Whether by insight or accident, Trump has signaled that he and his administration understand the limits of American power in the Middle East and will thus pursue a policy that goes back to basics—ensuring the free flow of energy, helping to secure Israel, preventing any single country (except the United States) from dominating the Persian Gulf, fighting terrorism and countering proliferation. Admittedly most of what the administration has done so far, besides firing cruise missiles at Syria for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, has been rhetorical. But at least the president’s words demonstrate some insight into the nature of domestic struggles in the Middle East and how irrelevant the tools of American diplomacy are to resolving them.
Focusing on Washington’s core interests is the wisest path—if only because there is no other. The social engineering projects of the past have done little to change the direction of politics in the region, where authoritarianism remains the norm. The effort to promote democracy also diverted funds away from areas like health, education and infrastructure, where the United States through USAID could actually make a difference in the lives of people in theregion. There is no sign that Trump wants to invest more in these areas, which is a mistake, but at least he seems to understand intuitively that there is little he can do to alter the behavior of the region’s strongmen.