intervention—not too little—has exacerbated regional instability.

For much of the post-World War II era, U.S. presidents have looked to autocratic leaders to maintain stability in the Middle East, so long as the local strongman or monarch was firmly in line with a U.S.-led regional security order. President Obama took a step away from this approach in his own speech in Cairo in 2009, in which he proclaimed to the Muslim world his "unyielding belief" that people everywhere yearn for the "ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed." However, his administration went on to only tepidly welcome the Arab Spring and then reversed course in the wake of the 2013 military coup in Egypt, memorably described by then-Secretary of State John Kerry as "restoring democracy."

The Trump administration has sought to return firmly to the traditional U.S. status quo in the region, ignoring abuses by U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, even as they were relentlessly censuring Iran's human rights violations. However, the White House is wrong to believe that relying on repressive political systems that offer little in the way of economic opportunity or representation to their people is favorable to U.S. interests.

While the initial gains of the Arab Spring have largely been crushed, subsequent years have shown that the ancien régimes of the Arab world are brittle and fraying. By increasing repression and eliminating space for dissent, U.S. regional partners—whether Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain—are only intensifying social divisions in their countries and making another mass revolt inevitable.

While states such as Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia have sought to inoculate themselves from a popular uprising by jailing tens of thousands,designating moderate Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organizations, and stripping opposition leaders and activists of citizenship, their fragility should not be underestimated. More importantly, long-term U.S. strategy should not be hedged on their sustainability.

As former President Barack Obama said of Washington's "Sunni Arab allies like Saudi Arabia" in April 2015: "I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It's going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries." Notably, the Saudi monarchy has since its creation in the early 20th century felt mortally threatened by powerful religious or secular transnational ideological movements, whether it be Islamism, Communism, pan-Arabism, or liberal democracy.

Meanwhile, Trump's seemingly open-ended commitment to Mohammad bin Salman's Saudi Arabia and its quest to permanently exclude Iran from a role as a major regional power can only hinge on the belief that the U.S. is and must remain the unchallenged global superpower.

Preserving U.S. unipolarity has been the goal of presidential administration's since the fall of the Soviet Union, but for better or for worse, the global order of the late 20th century is gone.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East has changed dramatically since the heyday of U.S. unipolarity, with Turkey having evolved into an independent regional power, Russia returning to the region, and the EU diverting from the U.S. in its regional strategy.

The U.S. can no longer afford to eschew diplomacy in favor of forceful unilateralism. To do so shrinks U.S. maneuverability by pushing other powers to cooperate to counterbalance the U.S., as is now occurring to differing degrees between Iran, Turkey, Russia, Europe, and China. Far from guaranteeing safety or stability, such reckless pursuit of uncompromising dominanceopens the possibility of another catastrophic U.S. war in the Middle East.

Rather than view the Middle East through the lens of a zero-sum game for dominance, tThe U.S. should be more adroit in its regional approach. A prudent Middle East strategy should be centered on ceasing unconditional support for regional autocrats and exercising diplomatic flexibility. The root issue with the U.S. regional footprint today is excessive U.S. support for its regional patrons, which encourages them to behave recklessly and in ways that endanger U.S. and regional security—as evident in Saudi Arabia's brutal military campaign in Yemen, Qatar blockade, attempt to topple the Lebanese government, assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and torture of women's rights activists by top officials.

In the current competitive global strategic environment, U.S. partners increasingly no longer fit on any spectrum but vary from issue to issue. By using hard-headed diplomatic engagement to balance regional powers, the U.S. would gain critical leverage over friends and rivals alike. It would grow less dependent on client states that seek to take advantage of U.S. power in service of their own narrow interests and allow the U.S. to better situate itself to not obstruct the democratic aspirations of the people of the region.

A diplomacy-driven U.S. Middle East policy would allow the U.S. to cooperate with all regional powers based on converging interests and pursue lasting political solutions to regional conflicts that are grounded in multilateralism.

Sina Toossi is a research associate at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC.) He tweets @SinaToossi.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.