Donald Trump’s first priority on his maiden voyage as president must be to restore trust between the United States and its longstanding partners in the Middle East. America’s friends and allies in the region are eager for calm after years of turmoil and mutual suspicions under Presidents Bush and Obama. But it would be a mistake for Trump to ignore the Middle East’s deep dysfunction in his search for a feel-good narrative. Maybe not now—but soon—he will need to deliver some tough messages to regional leaders about the demands of citizens for justice, basic human rights and good governance. Most importantly, he will have to understand that relying on the U.S. military and cutting arms deals are hardly sustainable solutions to the region’s permanent crisis.
The two of us come from different perspectives. Michael is a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and Brian at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Last year, our two think tanks came together for a unique project in this age of partisan polarization in Washington—a bipartisan, on-the-ground study of the drivers of instability across the Middle East, based on a series of visits and dialogues in and about the region.
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What we found is that while we disagree on a lot of issues—like the Iraq war and the Iran nuclear deal—we agree on one central idea: The United States has to stay engaged in the Middle East. Like his predecessor, President Trump has complained vigorously that America has spent trillions on inconclusive wars over the last few decades, and openly fantasized about walking away from the region and its troubles. That, we are convinced, would be a costly mistake.
The president’s basic impulse to restore trust with America’s partners in the Middle East is not wrong. The 2003 Iraq war, America’s inconsistent response to the 2011 Arab uprisings, and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal all shook the confidence of America’s historic partners in the region, including the two countries Trump will visit—Saudi Arabia and Israel. Rebuilding those relationships is essential.
To rebuild ties, Trump should keep in mind a key lesson from predecessors’ mistakes: rushing to pursue magic-bullet solutions to the region’s enduring conflicts often causes more harm than good. There is no single cure-all for the Arab-Israeli dispute, Sunni-Shi’ite tensions, or the fight against terrorism.