How Principled Is US Realism in the Middle East?

“One of the most complex set of challenges we face, and have for many years, is in the Middle East. Our approach is based on principled realism—not discredited theories that have failed for decades to yield progress.” With these words President Donald Trump, delivering his State of the Union address before Congress on February 5, summed up his approach to American foreign policy in the Middle East. In effect, the president was saying that his administration has set out on a daring new course: American foreign policy will now be informed, but not driven by, long-held truisms about Arab-Israeli peace, promotion of democracy, respect for human rights, and the importance of collective action. An incisive understanding of American interests and a willingness to discard old ideas and approaches in favor of bold, decisive, and—above all—pragmatic action will determine America’s course. In sum, “principled realism” is nothing less than “America First” in action.

While the administration has promoted this as a new idea, the concept has a distinguished pedigree. In theory it works admirably, provided the right balance is struck between the two poles of principles and realism, wherein each serves to validate and reinforce the other. In practice, however, the administration often has failed to strike such a balance, leading to confused and contradictory policies heavily skewed toward reinforcing unequal power relationships or supporting authoritarians’ worst impulses.

The administration often has failed to strike a balance [between principles and realism], leading to confused and contradictory policies heavily skewed toward reinforcing unequal power relationships or supporting authoritarians’ worst impulses.

This dynamic has played out in US global relations but most notably in the administration’s Middle East policy, particularly in four areas critical to US interests in the region: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Middle East peace, and Syria.

Origins of Principled Realism

The doctrine of principled realism may be a new turn of phrase but the concept itself is one with deep roots in American foreign policy, one that can be traced to the beginning of the republic. The idea really came into its own as the so-called “neoconservative” movement began its rise to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. The academic, Reagan advisor, and former US ambassador to the United Nations, Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick, was probably the most prominent thinker in this regard. Arguing against a “globalist” approach that applied universal standards to international relations, Kirkpatrick maintained that it was impracticable to ignore the “realities of culture, character, geography, economics, and history” in American relations with individual countries and regions. In particular, as she insisted in the essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” it is impossible to “easily locate and impose democratic alternatives to incumbent autocracies.”

Kirkpatrick was noted for her support of right-wing authoritarians, particularly in Latin America; she believed authoritarian regimes (particularly pro-American ones) were inherently less repressive than leftist dictatorships. However, while defending certain repressive regimes in the service of confronting the threat of communism—a strategy that came to be known as the Kirkpatrick Doctrine—she professed strong allegiance to the liberal democratic principles on which the United States was founded and for which the country played the role of principal advocate internationally. In particular, Kirkpatrick lauded the American defense of human rights abroad, to which she strongly maintained all people were entitled and which governments must respect.

Echoes of Kirkpatrick, and of the longstanding tensions between interests and principles found throughout US foreign policy (including those of the Bush and Obama Administrations), are present in the Trump Administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). Introducing the term ”principled realism” for the first time, the drafter (principally former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy Nadia Schadlow, now with the Hudson Institute) described principled realism as the fullest expression of Trump’s “America First” ideology. “An America First National Security Strategy is based on American principles, a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. interests, and a determination to tackle the challenges that we face,” the NSS states. “It is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology… And it is grounded in the realization that American principles are a lasting force for good in the world.” Like Kirkpatrick, the authors maintain that US policy must be opportunistic and tailored to local circumstances; “we require integrated regional strategies that appreciate the nature and magnitude of threats, the intensity of competitions, and the promise of available opportunities, all in the context of local political, economic, social, and historical realities.”

But the strategy appears to tack away from Kirkpatrick’s more hardline views, invoking principle no fewer than 31 times, while citing realism only twice. In fact, the NSS makes a strong case that “for a document that proclaims ‘a return to principled realism’… these principles do indeed still include, at least on paper, supporting democracy, defending human rights, advancing accountable governance, and mitigating state fragility,” as Frances Z. Brown and Thomas Carothers wrote last year.

Trump himself appears to hold a much more jaundiced view of his own administration’s strategy, if indeed he agrees with it at all. The president often seems to advance a view rather short on principles and long on the sort of realism that reassures Arab leaders, among others, that the United States values stability above all else.

In his speech before Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh in May 2017, the president clarified his real thinking. He announced that “we are adopting a Principled Realism, rooted in common values and shared interests … Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes—not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms—not sudden intervention.” Trump left no doubt that autocracy would have US support if the alternative is another Arab Spring, and a pattern of repression and human rights abuses is acceptable if it comes along with business deals and cooperation on American regional priorities.

The Case of Saudi Arabia

Nowhere is this more evident than in Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia. Despite his nod to “common values” in his Riyadh speech, the president has made consistently clear that when it comes to US policy toward the kingdom, economic transactionalism rules the day.  During his May 2017 visit, Trump personally lauded the $350 billion worth of arms and other commercial deals allegedly forthcoming with Saudi Arabia as a huge economic windfall that would bring “hundreds of thousands” of jobs to the United States (glossing over the fact that most of the “deals” were notional, or smaller than claimed). Human rights did not merit a mention from the president.

