Donald Trump’s Middle East policy represents a significant change from that of Barack Obama. The president is seeking to bolster Israel and Saudi Arabia, in particular, and to isolate Iran. This agenda has emerged in piecemeal fashion rather than as part of a coherent strategy, and there are few indications that administration officials have considered the long-term implications of their approach.
Barack Obama formulated a Middle East strategy designed to repair the damage done during George W. Bush’s presidency. The United States needed to rest an exhausted military, replenish its soft power, and create political space for addressing long-standing challenges. To this end, he reduced troop levels in Iraq, avoided new large-scale military interventions, asked allies to take more responsibility for regional security, and mostly sought to address problems through diplomacy. He used a combination of engagement and sanctions to induce Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program, and sought to broker peace between the Israelis and Palestinians along lines endorsed by the international community – including a two-state solution, flexibility on the status of East Jerusalem, and pausing the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory. To the dismay of allies such as Saudi Arabia, Obama also encouraged democratic reforms in the region, though inconsistently and with little success, and avoided overtly favoring either side of the Sunni-Shia divide.