When President Donald Trump wanted to jump-start Middle East peace talks, he did something utterly unconventional: He sent his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to bang Israeli and Palestinian heads together. Kushner—predictably, given that he has no relevant experience—quickly failed, setting off a round of snickering among longtime Mideast hands.
It was embarrassing for the White House. But in a larger sense, Trump’s decision to dive into the peace process was reassuring: The man who ran the most unconventional presidential campaign, promising to disrupt the establishment and speak truth to power, had sent his most trusted representative halfway around the world on the most conventional of foreign policy missions—a mission impossible that all American presidents undertake at one point or another.
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about this administration’s unorthodox approach to foreign policy. Trump’s record of unforced errors so far is pretty grim, ranging from his campaign’s alleged ties to the Kremlin, to the White House’s invitation to Philippine strongman and proud murderer Rodrigo Duterte, to the president’s surly approach to Washington’s NATO allies. And Trump’s tweets in early June all but taking credit for several Arab countries’ decision to cut ties with Qatar threatened to undermine his own efforts to build an anti-extremism and anti-Iran coalition of Muslim and Arab countries.
But setting aside the Qatar fiasco, the truth is that Trump’s Middle East policy is not universally bad. In fact, in many ways, it reflects a sound understanding of what the United States can achieve in the region and, importantly, what it cannot. The administration’s recent effort to pressure Iran and Russia on Syria, for instance, seems to reflect the return of a more traditional American approach to the Middle East—and one we could be better off with.
In a much-hyped speech delivered to officials from over 50 Arab and Muslim countries in Saudi Arabia in May, Trump said, “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” To many forms and varieties of commentator, this was a cynical abdication of American values and another Trumpian assault on human decency and good taste, made worse by the fact that people like Egypt’s strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, gleefully welcomed the president’s words. It was everything Trump’s outraged critics said it was—but in this case the president happened to be right. It would be wonderful for the peoples of the Middle Eastern if democracy broke out across the region, but the record of the past 16 years indicates that U.S. efforts to promote more open and just societies has not worked. The Trump administration seems to understand this and has pragmatically shifted American policy to achievable goals like rolling back the Islamic State and challenging Iran’s efforts to extend its influence around the region.
Attempts at social engineering in the Middle East have a long history of failure. In July 1798, a French military contingent landed in the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Its mission was to protect French trade, expand France’s influence in the Mediterranean and weaken British access to the Indian subcontinent. Western colonizing missions in the region also were often “civilizing” missions. More than half a century later, Egypt’s leader, Ismail Pasha, employed decommissioned officers from the Union and Confederate armies to train the Egyptian military. In almost a decade of service, they did much more than instruct Egypt’s officer class. They also worked on education reform and taught Egyptians technical skills.
The French and American expeditions in the late 18th and mid-19th centuries were the forerunners of sorts of the economic and military assistance the United States has poured into Egypt since the late 1970s. The logic behind this aid—aside from buying peace between Egypt and Israel—was straightforward: Economic assistance would help generate economic growth, which would give the Egyptian regime and its leader legitimacy, making it less likely that there would be a revolution or instability in a country that was critically important to American goals in the Middle East. The military aid was meant to ensure that the Egyptian officer corps could both defend the country without threatening Israel and support the prevailing political system.
It was not until President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” that the United States used its assistance to promote democratic change in Egypt and the rest of the region. By the time Bush announced the strategy in 2003, the September 11 attacks had already created a near bipartisan consensus on the importance of encouraging democratic change in the Middle East. The effort met with resistance from Saudi and Egyptian leaders especially, who characterized American efforts as a neocolonial project that violated the sovereignty of their countries. By 2006—with Iraq burning, Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections, and leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak continuing to jail opponents, intimidate the news media and rig elections—it seemed clear that Bush had over-estimated American leverage and moral suasion. A 2009 internal audit by the U.S. Agency for International Development found that from 2004 to 2008, the “impact of USAID/Egypt’s democracy and governance programs was unnoticeable.” This was, however, less of a problem with assistance programs than the Egyptian government, which was determined to undermine American efforts to promote reform.
That is why the uprisings and protests in 14 Arab countries that began in December 2010 seemed to many within the policy community to be a golden opportunity for the United States to help Middle Easterners’ own efforts to build new societies. But the policy prescriptions and recommendations that emerged from the so-called Blob of experts and former government officials—calling for the United States to persuade a host of countries across the world to invest politically and financially in democratic transitions, for instance—were overly ambitious and largely hollow.
Yet lack of imagination was not the main problem. Any American effort to forge more democratic and open political systems in the region was bound to fail because the sense of purpose and joy on display in the famous squares of the Middle East masked deeply divided societies. The uprisings did not produce any leader or group of leaders who provided satisfactory answers to questions about identity, the proper form of government, the relationship between the individual and the state, and the role of religion in society. In the debates over these big ideas, the national unity that seemed to hold during the protests quickly gave way to existential struggles over the heart and soul of Arab countries. Under these circumstances, it did not matter whether U.S. government officials or policy intellectuals were uniquely insightful or singularly creative. They never really had a chance.
It mattered little to those on the ground whether President Barack Obama co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post with Tunisia’s president and offered that country the status of “major non-NATO ally,” or that Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that Syria’s Bashar Assad must go, or that Obama withheld military equipment from Egypt. Sisi repressed people anyway, and Assad and his allies continued spilling blood at a shocking rate. Tunisia was more receptive to the United States, but its limited success has had less to do with U.S. policy than the wisdom of some Tunisian leaders and a good deal of luck. The uprisings and their subsequent failure, or lack of success, were an Arab story. For all its power, the United States was relegated to surfing the news cycles as it tried to manage competing demands from Middle Eastern capitals, European allies and the peanut gallery in Washington.
Whether by insight or accident, Trump has signaled that he and his administration understand the limits of American power in the Middle East and will thus pursue a policy that goes back to basics—ensuring the free flow of energy, helping to secure Israel, preventing any single country (except the United States) from dominating the Persian Gulf, fighting terrorism and countering proliferation. Admittedly most of what the administration has done so far, besides firing cruise missiles at Syria for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, has been rhetorical. But at least the president’s words demonstrate some insight into the nature of domestic struggles in the Middle East and how irrelevant the tools of American diplomacy are to resolving them.
Focusing on Washington’s core interests is the wisest path—if only because there is no other. The social engineering projects of the past have done little to change the direction of politics in the region, where authoritarianism remains the norm. The effort to promote democracy also diverted funds away from areas like health, education and infrastructure, where the United States through USAID could actually make a difference in the lives of people in theregion. There is no sign that Trump wants to invest more in these areas, which is a mistake, but at least he seems to understand intuitively that there is little he can do to alter the behavior of the region’s strongmen. It is hard to come to grips with this given the terrible nature of Middle Eastern governments, and, of course, the president did not need to embrace their leaders as he did on his recent visit to Riyadh. Still, confronted with the choice of continuing to push democracy among resistant allies or working with them to confront mutual threats like the Islamic State and Iran, Trump appears to have taken the correct course.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s three-year occupation of Egypt was a failure. The American soldiers left in the late 1870s, disheartened and distrusted. As for their missions to alter the social, political and cultural practices of their Egyptian subjects, the French and Americans can claim little in the way of a legacy. The same can be said for the invasion of Iraq and the Freedom Agenda, Washington’s more recent “civilizing” mission.
While Trump gets a lot wrong about the world, he is right that promoting democratic change in the Middle East is likely to fail. The world is rarely, if ever, the way idealists want it to be.