Byrne: A new Middle East?
Last week when I wrote about some good news, I mentioned the recent peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates negotiated by the Trump administration. Just days after I wrote those words another Middle Eastern nation, Bahrain, reached a peace agreement with Israel, again negotiated by the Trump administration. What do these and other recent developments say about the Middle East?
First, let’s go back 11 years to the beginning of the Obama administration. President Obama gave a speech in Cairo calling for a “New Beginning” in the Middle East and undertook major efforts to reach out to the Arab world, including Iran, our major adversary in the region. But, the “New Beginning” was ultimately a series of terrible mistakes.
Over the Obama administration’s tenure, the U.S. relationship with Israel, normally very good, grew sour as Obama pressured the Israelis over settlements in Palestinian claimed areas and issues in Gaza. He angered Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf, which normally lean to the U.S., by naively agreeing to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action allowing Iran to develop nuclear capability limited, for a time, to “peaceful” use only. Obama backed protesters’ demands for the removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a staunch U.S. partner, which facilitated the end of Mubarak’s pro-U.S. government only to be replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist group. When the Egyptian military overthrew the Brotherhood and one of the generals, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, became president, Obama withheld promised military assistance and then insisted they pay cash, which only worsened a strained relationship with a key regional ally.
Obama told Syria that using chemical weapons against its people was a “red line” which would trigger a U.S. military response but then backed off the threat when they did. He prematurely drew down the U.S. military presence in Iraq only to go back in as ISIS arose and took half the country. Afghanistan was at best a stalemate. And, in Libya, he used the U.S. military to attack Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime, which was toppled, and Ghaddafi was killed; Libya plunged into an ongoing brutal civil war that led to the murder of American diplomatic personnel in Benghazi.
I personally witnessed the difficulties Obama’s policies caused when I traveled to the Middle East with other members of the House Armed Services Committee in the summer of 2014. We met with King Abdullah of Jordan, President al-Sisi, and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. We talked with other Middle Eastern leaders as well and received in country briefings from our diplomatic staff in each country. We were careful not to undermine U.S. policies in these meetings, but it was clear those policies constituted a terrible blunder.
In the summer of 2016, I participated in an intensive policy conference on the Middle East in London and was convinced the next president needed a better set of policies which would restore good relations with our normal allies, defeat ISIS, and push back on Iran. Most of the experts at the conference assumed that president would be Hilary Clinton. They were wrong.
What President Trump has done is reverse Obama’s failed policies in the Middle East. His first trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia to meet with our Gulf allies and repair those broken relationships. He pulled the U.S. out of the ill-advised Iran deal and took out their point man in sponsoring terrorism around the region this past January. He has healed our relationship with Israel and moved our embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. I was in Jerusalem last summer, met with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and saw the improvement firsthand. Our renewed good relationships with Muslim allies and Trump’s Israel peace initiative paved the way for the agreements with UAE and Bahrain.
And let’s not forget that ISIS as a country dominating caliphate was defeated on Trump’s watch, allowing us to reduce our troop presence in Iran to just 3,000 this fall. And his initiative with the Taliban in Afghanistan is bringing the prospects for real peace closer than they have been in decades. Our troop presence there will drop this fall by half to just 4,500.
In short, the Trump administration’s reversal of Obama’s policies in the Middle East have resulted in much better relations with our allies and friends there, growing peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the defeat of ISIS, reduced troop numbers, and a much weakened Iran. The Middle East is no longer Arabs versus Israel as it had been for so long, but is now the U.S., our Arab allies, and Israel versus Iran and its terrorist groups. It’s a big move towards peace and away from terrorism and war. The Trump policies made the way for the beginning of a new Middle East.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope.