Middle East Ranks High in President Trump’s Foreign Policy Failures


U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during campaign rally at Southern New Hampshire ¬University Arena in Manchester, NH, Aug. 15, 2019. (PHOTO BY LEV RADIN/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES)1111111111

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2019, pp. 26-27

History’s Shadows

By Walter L. Hixson

RANKING OF PRESIDENTS is always fraught with subjectivity, and it is still a bit premature to render a final judgment on Donald Trump. If the economy plummets, or alternatively blossoms in the next few months or years, views of him could change.

When it comes to foreign policy, however, the verdict is already in, virtually no matter what happens from here. Trump has earned a failing grade—and Middle East policy ranks high on the list of his failures. As the campaign season gains momentum, here are my top three reasons why President Trump may be the worst foreign policy president in all of American history.

Reason No. 1: Withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement (2015) on Climate Change.

When civil war-battered Syria signed on to the Paris Treaty in November 2017, Trump’s announcement of unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the accord earlier that year made it official that the United States alone—among all the nations of the world—would not participate in combating the scientifically verified, potentially devastating, and daily snowballing effect of climate change. This is the single most reckless, damaging and rudderless action taken by Trump. If he is reelected, the American people will be voting for nothing less than the destruction of life as we know it on planet Earth.

Reason No. 2: Abandoning Arms Control Treaties with Iran and Russia. One of the great achievements of the right-wing Ronald Reagan presidency was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987, which eliminated an entire class of intermediate range missiles in Europe and, moreover, established rigorous verification procedures on compliance. One of the great achievements of the centrist Barack Obama presidency was the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, more formally the JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in which Iran agreed to rigorously verifiable limitations on its ability to enrich uranium for bomb-making capacity in return for lifting of U.S.-sponsored international economic sanctions.

The born-rich real estate tycoon president with zero foreign policy experience summarily terminated both treaties.

Other members of the U.N. Security Council (China, Russia, Britain, France) as well as the European Union signed off on the deal with Iran—which has shown remarkable restraint thus far in response. Like many others, Iran appears to be awaiting the outcome of the 2020 election before deciding precisely what direction to go.

Trump’s termination of the INF Treaty frees Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as the venerable U.S. military-industrial complex to rev their engines and restart the nuclear arms race, which has been quiescent for decades. Another critical treaty with Russia, the New START Treaty, also denounced by Trump, expires in 2021.

Termination of these arms control agreements rank near the top of Trump’s foreign policy failures because, well, as the old bumper sticker read, “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.”

Reason No. 3: Recognizing Jeru­salem as the “Eternal Capital” of Israel and the Golan Heights as Israeli Territory. Because of the overweening influence over the U.S. Congress and the American public of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—one of the top two or three lobbies in the country—all too many Americans may not find these actions, or the termination of the Iran deal, objectionable, but anyone with broader knowledge of the Middle East conflict understands that Trump is playing with dynamite.

As readers of this magazine well know, Jerusalem is a holy city for Christians and Muslims as well as Jews and cannot be dominated by any one if there is ever to be hope of peace. Under the moribund two-state solution, East Jerusalem was to be the capital of a Palestinian state.

As the U.N. and the international community have repeatedly affirmed, Israel has no legitimate claim to either the Golan Heights (annexed from Syria in 1967) or the West Bank, both of which it nonetheless has been settling for decades in blatant violation of international law. Trump is not the first president to bow to AIPAC and Christian fundamentalists on Middle East policy, but he has taken it to a new level by signing off on Israel’s sole occupation of Jerusalem.


The top three above strike me as the most serious Trump foreign policy failures because their consequences can be catastrophic. But there is a litany of failure on the part of this president, who is both arrogant and amateurish, a potentially lethal combination.

Trump has alienated all of Africa by calling it a continent full of “shithole” countries; he has done nothing to calm the India-Pakistan dispute playing out today in Kashmir, at the risk of escalation between two nuclear-armed powers; he has given little rhetorical support to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong while launching a trade war with China; he has anointed a new ruler who can’t actually come to power in Venezuela; and he has inspired neo-fascist movements all over the globe, as men such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte praise his leadership.

I actually had high hopes for Trump making a breakthrough with Kim Jong-un but his diplomacy—if that’s what you call the three highly publicized meetings with Kim—has done nothing but give visibility and legitimacy to a ruthless autocrat. A deal can be secured if the United States and its allies offer a trade along the lines of terminating off-shore military maneuvers, which make Kim feel threatened, in return for denuclearization, but for reasons known only to Trump he has chosen to strike up a pointless friendship legitimating a petty dictator while achieving no tangible results.

Where on this list, some may wonder, is Trump’s indifference to Russian meddling in American elections? While clearly it is true that Russia does meddle—the fact of the matter is, so do we—all over the world. So, while it is not “fake news,” Russian meddling is also not an existential threat to world peace as are the issues discussed above. Sorry, Democrats, Russia did not decide the election—the Electoral College and too many naïve American voters did that to themselves.

Competition may still exist for the dubious achievement of being ranked the worst overall president in American history, but in foreign relations Trump is well on his way to claiming the top spot.

History’s Shadows, a regular column by contributing editor Walter L. Hixson, seeks to place various aspects of Middle East politics and diplomacy in historical perspective. Hixson is the author of Israel’s Armor: The Israel Lobby and the First Generation of the Palestine Conflict (available from Middle East Books and More), along with several other books and journal articles. He has been a professor of history for 36 years, achieving the rank of distinguished professor.

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