Donald Trump’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia during his first overseas trip as president creates the perfect opportunity for his administration to take positive steps toward addressing five key needs in the region.
With these five, he can do a lot to reverse the unconstructive actions taken over the past eight years by the previous administration and make a start negotiating genuine peace and security for the region.
These policy ideas represent something of a consensus by Middle East experts, especially in Washington. Some of the steps are diplomatic, but others require military action by the United States. Americans have an understandable reluctance to re-engage militarily in the Arab world, but they have to understand that serious actions are required to prevent conflicts in the region from getting worse.
1) Correct the mistakes of the Obama administration: The previous presidency turned a blind eye to Iran’s regional menace, including Tehran’s support for terrorism and its escalation of sectarian violence. Attempts to rehabilitate the Iranian revolutionary regime into a normal state have failed. Release of the regime’s frozen funds, via the nuclear-weapons agreement, have allowed Iran to use that money to support militias and mercenaries in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon. This must stop.
2) Fight all types of terror: Fighting one type of terrorism and neglecting others creates more conflicts and new armed groups. It is pointless to fight al Qaeda- and ISIS-backed terror without also pushing back on terror supported by Tehran. The fight against terror should be conducted by the international coalition against ISIS and, more importantly, by the 41-country Islamic Military Coalition, which is led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have the necessary experience in the region to carry out this important and multifaceted task.
3) Move the Iraq issue to center stage: The U.S. government policy apparatus should concentrate on Iraq. This will diminish the importance of Iran in the estimation of U.S. policymakers. After all, Iraq is a U.S. ally. After taking down Saddam Hussein’s regime, U.S. mistakes turned Iraq into a killing field and a chaotic country. But Iraq is the geographic and strategic center of regional conflicts. For the sake of the region and the Iraqi people, the United States must focus on its healing, leaving Iran as a second-tier concern.
4) Find constructive solutions for the Palestinian people: The United States should try to revive the peace process between the Arabs and Israel by exerting pressure on Israel to accept the Arabian initiative for peace. Such a strong U.S. move can take the issue out of the hands of disruptive regional players that exploit the Arab-Israeli conflict as an emotional recruiting tool among Muslims. Too many of these other players are less interested in solving the Palestinian problem and more interested in achieving their expansionist ambitions, establishing militias and standing in the way of peace.
5) Support the legitimate government of Yemen: This will prevent Yemen from becoming an utterly failed state and a permanent launching pad for terrorism and sectarian hostilities. The United States should provide intelligence and logistical support to the Arab Coalition to help restore legitimacy to the government. In addition to risking the security of its neighbors, the Yemeni civil war threatens international navigation and the flow of energy to world markets through the Bab Al-Mandeb and Hormuz Strait shipping lanes. If these routes are not protected, oil prices in the West will soar.
These five steps are difficult, but not impossible, especially if they have the weight of the American president behind them. President Trump’s choice of the Middle East for his first overseas trip telegraphs the region’s importance to his administration. He has a rare chance to initiate history-changing statecraft during his trip, which could bring long-lasting benefits to a region sorely in need of them.
• Mohammed Alsulami, a researcher at Umm Al-Qura University in Saudi Arabia, specializes in Iranian studies.
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