“Endless wars” and “the worst deal in history” Donald Trump proclaimed during his run for the White House. And for months he was severely critical of America’s role in the Middle East. With his presidency concluding, it is worth assessing whether the promises made were indeed promises kept.

Bringing Home the Troops

President Trump never made a secret of how he viewed the Middle East. During the 2016 election campaign, he stated the region was “totally destabilized, a total and complete mess” and criticized the Obama administration as well as the Bush administration for the billions they had allegedly “wasted” in the Middle East when the US should have been the beneficiary, according to Trump. A promise to withdraw American troops was hence the logical culmination of the latter.


In Afghanistan, the president emphasized his proclivity for a complete withdrawal several times. The number of US soldiers in Afghanistan stood at 8,400 when he took office in January 2017 – the result of a significant drawdown that occurred under President Obama, after a temporary surge in troops in 2011 that led to 100,000 American troops at its apogee.

Contrary to his election promise, the number of troops under Trump initially increased to 14,000 to combat the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups more effectively.

Contrary to his election promise, the number of troops under Trump initially increased to 14,000 to combat the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups more effectively.

However, the US signed an agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, to a gradual withdrawal over 14 months. In accordance with the pact, the current number of troops was reduced to 8,600 in June. By the end of this month, the number will have further decreased to below 5,000, according to then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper – which marks an overall decrease in Trump’s tenure of 3,400.


In Syria, too, Trump has at least partially kept his promise. Up to 250 special operations, troops were on Syrian soil under the Obama administration to pursue ISIS in 2016. Under Trump, who changed the strategy on the ground to fight ISIS more effectively, the number increased to 2,000.

However, when President Trump concluded the defeat of ISIS, he issued an order for a partial withdrawal in December 2018.

From the initial 1,000 remaining soldiers, Trump announced the withdrawal of another 500 on October 13, 2019 – to this day a controversial decision as it provided Turkey with tacit approval for its military foray, which had devastating effects on America’s allies, the Kurds.

Currently, only 600 American soldiers remain in Syria. Five hundred of them as part of the global coalition against ISIS, while 100 act as a counter to Russian aggression in the region.

Delivering Peace to the Middle East

During his 2016 election campaign, Trump promised to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem “fairly quickly” after taking office.

On December 6, 2017, less than a year after his inauguration, Trump ordered to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decision ended a five decades-long US policy that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians alone must determine the Jerusalem question.

Trump presented his plan “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” on January 28, 2020. However, the “deal of the century,” as Trump described it, has had very limited effects.

For many experts, the deal was too one-sided—impeccable for Israel, an affront for the Palestinians.

For many experts, the deal was too one-sided—impeccable for Israel, an affront for the Palestinians. The White House never consulted the Palestinians when Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner formulated the proposal. An immediate rejection was the consequence.

The conflict between Palestinians and Israel has since not seen any progress. The Palestinians find themselves in irrelevance and isolation after the White House brokered deals between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain.

The two agreements, although controversial in many areas, are a success for the US and, above all, for Israel, transforming its own isolation in the region into open dialogues and cooperation with former adversaries.

Moreover, the diplomatic relations with Israel enable the two Gulf monarchies to strengthen trade and investment relations and security policy arrangements in the region as well as acquire the latest US fighter jets and other advanced weapons.

However, how significant the influence of President Trump remains a mystery. The US’ withdrawal from the region forces Arab nations to rethink their security interests and pursue them more pragmatically than before, and forge new partnerships, particularly with a view to their common enemy, Iran.

The relaxation between Gulf nations and Israel is not a new development under Trump.

Moreover, the relaxation between Gulf nations and Israel is also not a new development under Trump. Israel was allowed to set up a quasi-diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi in 2015 and, behind the scenes, both sides had cultivated a security partnership.

The fact that Bahrain and the UAE no longer see Israel through the Palestinian problem’s lens is a new and telling development. It suggests that the influence of pro-Palestinian rights and anti-Israel agitators in these countries has decreased. However, with the Palestinians being an afterthought, the delivery of peace was always inconceivable.

Maximum Pressure over Multilateralism

After years of negotiations, the United Nations’ veto powers plus Germany and Iran agreed on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, on July 14, 2015.

The agreement aimed to prevent Tehran from building nuclear weapons. Tehran promised to limit its uranium enrichment and accept strict international controls, while the US and the EU lifted sanctions against Iran in return.

Trump said he would “renegotiate” the deal as president. His “number one priority,” he told AIPAC in 2016 , was “to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”

The White House imposed several severe sanctions on Iran in an attempt to coerce it back to the negotiating table.

On May 8, 2018, President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal. Since then, no political progress has occurred. Instead, the White House imposed several severe sanctions on Iran in an attempt to coerce it back to the negotiating table.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed the White House’s commitment to the current approach repeatedly, stating that “our maximum economic pressure campaign will continue until Iran is willing to conclude a comprehensive negotiation that addresses the regime’s malign behavior.”

However, despite the devastating economic effects the sanctions have had, Tehran refused to renegotiate and has since repeatedly violated the deal’s stipulations.

Mixed Results

President Trump has undoubtedly kept some of his campaign promises in the Middle East, though he failed on major issues, e.g., Israeli-Palestinian peace and the Iran Nuclear Deal. While the humanitarian issues caused for Palestinians and Kurds alike, as well as the geopolitical implications his withdrawals will have, are hard to quantify at this point, it does not seem inconceivable that the latter could dominate his Middle East legacy.

The same applies to his approach in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Albeit not part of his election promises, some argue Trump’s foreign policy turned a blind eye towards autocracy and human rights violations in favor of realpolitik – a development President-elect Biden has pledged to change.



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