America’s neglect and confusion aggravate problems in the Arab world

The Economist

WHEN it is finished, America’s imposing new embassy in Lebanon will be its second-biggest in the world. Yet it was France, not America, that stepped in to resolve Lebanon’s latest political crisis. Speaking from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on November 4th, Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, abruptly announced his resignation. What followed was a bizarre two-week saga in which he seemed to be under house arrest in the kingdom. Though America’s State Department criticised the move, it fell to France to negotiate Mr Hariri’s return to Beirut. He has since suspended his resignation.

Nearly a year into his presidency, Donald Trump’s Middle East policy could best be characterised as one of neglect and confusion. His term coincides with a period of radical change in Saudi Arabia. King Salman and his son, Muhammad, the all-powerful crown prince, have abandoned the Al Sauds’ plodding caution in favour of a more aggressive foreign policy. Their actions have unsettled friends and neighbours. Even Israeli diplomats, no fans of Mr Hariri, use words like “reckless” to describe the Saudis’ pressure tactics in Lebanon, which risked upsetting its delicate sectarian balance.

Yet the Saudis have found a receptive audience in the White House, particularly in Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. Team Trump thinks that it has helped to kindle the liberalising economic, social and religious reforms of Prince Muhammad. Mr Trump has not evinced any concern about the Saudi-led war in Yemen that has, with American support, laid waste to the region’s poorest country (see Briefing). He has enthusiastically praised a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, and a recent wave of anti-corruption arrests in the kingdom, even though American diplomats have deep doubts about both policies.
Many Syrians cheered in April when America bombed a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack in Idlib province. Since then Mr Trump seems to have lost interest. Russia and Iran have filled the vacuum, helping Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to reconquer lost territories. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, gave Mr Assad a warm welcome in Sochi last month, and then hosted the presidents of Iran and Turkey, both of whom support Mr Assad’s continued rule.
As The Economist went to press, Syrians were gathered in Geneva for another round of UN-backed peace talks. The opposition delegation is now stacked with figures willing to leave Mr Assad in power, a shift engineered by the Saudis. Under Saudi pressure Riyad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister and a resolute critic of the regime, has resigned as head of an opposition umbrella group. The Saudis may be hoping, implausibly, to split Russia from Iran. America, which has long demanded Mr Assad’s departure, said nothing.
Other allies feel similarly confused. Mr Trump is cutting military aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia that paid a heavy price fighting the jihadists of Islamic State. Asked whether America would name a special envoy to mediate a dispute between Iraq’s Kurds and the central government in Baghdad, the State Department demurred. “They can probably work it out on their own,” a spokeswoman said. Even Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has been disappointed. He is unhappy with the latest “de-escalation” agreement in southern Syria, negotiated by America and Russia, which allows Iranian-backed militias within 5km of his northern border. Despite warm contacts with the Trump administration, Jordan, too, feels left in the lurch by American plans to halt financial aid to Arab rebels in southern Syria next month.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, met Mr Trump during the campaign, and was the first foreign leader to congratulate him on his victory. But he was stunned in August when America slashed $100m in aid to Egypt, and withheld another $195m until it saw “progress on democracy”. The move also astonished American diplomats in Cairo. “I had to explain this to my Egyptian counterparts the next morning, and I had no guidance from Washington on why we did it,” says one.

Spread the blame around
Mr Trump does not deserve all the blame for meek and muddled American policy. Barack Obama, though he called for Mr Assad’s removal, did little to support the Syrian opposition. The war in Yemen started on his watch, too. And, to be fair, Mr Trump is engaged in one area: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After much shuttle diplomacy by Jason Greenblatt, his special envoy, the president is preparing to unveil a peace plan in early 2018.

This is a rite of passage for American presidents. The last three tried, and failed. There is no reason to think Mr Trump will succeed, either. Israel is still led by a far-right coalition loth to make concessions, and the divided Palestinians by a government that lost its legitimacy years ago. But the Saudis have egged him on, knowing that the president is eager to strike what he calls “the ultimate deal”. By supporting Mr Trump’s efforts in Jerusalem, they hope to win a free hand in Yemen and elsewhere.

Mr Trump never misses a chance to criticise his predecessor. Yet he is repeating some of his mistakes. Mr Obama was accused of pursuing a nuclear agreement with Iran at all costs, and ignoring Iran’s meddling in Syria and Iraq. Now Mr Trump seems obsessed with reneging on the deal, which would weaken the curbs on Iran’s ability to make a nuclear bomb, and is doing little (apart from a few more sanctions) to contain Iranian influence.

He is enabling autocrats in Egypt, and losing the confidence of close allies, such as Israel and Jordan. Meanwhile the Saudis are free to pursue destabilising policies, and the future of Syria is largely in Russian and Iranian hands. “This is not a time for the US to be absent,” says another Western diplomat. “We need some supervision.”

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