One of President Trump’s key goals has been to systematically reverse the policies of his predecessor. So it’s no surprise that Trump’s visit this weekend to Saudi Arabia, his first to a foreign country, will signal a break with Barack Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
This is both promising and potentially troubling.
That Riyadh and Jerusalem are the first stops on this trip is clearly Trump’s attempt to distance himself from Obama’s rapprochement with Iran.
The previous administration’s calculation here involved creating a balance of power between the regional actors, namely Saudi Arabia and Iran, in order to diminish the US military footprint in the region. Obama’s strategy failed.
Trump, in contrast, has a strong desire to side forcefully with America’s traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and has made a point of identifying Iran as the source of instability in the region.
Not incorrectly, he sees Iran as having used the cover of the nuclear agreement reached with six major powers in 2015 to increase its influence throughout the region, especially through the use of non-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq.
Trump will be fêted in Riyadh for giving primacy to America’s strategic relationship with the kingdom, and will be hailed as a partner by moderate Muslim states such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in the war against extremist radical movements like Sunni Islamic State as well as Shiite Hezbollah.
Sunni jihadists, equally at war with Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, cannot be defeated without an alliance with the wider Sunni world. The Saudis have warded off several al Qaeda attacks against the homeland, and have allowed the US to use their territory as a base for attacks against al Qaeda and ISIS.
Trump will certainly acknowledge this, and is expected to give a major speech on Islam and the West, with hope of…