H-Diplo | ISSF Policy Series
America and the World—The Effects of the Trump Presidency
Stuck: “America First” and the Middle East
Essay by Patrick Porter, University of Birmingham
Published on 30 September 2021 | issforum.org
Editors: Diane Labrosse and Joshua Rovner | Commissioning Editor: Joshua Rovner | Production Editor: George Fujii
Trump pledged to pursue a more restrained and narrowly nationalist foreign policy, promising retrenchment and an end to continuous war. Yet with Trump at the helm, the U.S. maintained or increased its security commitments and military activity. The demagogic and brazen leader voiced a different, more nakedly domineering version of U.S. power, but the reality rarely went beyond outward displays of aggressive rhetoric and televised moments. Even his coercion and humiliation of allies – a major source of aggravation for traditionalists –separated him from other presidents mostly because he did it in public, not behind closed doors. Skeptics here will respond that Trump also showed contempt towards international institutions, and withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Again, he ostentatiously showed contempt for institutions ranging from the United Nations to the World Health Organization. But Trump hardly invented disregard for the writ of these bodies, and beyond the largely symbolic Paris accord, it would be bold to gamble that Biden will even try to subject the U.S. to bodies like the International Criminal Court, or convince the Senate to ratify treaties like those banning land mines. There are limits to Biden’s commitments to international institutions, just as there were limits to Trump’s disdain for them.
Biden and his officials are working hard to differentiate themselves from Trump and Trumpism, and to articulate a different worldview. They have reaffirmed an orthodox theology of American primacy, the exceptional nature of the U.S. as the world’s hierarch, and the sanctity of alliances within the ‘rules-based order.’ And they emphasize the supreme importance of states’ regime type, promising solidarity with democracies in a way that makes their statecraft antithetical to that of Trump. At the same time, however, Biden is quietly going about a realignment in two of the three traditional powers centers of American concern, Europe and the Middle East. The administration has acquiesced to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, convened a bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, withdrawn U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and de-emphasized the Middle East in general. Under the cover of repeated affirmations of U.S. “global leadership,” internationalist values, the embrace of alliances, and the rallying of democracies against dictatorships, Biden is carefully pursuing détente with Russia and lightening America’s footprint in the Gulf, trying to refocus U.S. attention on Asia. The new dispensation has been so sweeping in its public commitment to global leadership as to earn the description of the “everything doctrine.” In fact, Biden is pursuing a more selective foreign policy, possibly against the advice he is receiving.
Given that we are at the beginning of the Biden presidency, these observations are of course provisional. But a pattern is forming. Under Trump, grand strategic revision got words, while the commitments and precepts that come with U.S. primacy got deeds. Biden’s administration is the reverse. While we must obviously wait to attempt a full coverage of the Biden era, we can look more closely at Trump’s gap between saying and doing, in the theater that has inflicted most sacrifices on the U.S. superpower in our time, the Middle East.
Trump promised but failed to extricate the United States from its wars in the Middle East, or to revise its many commitments there. This is an issue worth investigating, because he promised to do so, attracted significant support for that policy, and from all accounts held authentic convictions. For decades, the region accounted for much of America’s expenditure of blood, treasure, and time. By 2015, “about 80% of the main meetings of the National Security Council focused on the Middle East.” Even for some supporters of an expansive foreign policy, the neighbourhood is too unruly, allies too wilful, and conflicts too expensive. Yet U.S. officials could not end their military obsession with the Middle East, and Trump could not end this state of affairs. Here, I identify three principal sources of policy continuity and inertia: resistance, an ambivalent agent, and perceived sustainability. This is not an exhaustive list. Other factors are also candidates, but these three are the focus. Some of these forces are specific to the Trump era, while others are likely to outlast his brief and turbulent presidency. It serves as an important case study in the difficulty of revising grand strategic ‘fundamentals.’
Trump came to power in January 2017, vowing to fulfil his vision of “America First” by ending America’s wars of ‘blood and sand’ and either winding down its manifold commitments in the region, or putting those relationships on an explicitly transactional footing. He also promised to “drain the swamp” of the foreign policy grandees and government mandarins that had gotten America into disastrous conflicts. Throughout his one-term presidency, he reasserted this promise repeatedly in public and in private.
