The first year of Trump’s presidency has been awash with controversies and outlandish statements, including his seemingly impulsive decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel much to the behest of many Arab world leaders. This decision was lambasted by global leaders as a further destabilising factor in an already volatile geopolitical landscape. US foreign policy has seemed to lack a clear approach under the Trump administration, yet it appears Rex Tillerson’s recent Middle East tour has shown there is a blueprint that exists beyond booming rhetoric and alienating strategic allies.
Keeping to prepared statements and circumlocuting the discussion of controversial issues, the Secretary of State completed his trip focused on building US support. During his first stop in Cairo, the focal point was to emphasise the importance for stability in the region. In Kuwait, he emphasised the importance of the coalition against ISIS and attended a conference of the Iraqi rebuilding project. Following this was a meeting with King Abdullah II attempting to gain support following Washington’s Jerusalem embassy decision, and a short stop over in Lebanon to reiterate ‘American support’ for the challenges they face. The final stop was his most gruelling, where Tillerson was met by Turkish officials angered by thee US supporting the Kurdish YPG group in Syria.
The trip did not see any major announcements or significant policy decisions and this has lead to the belief that the US continues to lack a coherent foreign policy for the MENA region. This has lead to Tillerson being ridiculed by CNN as a ‘messenger without a message’. While this is an easy conclusion to reach, it does not appear to be an accurate one as there does seem to be a strategic plan being utilised by the Trump administration. The Bush Jr. and Obama administrations both oversaw seismic changes to US Middle East foreign policy, disconcerting the traditionally favoured approach towards the region albeit in considerably different fashions. Trump conversely has actually adopted a strategy which is more in line with the traditional US perspective on the region.
Trump’s foreign policy is focused on three key areas; support Israel, prevent Iranian influence, and stopping terrorism. In Egypt the US message emphasised counter terrorism, security and the rekindling of US-Egyptian relations despite the dubious nature of the current Egyptian elections. This counter terrorism message was later emphasised in Kuwait, alongside an understated message to prevent Iranian influence spreading and emphasised again in Lebanon. In the Jordan stint of his tour, Tillerson attempted to appease the Jordanians with a promise of addition aid, but this also made abundantly clear that the US relationship with Israel was its priority over its relationship with other strategic allies. This sentiment was again reiterated in Ankara where it showed that not even the acrimonious rage from a NATO member state would sway the administration away from its key objectives in the region.
While Trump may have campaigned as being radically different to the establishment, his approach is similar to the traditional perspective. It is uncertain of what effect this will have, due to the drastic changes the Middle East has experienced in recent years has rapidly altered its outlook both economically and geopolitically. While the US still has a fearsome military force in the region, a lot of the softcore power it once held is now gone, this approach will most likely see the US having an increasingly diminishing influence over powers in the region and embark on policy that may be detrimental to US foreign policy irrespective of the Trump administrations wishes.
Wedeman, B. (2018). Tillerson’s Mideast tour: Messenger without a message. [online] CNN.com. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/15/middleeast/ben-wedeman-rex-tillerson-mideast-intl/index.html [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].
Photograph – Times of Israel