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May 25, 2017

How Trump is channeling Eisenhower on Middle Eastern foreign policy

President Trump's triumphant visit to the Middle East is likely to be remembered as the occasion that changed not just United States foreign policy but potentially the balance of power in the region. During the past eight years, a string of failed states have littered the region and a truculent Iran has extended its imperial tentacles from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. As the Middle East went through another one of its vulnerable transitions, former President Barack Obama stood aside and occasionally lectured the Arab states to share the region with Iran. In a short time, Trump acknowledged that the Islamic Republic remains the primary cause of disorder in the region and that the U.S. would now stand by its allies.

The Middle East is a place that constantly divides against itself. The region today much resembles the 1950s, both in terms of its polarizations and American confusion. In the immediate post-independence period, the Middle East saw the rise of its most consequential radical republic, Egypt. Under the leadership of the charismatic Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt sought to evict Western powers from the region while undermining their conservative monarchical allies. Nasser's success was considerable, as he fanned the flames of Arab nationalism, undermined the conservative governments of Syria and Iraq and garnered a generous cache of arms from the Soviet Union. Jordan and Lebanon stood on the brink of collapse while Saudi Arabia implored the U.S. to take sides in the enveloping Arab cold war.

The genius of Nasser was that he was able to convince the Eisenhower administration that he was open to cooperating with the U.S. and even making peace with Israel. He would not be the first radical leader to lie to Americans, but he stands in the annals of the modern Middle East history as one of the most successful. Indeed, when the allies closest to the U.S. (Britain, France and Israel) took matters in their own hands and invaded Egypt in 1956, Eisenhower stood with Nasser and ensured the failure of the invasion. This ended the British Empire in the Middle East, embittered France and further isolated Israel.

Eisenhower was a rare president, who was capable of revisiting his assumptions and reconsidering his diplomacy. He soon appreciated that Nasser's policy of measured mendacity only ensured the surge of Soviet power in the Middle East. As the conservative Arab states seemed to be losing their cold war to Nasser's Egypt and its emboldened radical allies, the U.S. stepped in. The little-remembered Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957 was designed to redress that imbalance of power. The U.S. deployed troops in Lebanon to quell that nation's civil war, it aided Saudi Arabia and Jordan militarily and it plotted a covert campaign against Egypt. Eisenhower appreciated that the only way the region's pro-Western tilt could be maintained was for the U.S. to become active in its politics. Once the U.S. took sides, its alliance steadied and its adversaries retreated.

The evolving Trump policy resembles the Eisenhower Doctrine, both in terms of orthodoxies it disregards and the commitments that it pledges. As in the 1950s, the region is once more divided, this time along sectarian lines. A charming radical leader, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, has managed to coax a confused U.S. president into an arms control agreement that puts his nation on a steady path to the bomb while filling its coffers.

Unlike Eisenhower, Obama did not have the intellectual imagination to see the folly of his way. He never reversed course, even when it became clear that his arms control agreement only stoked Iran's regional aggression. As the Islamic Republic rampaged across the Middle East, it became complicit in Bashar al-Assad's war crimes and did much to undo whatever unity Iraqi governments could muster. As traditional U.S. allies seemed beleaguered, the Obama supporters only hung tighter to their obsolete talking points.

During his stay in the Middle East, Trump insisted that it is possible to wage war against Sunni militancy while hemming in the Persian menace. He reassured U.S. allies, and they in turn pledged their support for combating noxious forces within the Sunni community itself. In the Arab currency assurance, arms have always played a large role. The massive military aid package to the Saudis has not only assured the Kingdom but unsettled the Islamic Republic, fresh from another contrived presidential election. The path ahead remains hazardous. But the U.S. may have turned the page, even though much needs to be done.

Trump will never get sufficient credit from the intellectual classes united in their hysterical opposition to his presidency. An unsparing media and Democratic Party resistance should not blind one to the momentous changes ushered in during this important week. It may come to pass that the Trump Doctrine will take its place along the Eisenhower Doctrine as the moment when the U.S. began to mend its ways.

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