Indeed, Trump has never put public or private pressure on the kingdom to improve its increasingly poor human rights record. (It is noteworthy that John Abizaid, the retired four-star general and former CENTCOM commander whom Trump nominated last November as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is unlikely to view human rights as a core part of his brief.)  Washington has stuck doggedly by Riyadh as the carnage inflicted by the latter’s war in Yemen wreaks a progressively more horrific human toll.

Washington has stuck doggedly by Riyadh as the carnage inflicted by the latter’s war in Yemen wreaks a progressively more horrific human toll.

Even after the murder of the Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul last October, Trump remained focused on the kingdom’s value as a business partner. Speaking to reporters a month and a half after the slaying, Trump deflected a question about the responsibility of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for the murder by noting, “we also have a great ally in Saudi Arabia. They give us a lot of jobs. They give us a lot of business, a lot of economic development. They are—they have been a truly spectacular ally in terms of jobs and economic development. And I also take that—you know, I’m President; I have to take a lot of things into consideration.” The administration sparked outrage on Capitol Hill in early February when it ignored a deadline under the Global Magnitsky Act to submit a formal report to Congress on whether MBS was responsible for ordering Khashoggi’s killing, leading many observers to conclude that the administration is shielding the crown prince to preserve commercial and political ties. (Notably, the prince has forged a close relationship with presidential son-in-law and go-between Jared Kushner.)

In the latest example of the economic transactionalism that infuses the bilateral relationship, the Trump Administration continues to press ahead with plans to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. This is despite a new Congressional report calling into question the ethics and legality of early attempts by some administration officials (including former Nation Security Adviser Michael Flynn) to advance the issue, and without having fully addressed significant non-proliferation concerns.

Egypt: Combatting Terrorism, Abusing Human Rights

In the Saudi case, then, the principle that seems to matter most is maintaining strong commercial relations that benefit the United States. Regarding Egypt, counterterrorism cooperation and the stability of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s regime appear to trump concerns over his government’s horrendous human rights record.

Trump personally set the tone early on as the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, characterizing Sisi as a “fantastic guy” who “really took control of Egypt” following the 2013 coup that put him in power. Despite some personal misgivings, Trump has continued to view the US-Egypt relationship through the lens of counterterrorism while failing to hold Sisi accountable for the massive human rights violations on his watch. These include the incarceration of over 60,000 political prisoners and the brutal anti-terrorism campaign in Sinai against the local Islamic State (IS) affiliate, which has inflicted significant casualties and property damage on the civilian population. But not only has all this failed to sour Trump’s view of the relationship, it apparently has reinforced Sisi’s value as an ally in the war on terror. During a photo-op prior to their meeting at the UN General Assembly last September, Trump referred to Sisi as “a great friend” and singled him out for “doing an outstanding job with respect to terrorism”; indeed, counterterrorism was the only reported topic in a New Year’s day call between the two presidents.

Despite some personal misgivings, Trump has continued to view the US-Egypt relationship through the lens of counterterrorism while failing to hold Sisi accountable for the massive human rights violations on his watch.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid no more heed to human rights concerns during a major speech on the Middle East he delivered in Cairo on January 10. Pompeo specifically repudiated the remarks President Barack Obama delivered in Cairo in 2009, a speech that was widely seen as an effort to reset relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds after eight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pompeo said America’s only failing was its retreat from confrontation with radical forces and its abandonment of friends—a remark viewed in Cairo and elsewhere as an expression of regret for Obama’s refusal to support Mubarak during the Tahrir Square demonstrations that led to his ouster in 2011. Vowing “to keep our bilateral relationships strong,” he heaped praise on Sisi for unleashing the “creative energy of Egypt’s people,” promoting “religious freedom,” and encouraging the “free and open exchange of ideas.” All of these propositions are questionable; nevertheless, they are comforting and valuable to an Egyptian regime that craves international legitimacy. (The State Department later claimed in a statement that Pompeo had brought up the ”importance of the protection of human rights” during his meeting with Sisi.)

There are exceptions to the administration’s apparent lack of concern about Egypt’s human rights situation. Trump took a personal interest in freeing the Egyptian-American children’s advocate Aya Hijazi from unjust imprisonment, interceding with Sisi to secure her release from jail in 2017. The administration also canceled $95.7 million in aid to Egypt and suspended another $195 million in military assistance in August 2017 over human rights concerns, exemplified by a draconian new NGO law. The $195 million was restored in July 2018 despite worsening repression. And the administration worked successfully behind the scenes to persuade Cairo to overturn the conviction of 43 international NGO workers who had been convicted in 2014 on politically motivated charges involving their work on democracy and human rights. (The 43 individuals, this author included, were acquitted on appeal last December.)

