The Trump Administration’s Mixed Diplomatic Record

President Donald Trump and his administration declared August 13 a “historic day for peace in Middle East” after the White House brokered a deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to fully normalize relations between the two states. The move brings into light UAE-Israel cooperation that had, for a long time, operated in the shadows. Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi will move to open economic and diplomatic exchanges; however, having never been at war with one another, the agreement between them is short of a formal peace accord like those signed between Israel and its neighbors Egypt and Jordan.

Nevertheless, the administration sought to portray this as both a historic shift and as the first of many more steps to integrate Israel into the regional fray. Presidential advisor Jared Kushner penned an op-ed and chalked up the “historic deal” to the Trump Administration’s broader policies in the region. Some on Capitol Hill joined in the adulation, though Democrats were a little more skeptical about the negotiated agreement. According to the details reported initially, the UAE secured from Israel a commitment to suspend annexation of areas of the occupied West Bank. However, it quickly became clear that Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in no way intended to permanently end the bid. Despite the agreement and Kushner’s vow that the United States would not give diplomatic backing for annexation “for some time,” Democrats were much more suspicious of the deal’s implications for the land grab.

Congressional Democrats like Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) expressed their concerns that Israel would still make advances toward annexing parts of Palestine. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) went even further by introducing H.R. 8050, the Israeli Annexation Non-Recognition Act, to prohibit the US government from “formally recognizing or providing U.S. aid to any area of the occupied West Bank annexed by the Government of Israel in violation of international law.” McCollum said plainly that Israel’s supposed commitment to freezing annexation “changes nothing,” so she and her colleagues seek to take recognition of annexation off the table.

Aside from the fact that Netanyahu almost immediately poked a hole in the Trump Administration’s narrative about the Israel-UAE agreement, the administration also suffered an embarrassing diplomatic loss at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). For weeks now, the United States, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, and US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, maintained that it would secure the support of the UNSC to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran past its October expiration date. However, after multiple rounds of negotiations, the US delegation proposed a resolution to extend the embargo, which received only two votes in favor, while top European allies abstained. Pompeo criticized the body for failing to follow the United States, but the diplomatic rebuke illustrates how months of antagonizing and threatening allies in the international community does not engender helpful diplomacy.

Now, the administration is aiming to unilaterally “snapback” all UN sanctions on Iran, which the Trump Administration hopes would scuttle the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action once and for all. The maneuver, supported by hawkish members of Congress like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), is another example of the United States striking out on its own and trying to coerce the rest of the international community to follow its lead. It is also premised on a specious argument that, despite formally renouncing all involvement in the Iran nuclear deal, Washington reserves the right to use that very agreement to unilaterally impose international sanctions.

The week’s developments illustrate that President Trump’s diplomatic style is not conducive for garnering support for controversial and contested issues. The UNSC vote was a major rebuke and now his administration has vowed to spark a diplomatic war with UN members. Even the highly touted Israel-UAE agreement is emblematic of the administration’s lack of organization; the sides clearly had no coordinated messaging on the deal. In fact, Israel immediately undermined the main assertion of the agreement being a “peace deal” when it vowed to annex Palestinian territory despite what the United States and UAE thought they agreed to. There is also some uncertainty as to the UAE’s hope to buy the American F-35 aircraft and Israel’s objection to that.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Recognizing the Devastating Explosion That Rocked Beirut and Expressing Solidarity with the Lebanese People. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced S. Res. 682 to express support for and solidarity with the people of Lebanon after the port explosion in Beirut earlier this month.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Foreign Affairs Committee Leaders Reveal They Froze Turkish Arms Sales. Defense News reported this week that four key members of Congress have placed a freeze on any new arms sales to Turkey for nearly two years. The chairmen and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees confirmed that they have placed holds on any prospective sales due to Ankara’s decision to purchase and test the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Wrote to Syria’s Assad on Missing American. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed in a State Department press release this week that President Trump sent a letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad requesting his help in locating a missing American journalist named Austin Tice. Tice has not been seen or heard from in the eight years since his disappearance in Syria.

Trump Administration Formulating Lebanon Policy. In the wake of the August 4 Beirut Port explosion, President Trump and his team are seeking to increase pressure on Lebanon and, more specifically, on Hezbollah. Due to the popular discontent the explosion has fostered among the Lebanese public, some administration officials think it is time for a new economic pressure campaign that includes sanctioning some of Hezbollah’s key allies within the broader political class. The idea is that targeted sanctions would expose corruption among the elites and force the government to make difficult reforms. At the same time, the administration is considering vetoing a UNSC resolution meant to extend the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon. The mission, tasked with maintaining peace between Lebanon and Israel, has garnered criticism from Israel and the United States because, the two countries argue, the mission has failed to uphold its mandate by allowing Hezbollah to entrench itself in the south near the Lebanese-Israeli border. The UNSC vote is scheduled for the end of August.

2) Department of State

Pompeo Speaks with Middle Eastern and North African Officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held various meetings and phone calls with leaders from states throughout the region. He hosted Iraq’s Foreign Minister Dr. Fuad Hussein and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Washington as part of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Pompeo spoke to both officials about the state of affairs in Iraq, including how the government can address the long-standing concerns that sparked months of popular protests and a budget disagreement between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government. While the two officials were in Washington, Pompeo announced a tranche of humanitarian aid to Iraq. In addition to Pompeo’s meetings, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper met with his Iraqi counterpart, Jumaah Saadoon, to discuss defense-related bilateral relations.