If ‘grand strategy’ is the orchestration of power and commitments over the long haul to secure a polity, one pillar of U.S. strategy is the effort to remain the hegemonic power and superintendent in the Middle East. The region is one of the three principal ‘power centers’ that Washington prioritizes, along with Europe and northeast Asia. Capitalizing on growing disillusionment after decades of grinding war and disaffection, Trump promised to put this to an end.
Yet Trump did not deliver on this stated strategic realignment. For most of his tenure, roughly the same number of troops were deployed in the Middle East as had been in the Obama era, not including thousands of contractors. Trump did not terminate any of the conflicts, direct or proxy, that he inherited from the era of the ‘Global War on Terror,’ the ‘Arab Spring,’ and general geopolitical struggle around Iran, and has ramped up military responsibilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria. America’s longest war, in Afghanistan, outlived his term. On Trump’s taking office, the U.S. had roughly 8,500 troops there. It was not until August 2020 that the U.S. announced it would reduce its force of 8,600, and Trump’s successor still had to decide on the remaining force of 2,500. The U.S. also intensified and extended its bombing campaigns. Arms sales to the Gulf increased. Ties with client states, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, tightened. Washington helped broker the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and peace/normalisation deals with Bahrain and Sudan. With sanctions, cyber-attacks, threats, arms sales, support for opposition and assassination, the Trump administration waged a campaign to break the regime in Tehran via “maximum pressure.” At the end of his presidency, America remained deeply engaged, or to critics, embroiled.
One source of Trump’s failure is the resistance mounted by Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Foreign policy is a collective creation of a group, even in a superpower led by an increasingly powerful executive branch. In this case, the establishment is a cohesive group of well-placed, experienced, and often effective figures. It supplies most of the personnel to staff a presidency, who are charged with advising, formulating, and implementing policy decisions, and who constitute the pool from which any president is drawn to select in their appointments. They range across the national security bureaucracy, intelligence agencies, think-tanks, foundations, corporations, and universities, linked by a ‘revolving door’ in and out of government, and supported in their traditionalism by large sections of the political class.
Those in the foreign policy establishment are predominantly “primacists,” united by a consensus that the U.S. has first-order interests at stake in the region and that withdrawal will unravel America’s global position. They disagree about how ambitious Washington should be in the region—whether or not to transform it or just hold the ring. They agree, though, that it remains critically important and worth significant investment. As well as “oil, Israel and terrorism,” proponents of continued primacy argue it is necessary in order to prevent adversaries from dominating the region, to suppress proliferation risks, and to protect maritime approaches and chokepoints (like the Strait of Hormuz). More generally, they argue that persistent commitment to the region is necessary to reassure allies of America’s resolve globally. Opinion divides over whether this consensus is due primarily to a flawed and narrow marketplace of ideas and in particular the conformist ways of the foreign policy establishment, or due to the obvious merits of hegemony over abandonment. Regardless, the net effect is to inhibit revision even of small-scale deployments.
Despite the churn of personnel, Trump’s senior appointees—his national security advisors, secretaries of defence and state, military and intelligence chiefs—were hawkish primacists of varying degrees and types. They all favoured an expansive foreign policy, from Secretary of Defence James Mattis, for whom alliances and stabilising hegemony were fundamental, to National Security Advisor John Bolton and his belligerent unilateralism. They successfully steered the president, in most cases, to maintain a forward-leaning status quo, advising and exhorting Trump to his face, more covertly slowing or altering policy decisions, or resigning.
A pattern developed, whereby the president would announce a drawdown or retrenchment, only to reverse himself soon after. Advisors arranged briefing sessions to persuade the president, warning that withdrawing from Afghanistan risked another 9/11-style attack, that primacy was necessary for U.S. business interests to thrive, or linking Gulf State support to lucrative arms sales. They presented withdrawal from a nineteen-year war as precipitous, rather than overdue. Trump reportedly felt constrained by this advice, recalling that “you have four guys that look like they’re right out of Hollywood” saying “I’d rather fight them over there than fight them over here. I’ve had four generals say almost exactly the same words. That’s a hard line if you’re sitting here and you have to make that decision.”
