Foreign Policy

Can Trump Be a Middle East Peacemaker?

Conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, coupled with Israeli elections, present problems.

Michael Swartz · Sep. 20, 2019

If you’ve filled your gas tank over the last week or so, you may have noticed the price per gallon is a bit higher. The simmering war between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia is presumed to be the cause of last week’s attack on a major Saudi oil facility — an attack that dealt a significant short-term blow to the global oil industry and sent prices surging. Fortunately, thanks to our resurgent energy industry, this bump in prices is nothing like we experienced in the 1970s during the bad old days of OPEC sticker shock and gasoline rationing.

As evidence of Iran’s guilt continues to trickle in — despite the “fraudulent” claim from Iran-backed Yemeni separatists that they launched the strike — the pressure begins to mount on President Donald Trump for a more forceful response than his cyberattack in response to the downing of an American drone earlier this year.

Despite that earlier incident and the Iranian regime’s decades-old hatred of America, the fact that, in the words of an anonymous “U.S. official”, “We were caught completely off guard” by the refinery attack strikes many as troubling. “Mr. Trump has loudly made clear he is reluctant to pursue the military option, and in the Middle East adversaries respect only strength,” opined The Wall Street Journal. “The U.S. and Saudis have shown they can’t protect the oil fields, and the next attack may hit the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait.”

Assuming Iran is indeed the culprit, hitting our Saudi “friends” served its interests well as a proxy for an attack on America. Not only did it disadvantage its rival for supremacy in the region, but it also propped up the oil prices on which its economy (along with those of antagonists Russia and Venezuela) depend.

Yet war-weary Americans may be cheered by President Trump’s stance, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced after meeting the leadership of the United Arab Emirates: “We are here to build out a coalition aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution. That’s my mission. That’s what President Trump certainly wants me to work to achieve, and I hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran sees it that way.” Included in that effort are European allies that will be called upon to help enforce the sanctions President Trump had in mind.

And if the heating up of the Iran-Saudi cold war wasn’t enough to concern American interests in the region, the results of Israel’s second national election this year may bring more heartburn. It now appears that longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who failed in his attempt to create a new coalition government after April’s voting and called a new election, will be left with the same situation after his Likud party came far short of winning a majority of the 120-seat Knesset. However, his chief rival, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, will be in the same boat, having also won 32 seats or thereabouts. Thus, the whole of Israel’s foreign policy may teeter on the whim of a minor party leader with just nine seats keeping either likely coalition from gaining a majority.

Israel’s dilemma sends a reminder to our nation as it heads into its own national election — now less than 14 months away — that foreign policy may become a significant campaign issue. Donald Trump isn’t the polished geopolitical leader that some prefer. Indeed, National Review’s Kevin Williamson makes that point in noting that Trump “vacillates between a kind of soft and notional non-interventionism and B-movie posturing.” But Trump’s also not pining for the “global citizenship” his predecessor did, and which his 2020 opponent will likely aspire to as well. Keeping America great means keeping American interests at heart, however difficult that may be in the Middle East.

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