Pompeo also met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu to discuss concerns of mutual interest, including the heightening of tensions between Turkey and some of its neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean. Finally, the secretary spoke on the phone with the president of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Cheikh el Ghazouani, to discuss economic and security conditions in the country and in its region of North Africa bordering on the Sahel.

Amb. Jeffrey Discusses US Desires for Syrian Peace Process Ahead of Geneva Meeting. On August 24, members of the Syrian government, Syrian opposition figures, and representatives of Syrian civil society will gather in Geneva for the second meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. The Trump Administration’s point person on Syria policy, Ambassador James Jeffrey, is not participating in the forum directly but plans to meet with participants on the sidelines of the talks in Geneva. Prior to his departure, he participated in a press conference to express what Washington hopes to see from the committee meeting.

In short, Jeffrey said that the Trump Administration expects all sides to abide by the parameters of UNSC resolution 2254 and, if a new or revised constitution can be agreed upon, the administration hopes to see free, fair, and representative elections held in the future. He told reporters that US policy maintains that for Syria to be reintegrated into the international community, Washington must see a political solution to the conflict, an enduring defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS), and the exit of Iranian troops and proxies from Syria. Until then, Jeffrey said, Washington would maintain its economic and diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Trump Administration is, in fact, crafting new sanctions to coerce Assad to negotiate peace in his country.

Ambassador Sales, Under Secretary Hale Visit Qatar, Lebanon. The Trump Administration dispatched two State Department officials to Qatar and Lebanon. Ambassador Nathan Sales, the coordinator for counterterrorism at State, visited Doha while Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale traveled to Beirut to assess the state of affairs after the devastating port explosion.

In Doha, Sales met with officials to examine Qatar’s role in combatting illicit terrorist financing and its participation in the coalition to defeat IS. Hale toured areas of Beirut destroyed by the explosion and met with officials about the necessary reforms expected of the government if it seeks international aid. He also confirmed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has accepted an invitation from the Lebanese government to participate in investigating the cause of the explosion.

State Department Announces New Sanctions on Entities in UAE, Sudan. The State Department announced new punitive measures on two companies based in the UAE and unspecified individuals deemed responsible for undermining Sudan’s transition. In the first case, the US sanctions target two Emirati companies that have helped facilitate the business of Mahan Air, a blacklisted Iranian airline. As for the Sudan measures, the State Department issued visa restrictions on those it deemed to have undermined Khartoum’s democratic transition. Though it was not an action carried out by the State Department, the United States also seized over one million barrels of Iranian gasoline that the Department of Justice suspected was being shipped to Venezuela. The US government confiscated the cargo because both states are subject to US sanctions.

State Department Officials Pen Op-Ed on Iranian Anti-Semitism. Outgoing Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook and Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Elan Carr penned a joint op-ed to detail what they say is the administration’s commitment to combat Iran’s militant anti-Semitism. The piece largely served as a history lesson; only at the end did they make their case for standing up to anti-Semitism. They noted that the State Department designated Iran under US law for violating religious freedom and they cited the administration’s use of sanctions against an Iranian cleric. Otherwise, Hook and Carr recounted the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign more generally, citing it as proof that the administration is fighting Iran’s anti-Semitism.

3) Department of the Treasury

Secretary Mnuchin Meets with Iraqi, Egyptian Officials. As part of the broader US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin held meetings with Prime Minister Kadhimi as well as Iraq’s Minister of Finance, Ali Allawi, and Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Fareed Yassen. Mnuchin and the Iraqi delegation talked about Iraq’s economic stability as well as issues related to countering illicit and terrorist financing. In addition to his meetings with officials from Baghdad, Mnuchin met with Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Yasser Reda to explore, among other things, the status of Cairo’s negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

4) Department of Defense

Pentagon, State Department Officials Explore End of the Islamic State. On August 12, Ambassador Bill Roebuck, the deputy special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and senior advisor to the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, Major General Alexus Grynkewich, the director of operations at US Central Command (CENTCOM), and the commander of CENTCOM, General Kenneth McKenzie, participated in a virtual briefing on what would truly constitute the end of IS.

Ambassador Roebuck heralded the role that the international community has played in fighting IS not just through the multilateral military coalition, but also by choking off the group’s access to finances, limiting the flow of foreign fighters to the group, and providing stabilization assistance to the communities that have returned or have been liberated from IS. Roebuck expanded on stabilization assistance, noting that reforms such as providing running water and clean drinking water and reconstructing schools and hospitals are essential for communities affected by IS to recover.

Ambassador Roebuck and General Grynkewich both discussed a major impediment to the enduring defeat of IS: overcrowded detention facilities and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps like Al-Hol in Syria. The makeshift prisons used to house IS fighters have prompted fears of a potential large-scale breakout while overcrowded IDP camps prolong the suffering of IDPs and could radicalize youth living in the camps. On the latter issue, Grynkewich added that there is evidence that some of the women in camps like Al-Hol are active IS fighters but they live among the civilian populations. General McKenzie, in his keynote address, also focused on prisons and IDP camps, arguing that the countries must repatriate their citizens or risk long-term failure in combatting IS. As of now, McKenzie said that current repatriation efforts are woefully slow and, if this process is not improved, it will be just a matter of time before the consequences are felt as poor conditions in prisons and camps radicalize the next wave of IS fighters. Considering all of these underlying issues, the three officials assessed that the group is still a significant threat.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here