In tandem, resistance also took subtler or more duplicitous forms, from leaks to sheer deception. Consider the determined effort to reverse Trump’s announcement of a withdrawal from Syria in December 2018 and October 2019. The first announcement led to fierce opposition on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon, with critics publicly presenting it as a sudden, impulsive abandonment of Kurdish allies, instead of the known priority it had been for six months beforehand. The military officer in charge of U.S. Central Command publicly stated his disagreement. U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey recently acknowledged that his team had intentionally misled senior leaders about troop levels in Syria. “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey said in an interview. “The actual number of troops in northeast Syria is “a lot more than” the roughly two hundred troops Trump initially agreed to leave there in 2019.” When Trump wanted to pull out, “In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times.” Indeed, the Syria deployment became a garrison in search of rationales, any of which Trump proved receptive to: to counter Iran, to ensure ‘enduring defeat’ of ISIL, or to take or guard the oil. In the second ‘Syria withdrawal’ moment, Senator Lindsay Graham and General Jack Keane persuaded Trump with the use of a map, warning that the areas vacated were oilfields Iran could grab. Together, these moves succeeded. To this day, a residual force remains in Syria, justified by multiple rationales.
An Ambivalent Agent
As well as structure, one important variable in any juncture of potential grand strategic change is agency. To overhaul a legacy strategy and outflank its determined defenders requires a cost-tolerant, committed agent of change. That was missing in this case. Trump, and Trumpism as a political phenomenon, was ultimately ambivalent about, and only inconsistently focussed on, American commitment and retrenchment abroad.
This is so in terms of organisational effectiveness and its lack thereof. Trump and his loyalists were insufficiently committed to their mantra of ending endless wars. They were inept at bureaucratic manoeuvring and at the sustained pursuit of goals. This was partly due to the problem that Trump’s presidency functioned like a medieval court, and was organized around personal loyalty, rewarding loyalists and punishing dissidents, with frequent firings and purges overshadowing organisational coherence and disrupting the pursuit of policy aims. It is also partly to do with the ‘showbiz’ modality of Trumpism, preoccupied as it is with televisual spectacle over substance, and declaratory drama over policy execution. A president preoccupied with media coverage presided within a media ecosystem that treated any proposed withdrawal as a symptom of fecklessness, isolationism, and weakness.
There was also an internal ideological dimension to Trump’s ambivalence. His statements and actions suggested not a reversion to ‘isolationism,’ but a desire to shed burdensome commitments while retaining dominance. Campaigning for office, Trump attacked established alliances and suggested that he would tolerate other countries acquiring nuclear weapons, but also pledged to annihilate the Islamic State. His relationship with the military was fraught: faced with criticism, he denounced their commanders for being cowards and profiteers, yet also described himself as “militaristic,” identified Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur as his heroes, went on to appoint “my generals” to senior offices, and pardoned convicted war criminals who he called “warriors.” Indeed, Trump’s desired domestic constituency for his brand of conservative nationalism included the military and Christian evangelicals with their alignment with Israel. His rhetoric, too, suggested an exhilaration in violent domination. He bragged that the Caliph al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIL, “died like a dog”, and threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites), and he sympathised with torture and martial displays of power. Vice President Mike Pence, echoing a resurgent fatalistic acceptance about armed conflict breaking out undeterred, even told West Point’s graduating class that it was a “virtual certainty” they would fight on a battlefield, as though future wars were preordained. Though on some occasions Trump proved gun-shy, under his administration the United States bombed with increased frequency, unaccountability, and abandon.
Trump, then, was not simply a provincial nativist, but in Stephen Wertheim’s phase, a “radical imperialist,” or a “Caesarist” drawn to the prizes of primacy, and the control and prestige it affords, without the liabilities. In other words, Trumpism wanted it both ways. Trump demanded the termination of wars. But at every turn, he shrunk from what war termination entailed, a relinquishing of some control or dominance in the vacuum it leaves, and an abandonment of the spoils and pillage of conquest (“we’re keeping the oil”). America might leave, if only it could impose its own terms without compromise. In the Middle East, destroying the Islamic State and then inducing a crisis in Iran took precedence over leaving, as well as what he inherited, a growing arms-sales bonanza. Any suggestion of withdrawal took a back seat to the campaign to isolate and coerce Iran, as the administration supercharged the Gulf’s sectarian and geopolitical divides, thus ending up more embedded, not less.
