During one of his "thank-you" tour stops, Donald Trump announced on Dec. 1 (at 1:28:13-1:29:15):
We will pursue a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past. We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments, folks. Remember – $6 trillion, 6 trillion [spent] in the Middle East, 6 trillion. Our goal is stability not chaos, because we want to rebuild our country [the United States]. It's time, it's time. We will partner with any nation that is willing to join us in the effort to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism – okay, we have to say the term, have to say the term. In our dealings with other countries, we will seek shared interests wherever possible and pursue a new era of peace, understanding, and good will.
The key passages are "We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments," "We will partner with any nation that is willing to join us in the effort to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism," and "We will seek shared interests wherever possible."
What to make of these three pronouncements? Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal, who first noticed the passage, finds it "freighted with deep meaning" and concludes from it that Trump will be "unburdened by the need for consistency or adherence to any ideological framework."
I hear it differently. Trump is saying: "Except for ISIS, I won't pull an Iraq or Libya, but instead look to work with existing regimes. I don't want to spend taxpayer money in the Middle East" (or, by extension, lose American lives). With this, he seems to be distancing himself from George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom he sees as overly-ambitious, and bogged-down by the region's furies.
Well, good luck with that. Those furies do not leave you alone, as American leaders since World War II have regularly found. To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you.
After only a few months as top U.S. diplomat in 1982, George Shultz memorably observed, "unless you do something about it, in the job of secretary of state you will spend 100 percent of your time on the Middle East. The subject consumes you and it's coming at you all the time." Shultz's successor, James Baker, devoted nearly half his memoir as secretary of state to the Middle East. I once dubbed his successor, Warren Christopher, Secretary of State for the Middle East.
U.S. secretaries of state (here: Kissinger (L), Baker, Albright, Powell, Clinton) tend to spend an inordinate percentage of their time on Middle Eastern issues.
Bill Clinton hosted Yasir Arafat more often in the Oval Office than any other foreign figure. Between 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush's tenure was more defined by the Middle East than any other issue. Barack Obama arose from political obscurity in opposition to the Iraq War and faced his worst humiliation in Syria.
Trump and his team cannot wave away the Iran Deal, civil wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, Islamism, uncontrolled immigration, Erdoğan going rogue, Sisi being in over his head, Saudi financial troubles, Palestinian rejectionism, the price of energy, drug trafficking, and beyond. Moreover, going out of his way to insist on the term "radical Islamic terrorism" and to declare an intention to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem signal anything but a readiness to pivot out away from the Middle East.
Willy-nilly, these require a finely elaborated policy. Contrary to Gerald Seib, I predict Trump's simple throwaway lines on the Middle East will leave little residue.