But even in the Middle East, there is a bigger and more negative story. The real bottom line of Trump’s policies revealed not at the White House hype-up ceremony in September with Israeli, Bahraini and United Arab Emirates leaders, but at an Oval Office meeting 10 days ago where the president asked advisers on the bombing of Iran. His grip on the straw – which the national security team quickly rejected – showed how the overall strategy that Trump has been pursuing for the past four years has led to a disastrous dead end.
In essence, Trump̵
Politics has failed in every respect. Despite heavy sanctions and the assassination of its supreme general, the Iranian regime has neither collapsed nor reduced its aggression throughout the Middle East. Its militias were still firing rockets at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last week. After Trump’s repeal of the nuclear deal, Tehran intensified its production on enriched uranium and now has 12 times more than it did when Trump took office – enough for a few warheads. This progress prompted Trump’s feckless and futile investigation into the bombing – which his advisers told him could trigger a regional war in his last day of action.
Trump’s tight alignment with the Saudis led him to apologize for their growing foreign aggression and domestic repression, from the criminal bombing of schools and markets in Yemen to the assassination and division of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His undisputed support for Israeli right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led him to join a grotesquely one-sided “peace plan” for Israel and the Palestinians, which only served to sever relations between them.
Perhaps most significantly, Trump achieved the opposite of what he said he wanted when he ran for president – to expel the United States from the Middle East and its “endless wars.” Obama had the same goal, and the agreement with Iran was an integral part of it: the idea was to prevent the biggest potential threat to the United States and Israel – an Iranian nuclear arsenal – then promote a balance in the region between Iranian-led Shiites and Saudi-led Sunnis.
Trump restored the threat of an Iranian nuke, encouraged the sectarian war that Sunni and Shiite extremists wanted, and then fully aligned the United States with the Sunni side, making it impossible to free itself from the region. He ended up sending thousands more U.S. forces to the Middle East to defend oil fields and tankers from Iranian attacks, and despite an 11-hour crash, he has had to leave U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.
The agreements between Israel and Arab states were the silver lining of this catastrophe: the US-backed anti-Iran alliance brought the Jewish and Arab states together. But if Trump had kept the United States on the sidelines, the rapprochement would probably have happened anyway. After all, Arab states have approached Israel, the local superpower, precisely to secure itself against an American withdrawal from the region.
So what does President-elect Joe Biden do with this mess? First, he will remember the mistakes he and Obama made on their watch – above all, mistakenly judging an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as the key to the region and making it a priority despite the current leaders’ obvious will on both sides. But then he should revive Obama’s equilibrium strategy, which allows the United States to adapt to the aggression and human rights violations of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, while gradually turning the focus away from the Middle East, which the last two presidents are aiming for.
The first step: Do not bomb Iran. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran would return without “no negotiations and. . . no conditions ”to the previous restrictions on its nuclear activity if Biden lifted the sanctions imposed by Trump. It is worth exploring.