These variables came together in the successful lobbying of Trump to strike Iran with the assassination of General Soleimani in January 2020. Hawks in the Trump administration took advantage of his fear of looking weak, his receptivity to media criticism, his obsession with presenting himself as the antithesis to Obama-era diplomacy towards Tehran (and perhaps with the shadow of President Jimmy Carter and his reputation for irresolution), and his attraction to dominance via dramatic escalation. The net effect, even on a sometimes-reluctant president, was that the ‘pull’ toward continual conflict was strong.
The United States also remains in the Middle East because it feels it can. While there is a general fatigue with America’s wars and diplomatic interactions with the Middle East, aversion to commitments in the region is not generally intense across the U.S. population as a whole. Even at the height of disillusionment, disenchantment never approximated the intensity of outcry, dissent and civil strife that the Vietnam War called forth. Sustainability is not really in doubt.
This is partly because of a widely held view that the U.S. should stay in some capacity, despite everything. Enough of the masses and elite share a baseline perception, which is not always well-specified or clearly articulated, that the U.S. should sustain its Middle East mandate because the region matters, at least enough to retain a military presence. Most of those surveyed in opinion polls agree with withdrawal in short order from Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this has not translated into a wider desire to retrench from the region.
It is also partly because there remains an underlying perception that however dispiriting, such commitments are affordable and sustainable. This perception is possible because a particular ‘way of war’ that has evolved. America’s pattern of warfare insulates most citizens from the wars’ direct consequences. Those who bear the brunt of war are from an all-volunteer professional force that represents only a small fraction of the population. Modern medicine (as well as medivac, etc.) has caused a ratio shift from fatal to non-fatal casualties. Most losses suffered by U.S. troops are not combat deaths or disease. In other words, a fairer accounting of casualties in Afghanistan in 2019 would add not only the 17 hostile deaths, but the 180 wounded. Yet non-fatal wounds, maimings, and psychological distress (linked to high suicide rates) rarely feature in the ‘headline’ reckoning of U.S. losses. Media coverage often measures losses in terms of troops killed. America’s campaigns do not penetrate as directly into the living rooms of its citizens as did its earlier conflicts.
Reinforcing this trend is the method of war-financing. In the era of ‘credit card’ wars, the U.S. tends not to finance its campaigns directly from taxation or popular ‘war bonds’ but from borrowing. After 9/11, the U.S. turned to private capital markets, while contracting many services out to private specialists. Governments believed that states could run up extra debts rather than extract resources from their citizens. This was intended to quarantine, as much as possible, the economy and the general population from the strains of conflict. One result of the attempt to distance ‘the people’ from the conduct of wars is to remove an important stake the population could have in the fight, making the war ‘over there’ for those who are not directly linked to it by family or friends feel like an abstract curiosity. In turn, there is no sustained, energised mass anti-war movement.
This is not to say that the perception of sustainability is necessarily correct. If the ambitious assumptions of modern monetary theory prove faulty, and if present conditions turn out not to be permanent, then the deficits and opportunity costs do matter economically. The attrition of the wars also matters politically. A constituency of disillusioned communities has grown over the course of the “war on terror,” helping propel Trump into office and boosting support to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The disappointments of wars in the Middle East may well contribute to a resurgence of populist insurgency in the near future. But for enough Americans, the wars are distant affairs, sustainable fiscally and necessary strategically, and the costs are being borne by others. As a result, pressure to terminate these wars, and pull back from the region, fluctuates but is not overwhelming. For each president, there will probably always be matters that seem more pressing.
As the Trump presidency’s night was falling, within the White House and across government there was a renewed tussle over the President’s determination to end America’s war in Afghanistan. Officials and commentators disputed whether America should end its longest war unilaterally or only after certain conditions were met. Typical of the drama of the Trump-era, the issue was clouded by palace intrigue and the sudden firings of dissenting officials. The apparent compromise, to leave a reduced force in place, fits the larger pattern. As before, any U.S. president is bound to have a hard time extricating U.S forces from the region, significantly reducing America’s footprint or downsizing commitments. America remains stuck. Whether Biden or his successors can stick to the decision to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan, leaving behind only a guarded embassy, is unknown. But as violent disorder in the vacuum is rising, we can expect the White House to come under renewed pressure on humanitarian and strategic grounds to install, or reinsert, some kind of presence, one that advocates will argue is sustainable and affordable.
