By pulling back from direct military engagement in the Middle East while he promoted hardline opposition to Iran, Donald Trump has forced all Arab-Muslim states in the region to choose between appeasing the mullahs or making a common front against them. The Bahrain and UAE agreements with Israel show that they are choosing the latter option. It was Trump’s White House, not the State Department, behind those deals.
The most important potential agreement is between Israel and Saudi Arabia. That’s still far from certain. The Saudis have moved cautiously, despite their strategic vulnerability. There has been a lot of quiet military cooperation with Israel, but few public signs of it. That’s understandable. The Saudi royal family is well aware of their narrow political base and their vulnerability to extreme religious movements, within the Kingdom and outside of it. They know open cooperation with the Jewish state is risky business for a regime whose legitimacy depends on their role as Guardians of the Two Holy Mosques. That is why Mohammad bin Salman is waiting for Saudi Arabia’s friends in the Gulf and North Africa to move first.
Bahrain’s agreement with Israel is another important step in assembling a Washington-led coalition against a major strategic threat. It parallels Trump’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, where he is assembling a coalition against an even bigger enemy, reinforced by economic sanctions and military deterrence. These coalitions, Trump’s reluctance to put American troops in harm’s way, and his public denunciation of Nato partners for free riding on the common defense represent the biggest changes in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.