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Is Trump’s Middle East policy a success — or just a non-disaster?

In an otherwise disturbing year, the collapse of the Islamic State stands as one bright spot. 

A Palestinian demonstrator dressed as Santa Claus burning a poster depicting President Donald Trump during a protest on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

In an otherwise disturbing year, the collapse of the Islamic State stands as one bright spot. During the course of 2017, it lost the Iraqi city of Mosul, its de facto capital Raqqa in Syria, and vast swathes of territory in both countries.

The Islamic militants once had ambitions to establish their own state. Instead, looking at a map (of Syria, in this case), the territory they still control reminds one of the remnants of a large puddle – a spot here and there. Most of it has dried up.

But who gets credit for that, and does it signify anything bigger?

Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times, thinks President Trump should get a large measure of credit. It’s part of what he calls the Trump administration’s “moderately successful” Middle East policy. Douthat is far from a Trump apologist, so this is interesting, if not actually persuasive. 

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It’s true, as Douthat points out, that the Islamic State rose quickly during the Obama years, and that its defeat actually started under Obama. The facts here are right, but the emphasis is wrong. 

Calling the rise of the Islamic State “the defining foreign policy calamity of Barack Obama’s second term” is a bit over the top. You can argue that Obama should have forced Iraq to keep U.S. troops there. The surprising success of the Islamic State suggests intelligence failures. The militants’ gruesome killings of American citizens made the U.S. look powerless. But overall, the bigger problem was Obama’s policy toward Syria – less its content than how it was conducted. It’s always a bad idea to declare a “red line” and not follow through. Even that seems to fall short of a “calamity,” though.

On the other hand, Obama should get more credit for the defeat of the Islamic State. While Mosul and Raqqa fell on Trump’s watch, he did little more than tweak Obama’s policy, slightly loosening rules of engagement. As Peter Bergen points out, tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters were killed, the Mosul and Raqqa operations were planned and the fighting for Mosul was under way before Trump became president.

The measured operation to defeat the Islamic State is just what you should have expected from Obama. It was designed to take advantage of your strengths and your opponent’s weaknesses.  

It was always a stretch to think that, despite its ambitions and early success, the Islamic State would be able to impose effective, long-term control over a vast territory. With a moderate push, it was likely to collapse eventually. That’s what Obama set in motion.

Douthat also contends that the way the U.S. and its allies defeated the Islamic State didn’t follow a script written by pundits, so there is no one declaring victory, raising its profile and acknowledging Trump’s role. That’s meaningless except in the Beltway world of ideological turf wars. The U.S. didn’t have to go to war with Syrian President Bashar Assad or create a big new Syrian opposition army. But why would it? The general approach Obama followed was pretty clear from the start. And why should we be surprised that a sprawling crypto state collapsed easier than skeptics of intervention feared?

It’s also wise to be skeptical about that “moderately successful” Middle East policy, in particular Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Muslim versus Iran, and his administration’s policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. We should concede a couple of points: For many in the Arab world, the conflict with Iran is now more urgent than the conflict with Israel. Plus, the effort to craft a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians long has been an exercise in banging one’s head against the wall. Does it hurt any worse if you recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?

Douthat gives Trump credit for “slow-walking” his tough policy toward Iran. But fast or slow, Trump didn’t have to start down that path at all. Obama was rightly skeptical of the Saudis, even though they have been staunch allies for decades. Despite how it looked from Riyadh, the Iran nuclear deal was not a capitulation to Tehran. It was an effort to create a more even policy for the region — back when diplomacy was considered a viable approach to problem-solving. 

Trump now finds himself in an anti-Iranian echo chamber with an impetuous young Saudi prince. Mohammed bin Salman is shaking up his kingdom, and some of his domestic reforms are welcome. He also seems intent on confronting Iran across the region – but hasn’t demonstrated the patience or strategic vision to do anything constructive. With Trump, that’s a bad combination.

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Finally, on Jerusalem. Aside from making some domestic supporters and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu happy, it’s hard to see why you need to do this now. Why would Israel be interested in offering concessions when you’ve given it reason to believe it can get what it wants for free? And why would Palestinians bother to go back to negotiations now?

Trump’s Middle East policy may not have been as big of a mess as some feared. But that’s a pretty low bar for calling it a success.