The causes for this strategic inertia are various, but I have highlighted three principal sources. First is the problem of ingrained resistance from the American foreign policy establishment. A complex network of government officials, think tanks, academics, and commentators often serve as a bulwark against grand strategic change. During the Trump presidency, this resistance was often apparent among senior administration officials. Next, Trump’s desire to withdraw the United States from conflicts in the Middle East often lacked a resolute ‘agent of change.’ Even as the administration publicly denounced certain policies of the Obama and George W. Bush presidencies, Trump himself remained ambivalent about the nature and the pace of strategic change. Finally, there is an underlying perception within government and society that the presence of American troops in the Middle East is affordable and sustainable. So long as most of the American public sees the country’s involvement in this region as fiscally sustainable and strategically necessary, the impetus “’rom below’ to disentangle or stay distant from prolonged conflicts will be lacking.
Where does this leave us? Over time, we can expect the structural pressures of the international system to bear down the country. In particular, the harsh reality that American power has suffered a relative decline will increasingly force harder choices on the country’s resources, time, and priorities. Trump’s case demonstrates, though, that any effort to undertake a major adjustment in response to the unforgiving ways of the world will again meet intense resistance, especially if the occupant of the Oval Office is not fully committed to the fight.
Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He also worked at the British Defence Academy, King's College London, the University of Reading and the University of Exeter. He was born and grew up in Australia, and graduated at the Universities of Melbourne and Oxford, where he obtained his doctorate in history. He has written four books. Blunder: Britain’s War in Iraq appeared in November 2018 with Oxford University Press. His latest book is The False Promise of Liberal Order, published by Polity in 2020. He has also written for Politico, The National Interest, The Critic, The New Statesman, The American Conservative, and The Washington Quarterly, with academic articles in International Security, Security Studies, International Affairs and War in History. His research interests are U.S. and British foreign and defence policy, great power politics, realism, and in particular the causes and consequences of power shifts and the problem of self-defeating behaviour.
 This is an adapted version of a paper published by the Grand Strategy Centre at King’s College London in coordination with the UK Cabinet Office. I am grateful for permission to re-publish, as are the editors of H-Diplo/ISSF.
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 By which I mean the designated ‘Greater Middle East’ the swathe of territories from Algeria through the Persian Gulf to Pakistan.
 “A Dangerous Modesty,” Economist, June 6, 2015, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2015/06/06/adangerous-modesty.
 Martin Indyk, “The Middle East Isn’t Worth it Anymore,” The Wall Street Journal, 17 January 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-middle-east-isnt-worth-it-anymore-11579277317.
 These include the agency of clients in Middle Eastern states, who added to the pressure to remain engaged, from manipulating conditions on the ground to direct lobbying; the passivity of institutions supposed to exert scrutiny, such as Congress; and the agitation of allies. Space limitations precludes detailed consideration of these.
 Dion Nissenbaum, Isabel Coles, and Nancy A. Youssef, “Get the Hell out of Syria. It’s Sand and Blood and Death,” Wall Street Journal 18 October 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/get-the-hell-out-of-syria-its-sand-and-blood-and-death-inside-americas-chaotic-retreat-11571421368.
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 To borrow the phrase of Justin Logan, “Why the Middle East Still Doesn’t Matter,” Politico October 9, 2014, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/10/why-the-middle-east-still-doesnt-matter-111747/.
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 Both quotations from Katie Bo Williams, “Outgoing Syria Envoy Admits Hiding US Troop Numbers; Praises Trump’s Middle East Record,” Defence One, November 12, 2020, https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2020/11/outgoing-syria-envoy-admits-hiding-us-troop-numbers-praises-trumps-mideast-record/170012/
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 “Trump Confirms ISIS Leader Baghdadi is Dead after US Raid in Syria,” CNBC 27 October 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/27/trump-statement-on-isis-baghdadi-raid.html; “Trump Threatens Attacks On 52 Sites If Iran Retaliates For Soleimani Killing,” NBC News 5 January 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/trump-threatens-iran-attacks-52-sites-n1110511.
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 Kyle Rempfer, “New in 2020: Army Combat Casualties Trend upwards into 2020,” December 30, 2019, https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/12/30/new-in-2020-army-combat-casualties-trend-upwards-into-2020/.
 Linda J. Bilmes, “The Credit Card Wars: Post 9/11 War Funding in Historical Perspective,” Watson Institute, Brown University, November 8, 2017, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/economic.