Qasim Soleimani
The killing of the Iranian commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, eliminated the leader of a network of dangerous militias. Image Credit: ©Gulf News

Occupied Jerusalem: He moved the US Embassy in Israel to occupied Jerusalem, breaking with those who said it would ignite the Muslim world.

He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and ordered the killing of a top Iranian general, defying those who said the moves would lead to war.

He brokered treaties between Israel and two Arab states, disproving those who said such deals could only follow the creation of a Palestinian state.

Again and again in the Middle East, where volatility has burnished or battered previous presidential legacies, President Donald Trump has run roughshod over conventional thinking, advancing key policy aims or fulfilling campaign promises in ways that experts warned could set off a conflagration or blow up in his face.

Not only did the predicted disasters not materialise, but in many cases his policies produced demonstrable achievements.

The Arab treaties with Israel doubled the number of countries in the region that have relations with Israel. The killing of the Iranian commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, eliminated the leader of a network of dangerous militias. And the embassy move, rightly or wrongly, was a step previous administrations had shrunk from despite claiming to support it.

Trump moved the US Embassy in Israel to occupied Jerusalem Image Credit: AFP

But the bold moves often had major drawbacks: The Iranians resumed their nuclear project, and experts believe they may have enough nuclear material to build a bomb. The killing of Soleimani scuttled any chance of negotiating a better nuclear deal with Iran, at least for now. The chances of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appeared ever more distant.

Trump approached the region more like a businessman than a politician, alternately squeezing adversaries and dangling economic inducements, snagging opportunities where he found them.

Remarkably, this scattershot, transactional approach bore fruit that a more strategic diplomatic approach had not. But it also failed to persuade the Palestinians to compromise on their national aspirations and the Iranians on their ideology.

Lacking an overall strategy for the region, critics say, Trump blundered in self-defeating ways, allowing Turkey to attack the US’ Kurdish partners in Syria. And his overriding focus on helping Israel and hurting Iran led to a hands-off approach to bloody conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, which remain shattered and dangerous.

In an interview, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser on Middle East policy, said the administration sought to create a “core stability” in the Middle East, in part by promoting Israel’s acceptance by Arab states, which he argued would keep terrorism at bay, reduce the risks to US soldiers and costs to its taxpayers, and put the region “on a pathway to a more stable place.”

The president, he said, “took a pragmatic approach, which was to state the goals that we want to go to - set the North Star - and then work very hard to move things toward them.”

Chief among Trump’s ambitious objectives: defeating extremists, bringing Iran to heel and achieving what he called the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians.

During his term, Daesh lost its territorial caliphate, and attacks by its supporters that once frequently terrified the West have grown rare, although the group remains a potent underground threat, launching frequent deadly attacks in Iraq, Syria and West Africa.

The other goals largely eluded him.

The Palestinians rejected Trump’s peace deal, and the prospect of its resuscitation appears remote. Iran has resumed enriching uranium - a direct consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement - which has brought it closer to being able to make a bomb. And its allied militias are rocketing the US embassy in Baghdad so often that the Americans have threatened to close it.

His emphasis on deal-making, critics say, has ignored all but the economic sources of the region’s many problems.

“The Middle East is not a bazaar,” said Lina Khatib, an expert on the region at Chatham House, a London research group. “And to try to solve its crises by treating it that way simply does not work.”

Dead Peace Plan, Diplomatic Coup

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the setting for Trump’s biggest failure, may also be where he leaves the most enduring mark.

Eager to succeed where no other president had, he confronted the conflict quickly, cheering Palestinians who had dreaded being ignored - only to demoralise them by recognising occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy, steps widely seen as irreversible.

The predicted uprising did not occur, but the Palestinians boycotted Trump. And he pushed them further away, slashing funding, expelling their diplomats from Washington and eliminating a consulate in occupied Jerusalem devoted to their interests.

When the long-awaited Trump “Vision for Peace” emerged in January, it read as if it had been drafted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, snubbing the main Palestinian demands and encouraging Israeli annexation of occupied West Bank territory. The Palestinians dismissed it in the most vehement terms.

In a twist, though, the talk of annexation made possible a diplomatic coup.

Maximum pressure, limited results

Trump focused much of his attention on Iran, which he called the Middle East’s greatest generator of instability through its support for a network of militias active across the Arab world.

President Barack Obama had sought to entice Iran with the promise of sanctions relief and engagement with the West, an approach that led to an international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear programme.

Trump declared that deal a failure for not addressing Iran’s missile programme and aggressive behaviour and for permitting it to resume unconstrained uranium enrichment in 2030. So he replaced carrots with sticks, withdrawing from the agreement and launching a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at constricting Iran’s finances.

In January, Trump took aim at Iran’s regional militia network, ordering the killing of its architect, Soleimani.

“Showing Iran the big stick, that was needed,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a UAE political scientist. “This guy was Public Enemy No. 1 for many countries.”

Iran nuclear natanz
The Iranian nuclear plant at Natanz Image Credit: Supplied

Kushner said Trump’s policies gave the United States a strong negotiating position. “The table’s set. Iran right now is stone-cold broke,” he said. “The goal here hasn’t been to make a deal. The goal here has been to try to set the table to make a good deal.”

But such talks seem remote. Iranian politicians said the Soleimani killing would bar the country’s leaders from negotiating with Trump.

“Even if he gets reelected, it will be impossible,” said Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, a reformist politician.

For now, Iran’s militia network remains active, and its nuclear programme is up and running - and rapidly approaching the ability to build a bomb.

Changes to reckon with

Regardless who wins the November election, Trump has brought about changes in the Middle East that the next administration must take into account.

The momentum towards normalisation agreements could continue. A future US administration could use that enticement to press Israel for concessions towards the Palestinians.

With Iran’s government in dire financial straits, some of its regional allies have questioned how long it can hang on. The next administration could use that distress as leverage, even if in the pursuit of drastically different objectives.

Trump’s transactionalism may also have limits: Sudan’s new leaders have so far refused to normalise relations with Israel despite substantial financial incentives because doing so could leave them “morally compromised” among their people, said Ofer Zalzberg, Middle East director at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation.

Still, the id on display in Trump’s policies has earned measured praise in unlikely quarters.

Even some critics said Trump’s lack of interest in traditional talking points about democracy and human rights had brought a new frankness to age-old discussions about the US’ dealings with autocrats.

“It takes away the illusions some people have convinced themselves of that we used to be a force for good,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy research director at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“The harm is significant,” she hastened to add. “We don’t get that soft power back right away.”

And Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group and a former senior Obama administration official for the Middle East, said Trump’s record held at least one lesson for his successors: The prospect of blowback from critics and allies need not be paralysing.

“They may not like what we’re doing,” he said, but Trump had shown that “if it’s in our interest to do it, we just need to forge ahead.”