Analysis | Behind Biden’s Middle East crises is the long tail of Trump’s legacy

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Former president Donald Trump is on the warpath. As the Biden administration grapples with a spiraling set of crises in the Middle East, the Republican presidential front-runner has seized on the moment to score political points. A drone attack launched by an Iran-affiliated militant group based in Iraq hit a U.S. base on the Jordanian-Syrian border over the weekend, killing three U.S. troops and wounding dozens of others. Some Republicans in Washington want the White House to pursue severe, escalatory measures, including targeted strikes within Iran.

President Biden’s apparent desire to calibrate the response and avoid a wider conflict with Iran offered plenty of grist for Trump’s spinning mill. “This brazen attack on the United States is yet another horrific and tragic consequence of Joe Biden’s weakness and surrender,” Trump posted on social media, adding that such a strike on U.S. forces in the region “would NEVER have happened” on his watch.

Attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria did take place while Trump was president. But that’s besides the point: Trump and a number of his Republican colleagues are pinning the sense of chaos in the region on the Biden administration, and setting that against the image of “peace through strength” that the former president sought to cultivate.

Taking a wrecking ball to diplomacy with Tehran, Trump broke the nuclear deal forged between Iran and world powers, restored a slate of sanctions on the Islamic Republic and assassinated influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Soleimani in a 2020 drone strike. Trump’s policy on Israel, meanwhile, amounted to a tight bear hug of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the boosting of the agenda of the Israeli right. He was punitive to the Palestinians — markedly shifting U.S. policy against them by formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, shuttering a U.S. consulate intended for Palestinians, and brokering “peace” deals between Israel and a clutch of Arab monarchies that further sidelined Palestinian political aspirations.

The Middle East’s arc of conflict is spiraling

After coming to office, the Biden administration muddled along in the Middle East. Its initial halfhearted rhetoric about restoring human rights to the center of U.S. policy soon melted away as the White House pursued closer cooperation with Saudi Arabia and maintained the status quo with Israel, eager to build on Trump-era normalization agreements. It struggled to make any headway on Iran — Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign led to an even more hard-line, uncompromising government taking hold in Tehran and the Iranian regime unshackling its nuclear program and dispensing with the measures of transparency that had been mandated by the nuclear deal.

Earlier this month, Rafael Grossi, the U.N.’s atomic agency chief, said Iran’s nuclear program was “galloping ahead” and urged for diplomacy to fill the breach “to prevent the situation deteriorating to a degree where it would be impossible to retrieve it.” Now, as the White House contemplates opening new fronts of conflict with Iran, diplomacy is not in the picture.

“Iran was not dissuaded from pursuing its nuclear quest — quite the contrary,” wrote Le Monde columnist Gilles Paris this week, referring to Trump’s legacy in the region. “America’s word has been devalued, which partly explains the inability of Biden’s administration to re-engage with Tehran. Nor has the Islamic Republic been driven back into its borders, as witnessed by the resilience of the ‘axis of resistance’ after October 7, which unexpectedly expanded with attacks in the Red Sea by its Yemeni allies, the Houthis.”

The likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon is far greater now than it was in 2018, when Trump killed the deal against the wishes of many Western allies. “Iranian leaders may see acquiring nuclear weapons as a way to gain newfound assurance that it won’t be attacked by Israel or the United States — freeing the axis of resistance to wreak far more havoc,” wrote Ali Vaez in Foreign Affairs. “Plus, Iranian officials who want the country to get a nuclear weapon (Tehran itself is likely divided on whether to go nuclear) could view this as a moment of great opportunity. Iran’s rivals, after all, are distracted by the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, competition with China, and elections.”

Deadly attack on U.S. troops highlights an open-ended military mission

If Trump set in motion the deepening risk of a nuclear Iran, he also encouraged the acceleration of Israel’s far-right drift. David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, is a deeply ideological champion of the Jewish settler movement and an open skeptic of the two-state solution — the vision of two Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side that has been the official policy of successive Democratic and Republican administrations. Friedman and a coterie of other Trump officials set about emboldening Netanyahu and his allies, who embarked on a series of settlement expansions and seemed forever poised to carry out de jure annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank. Their efforts poured more dirt on the grave of the two-state solution at a time when the Palestinian national movement itself was in crisis and the Palestinian cause seemed even less of a priority among Arab governments.

That’s no longer the case in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel and the hideous war in Gaza that has followed. Arab leaders as well as U.S. and European officials have all revived talk of the two-state solution as a necessary objective to bring stability to the region. But Trump and his allies are attacking Biden for taking this line and applying pressure to Netanyahu’s government.

“He speaks continuously about this need to impose a two-state solution, which I think is tone-deaf right now,” Friedman told an Israeli TV network this week, referring to Biden. He also criticized Biden’s apparent attempts to lower the intensity of the Israeli campaign — which has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, the majority women and children, in a matter of months. “At no time did the United States put any handcuffs or limitations on Israel’s ability to respond” when Trump was in office, Friedman said.

Navigating war and domestic anger, Netanyahu may be trying to hold on until Trump, a friend and political fellow traveler, potentially wins reelection. He has reason to believe that a Trump return could help consolidate his position and energize his far-right allies.

While Palestinians have always criticized the United States as an unfair broker in the conflict, the Trump administration put its whole weight on the Israeli side of the scale and asked for no Israeli concessions in return. Its much-derided peace plan that it unveiled in 2020 dispensed with any illusion of creating a viable, sovereign Palestinian state; the Palestinian leadership wasn’t even briefed on Trump’s stillborn “deal of the century.” Erased from the international conversation and subject to an increasingly impotent Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian public slumped into the depths of disillusionment and despair.

“There’s no going back on what we’ve been able to do,” Friedman said in a 2021 interview with the New York Times. “I’m frankly somewhere between addicted and intoxicated with what I’ve been able to do, and how much joy it gives me.”

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