But these are outliers in an overall pattern of looking the other way while the situation in Egypt deteriorates. The administration has been notably silent on the Egyptian parliament’s passage of a bill in February that would amend the constitution to set aside term limits and potentially allow Sisi to remain in office until 2034. The bill enacts other changes that would essentially end judicial independence and elevate the army’s role as chief arbiter of the political system; this would amount to the biggest power grab by the military since the 1952 coup that put the Free Officers in charge. A prime motivation for rushing these changes through parliament, Egyptian government sources told Mada Masr, is the importance the regime attaches to acting while Trump is still in office, as his support will be crucial to mitigating the expected international uproar. By accommodating regime preferences and remaining quiet on human rights abuses, however, the Trump Administration may be ignoring an important reality in Egypt: the potential for future instability and terrorism provoked by government intolerance and repression.

Israel and the Middle East Peace Process: Nowhere Fast

In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the Trump Administration has reversed decades of American efforts to act as an “honest broker” uniquely positioned to bring about Arab-Israeli peace. It has done so by adopting a variety of stands seen as favoring Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. In fact, having alluded to principled realism in the State of the Union speech as the basis for his administration’s approach to “the complex set of challenges we face” in the Middle East, Trump illustrated his point by adding that “for this reason, my administration recognized the true capital of Israel, and proudly opened the American Embassy in Jerusalem.”

Principled realism, as applied to Israel and the Palestinians, has thus expressed itself as a willingness to accept one set of realities (Israeli claims to Jerusalem and Palestinian territories) while ignoring others (Palestinian grievances and demands for statehood). The US administration has acted to prejudge issues hitherto left to negotiations while subverting the Palestinians politically and economically by, among other things, closing the PLO office in Washington, severely cutting US aid to the Palestinians, and end-running the Palestinian Authority (PA) via the Trump Administration’s “deal of the century,” a comprehensive peace plan that Jared Kushner and chief Middle East negotiator Jason Greenblatt have been developing for two years. Release of the plan has been postponed repeatedly but is reported to contain terms very favorable to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s territorial ambitions and control over Jerusalem. The take-it-or-leave it proposition has enraged the PA, which refuses to engage with Greenblatt on the plan, reducing him to tweeting his ideas at Palestinian officials. To substitute for negotiations, the United States has tried to gain Arab support for the proposal, particularly the support of Gulf Arabs, who would then be expected to pressure the Palestinians into accepting the deal.

Principled realism, as applied to Israel and the Palestinians, has thus expressed itself as a willingness to accept one set of realities (Israeli claims to Jerusalem and Palestinian territories) while ignoring others (Palestinian grievances and demands for statehood).

These developments suggest that the true motivating principle of Trump’s approach to Middle East peace has less to do with peace than with US domestic politics, especially the need to satisfy the most ardent Israel supporters within the president’s donor and political base, chiefly evangelical Christians. Indeed, Trump received no concessions of any kind from Netanyahu in exchange for the momentous decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and there is no evidence that the administration’s policy has pushed the parties closer to meaningful talks. The president may also have a personal motive: hope that his somewhat tarnished reputation as a master deal-maker will be redeemed by bringing about an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

In any case, the administration—having ignored the realities of the conflict’s negotiating history, the bitter experiences of the parties, the principles of fair treatment, and the best advice of seasoned diplomats who have spent decades working the issues—is highly unlikely to achieve anything resembling its professed goal of a lasting peace settlement.

Syria: Shifting Principles Run Aground on Reality

It is in Syria, however, where the confusion between principles and realism has had the worst consequences. In essence, the administration has grounded its policy in neither. Having dropped any pretense of seeking the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the administration confined its objectives to the comprehensive defeat of the Islamic State. In December 2018, that objective ran afoul of the president’s announcement that he would pull US troops out of Syria immediately, even as IS remained a viable force still in control of a small piece of Syrian territory. In the administration’s haste to justify the president’s insistence on a quick withdrawal, other once-vital US goals have been abandoned, too: forcing progress in the UN-led Geneva negotiations to end the civil war; securing the withdrawal of Iranian forces; and gaining Turkish guarantees for the safety of US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces. None of these principled stands withstood the administration’s decision to beat a retreat, which was grounded in the fiction that “we have defeated ISIS in Syria,” as President Trump asserted in a tweet in December.

Principled Realism: Hurting America’s Regional Priorities

The idea of principled realism is nothing new, but what is different is how the strategy has been used to redefine American engagement with friends and allies all over the world. Foreign policy has been transformed into a series of value-free transactions that have played out erratically and with mixed results. Trump’s approach is often neither principled nor realistic; rather, it is rooted in domestic political imperatives and campaign promises and is often driven by the president’s unpredictable whims and his deference to authoritarians.

Trump’s approach is often neither principled nor realistic; rather, it is rooted in domestic political imperatives and campaign promises and is often driven by the president’s unpredictable whims and his deference to authoritarians.

The National Security Strategy cleverly linked the concept of principled realism with “America First” in a way that smoothed over the evident contradiction between the two concepts and opened the door to a flexible and pragmatic approach to squaring the president’s priorities with decades of American foreign policy principles and practice. The strategy’s implementation, however, has been chaotic and inconsistent, damaging Washington’s leadership and undermining regional priorities about which the administration really cares, such as building support for confronting Iran or creating new security structures like the proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance. As principles are abandoned or confused and realities remain unrecognized, US authority, credibility, and interests in the Middle East are paying the price.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here