The Trump Administration’s policy in the Middle East is a true embodiment of an Arabic-language expression, al-huruub ila-l-amaam, or “running away forward.” The phrase encapsulates an unwillingness to accept failure, followed by a stubborn repetition of a comedy of errors that leads to more disappointment. This has become the mantra for an administration bereft of knowledge about the Middle East, a very complicated region that is undergoing wrenching structural change, deepening authoritarianism, civil wars, outside intervention, and sectarian divisions. For slightly over two years, the White House and its auxiliaries in the executive branch have shown adeptness at jumping from one unresolved issue to another, only to discover that they have created more problems along the way.
This week, the administration convened a conference in Warsaw, Poland––The Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East––ostensibly to address, among a number of pressing issues, Iran’s malign activities in the region. Convening this meeting was an outcome of a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Middle East in January that eliminated any hope that the Trump Administration would deviate from its script regarding the Islamic Republic. But the writing is already on the wall: this conference was another ill-advised, unstudied, and fruitless distraction from the Trump team’s failures. It merely provides the appearance of movement for a US administration with no set principles and direction, one whose foreign policy engagements are episodes of an endless reality TV show. This time around the spectacle arrived in Poland, a country with little discernible interest in playing a pivotal role in Middle East issues.
At first glance, no one reading the agenda of the conference would believe that the attendees could truly address its many complicated items. The agenda included addressing weapons proliferation, humanitarian crises, terrorism, and energy security as well as revitalizing alliances, promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, and dealing with Iran’s “destructive activities.” However, the American and Polish conference conveners were basically spinning their wheels in Warsaw. As Poland tried to curry favor with the Trump Administration and elevate its international stature, the United States looked to be rewarded for “running away forward” from its past mistakes in handling a number of Middle East issues.
First, the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that addressed Iran’s nuclear program, and that was despite broad international support for the agreement. President Trump’s fateful decision in May 2018 was opposed by the original signatories to the JCPOA––Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany––who considered the withdrawal a grave mistake. In September 2018, they announced that they were working on creating a “special purpose vehicle” that would circumvent whatever sanctions the United States reimposed on Iran pursuant to reneging on the pact. While Russia and China are not expected to abide by US sanctions, the European community recently announced that it has indeed implemented a “system to help facilitate trade with Iran.”
Russia and China refused to attend the Warsaw conference as European allies decided to send lower-level delegations. In fact, the European Union pressured the US administration to cancel the meeting in favor of a summit in which France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States would be able to discuss the same issues to be addressed in Warsaw in a “more constructive” manner. This proposal was obviously rejected, and it is not hard to surmise why. One reason is that a conference at which three signatories to the JCPOA play an important role will not be as anti-Iran as the administration wishes. Another is that a European-American summit will not bring Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in direct contact with representatives from the Arab world, thus helping the normalization of relations. To be sure, the remarks by US Vice President Mike Pence about Arabs and Israelis “breaking bread” in Warsaw were a clear indication that an important reason for holding the conference was precisely such normalization.
Second, as the administration broadened the conference agenda beyond Pompeo’s promise in January that it would be about Iran, proceedings in Warsaw betrayed the original purpose of confronting the Islamic Republic. In his speech before the meeting, Pence all but called for regime change in Tehran; to him, Iran’s regime is murderous and represents “evil” that is capable of perpetrating a “new Holocaust.” Pence also had harsh words for European allies who are trying to circumvent American sanctions and called on them to withdraw from the JCPOA. Not to be upstaged, Israel’s Netanyahu was more overt in his vitriol; he tweeted that the meeting was to coordinate Arab-Israeli efforts to wage “war with Iran.” Realizing the incendiary nature of that announcement, the prime minister quickly deleted his tweet, affirming that the goal was merely combatting Iran.
The meeting’s proceedings certainly did not allay attendees’ fears about being corralled to participate in an international effort to wage war on Iran or change its regime. Pence’s rhetoric and Netanyahu’s Freudian slip did not come as surprises. The American vice president serves in a White House that has upended global norms put in place to ensure world peace and has withdrawn from an international agreement that was meant to obviate an escalation of hostilities in the Middle East. The Israeli prime minister has worked for years to change US policy toward Iran; finally he has found a president and administration to buy into his rationalizations without questioning his intent. It thus was natural for the Warsaw conference to project this scenario, which is exactly what the Trump Administration wanted. The problem with this enthusiasm, however, is that it quickly appeared as overreach and will most likely deprive the administration of the support it needs to address the Iranian challenge.
Third, no one in Warsaw was fooled that the conference was, at base, about addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As it is, the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to attend the meeting and called on other Arab countries to boycott it. PA President Mahmoud Abbas cogently called it a “conspiracy aimed at eliminating the Palestinian cause.” Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary General and negotiator Saeb Erekat rightly considered it “an attempt at bypassing the Arab Peace Initiative and destroying the Palestinian national project.” It did not make much difference that President Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, announced at the conference that a peace plan will be presented after the Israeli parliamentary elections in April. Considering how the administration has dealt with the Palestine issue, this plan is not expected to be accepted by the Palestinians since it is unlikely to address their legitimate right to a state with East Jerusalem as its capital or to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
Fourth, the Warsaw conference should not obscure the fact that its organizer, the Trump Administration, is the one that has given Iran a free hand in Syria. If Pompeo wants to rally the international community to stand up to the Islamic Republic’s malign activities and behavior in the Middle East, he would do well to advise the president not to relinquish whatever influence the United States has in Syria. To be sure, if Iran must be confronted, that showdown better begin in Damascus where Tehran has set up shop. It is unfathomable that the conference attendees did not notice this contradiction; instead, they apparently wanted to be on the US administration’s safe side so they are not deemed friends of Iran.
Fifth, and finally, the much-ballyhooed meeting between Netanyahu and Arab officials in Warsaw will likely not translate into an easier time for Israel regarding the issue of Palestine. The Netanyahu-leaked video of his meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir and others highlighted their now-famous loathing of Iran and, importantly, affirmed their disengagement on Palestine. Moreover, if there is a barometer of official Saudi policy on the issue, it is Prince Turki al-Faisal, former intelligence chief and ambassador to the United Kingdom and the United States. In a long interview with an Israeli newspaper, he minced no words, saying that “Israeli public opinion should not be deceived into believing that the Palestinian issue is a dead issue.” He also affirmed that Netanyahu thinks he can build relations with the Arabs “and then we can fix the Palestinian issue. From the Saudi point of view, it’s the other way around.”