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Trump and the Middle East: 'Barking Dogs Seldom Bite'

In drafting its Middle East policy, the Trump administration appears to depart from the soft power rhetoric of the Obama years, seemingly favoring a more hawkish, hard power approach to dealing with America’s most important interests in the region: the defeat of ISIS and the containment of Iran. While many regional partners hope for a radical U.S. foreign policy shift after years of perceived American disengagement, Trump seems to be constrained by path dependency. He inherits a region in turmoil, a public adverse to regional military engagements for peripheral interests, and a major strategic discrepancy between ambition and capability. Consequently, the new White House will be forced to continue Obama’s policy of delegation and multilateralism.

Trump and the Middle East 'Barking Dogs Seldom Bite'
During his first visit abroad in May 2017, the U.S. President Donald Trump met with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. (L) AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN (R) AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX

Introduction

When the 45th President of the United States was sworn in after a lengthy, heated, and highly emotional campaign, few commentators and analysts in the West believed that Donald Trump had the personality, expertise, or experience to lead the most powerful country in the world. In the Middle East, however, policy makers and commentators were ironically less critical of the business tycoon from New York who had repeatedly lashed out verbally at Arabs and Muslims alike. Despite this rhetorical abuse, Middle Easterners from Egypt over the Levant to the Gulf hoped that a more hawkish and militaristic U.S. President would bring an end to Obama’s policy of multilateral retrenchment, soft power diplomacy, and indecisive overseas commitments.

After a hundred days in office, however, it remains to be seen to what extent Trump can actually meet these expectations. Without a clearly formulated foreign policy strategy, and hampered by an overreliance on the Pentagon and a disintegrating State Department, the Trump administration has so far been unable to show any sign of radically rewriting U.S. policy in the Middle East. Quite the contrary, Trump seems to return to old American orthodoxies in the region: embracing the myth of authoritarian stability, as well as an almost unconditional support of Israel and the Arab Gulf amid a containment policy against Iran. This policy unfolds against the backdrop of the Obama legacy, which had “rightsized” America’s role in the Middle East, leaving local partners and allies widely to their own devices to solve their own problems.


Hampered by an overreliance on the Pentagon and a disintegrating State Department, the Trump administration has so far been unable to show any sign of radically rewriting U.S. policy in the Middle East


Obama had realized that in a

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