It’s been remarkable to watch the mainstream press and official Washington try to downplay the significance of the peace deal the Trump administration brokered between Israel and two Arab states this week.
The signing of the Abraham Accords on Tuesday between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain at the White House, which for the first time normalized relations between Israel and the two Persian Gulf states, is by any measure historic. It’s been 26 years since any Arab state recognized Israel, and the deal struck this week holds out hope that other Mideast countries, maybe even Saudi Arabia, will be next.
Under a Democrat president, this would have met paeons in the press and soliloquies on cable news about the historic nature of the accords. Think tankers and foreign policy experts would have marveled at the achievement. Elected leaders would have hailed the agreement as the beginning of a new era for peace in the Mideast. It would have dominated the headlines all week.
Instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it a “distraction.” MSNBC’s Chuck Todd said he was “uncomfortable” with it because it “seems transactional.” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell scoffed that “it is not Middle East peace.” CBS called it a “business deal,” and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, never one to miss the conventional wisdom train, said the accords “amount to an arms deal.”
You get the idea. When pundits weren’t dismissing the accords as some kind of seedy Mideast business arrangement, they were deriding Trump’s role in it, saying he deserves no credit because he just happened to be in office when all the pieces fell into place. Israel and the Gulf states, the thinking goes, have been working closely for years now, the result of geopolitical forces that have little to do with Trump.
Trump’s Pivot Away From Iran Was Crucial
All of this amounts to so much hand-wringing from “the blob”—that faux-sagacious body of foreign policy experts that’s been wrong about the Middle East for decades. These are the experts and officials who assured us, in lock-step with the Obama administration, that the key to stability in the Mideast was to ensure that Iran could become a regional hegemon. All we had to do, according to this theory, is get a nuclear deal with Tehran—at any cost, it turns out—and the United States could then leave the region more or less to the mullahs, who would replace the United States as the region’s power broker.
It turns out, the region didn’t like the idea of living under Iran’s heel. Indeed, many of the strategic shifts that have changed geopolitics in the Mideast in recent years have happened as a reaction against the Obama administration’s theory of an ascendant Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, along with Egypt, rightly see Iran as a threat, nuclear deal or no, and responded accordingly, building stronger ties with Israel as they realized their mutual interest.
When Trump followed through on his pledge to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, then had the nerve to kill Iran’s Qasem Soleiman and ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it sent a clear message to other Mideast leaders that U.S. policy had decidedly shifted under Trump.
The conventional wisdom, that peace in the region depended on an Israeli-Palestinian deal, turned out to have been wrong. As my colleague Helen Raleigh notes, we were assured that Trump killed all chance for peace in the region when he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in December 2017. The Middle East, said Obama’s former Secretary of State John Kerry, would explode. Other former Obama officials warned that the United States had squandered its chance to be a peacemaker.
In doing so, none of these people were willing to question their long-held assumptions about Mideast geopolitics or grapple with how their policies might have changed the incentives for Arab leaders. Indeed, the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the specter of ISIS served as a powerful wake-up call to the Arab states—especially when, with the Obama administration’s tacit support, the Muslim Brotherhood briefly took power in Egypt in 2012.
Trump of course had no hand in these developments, but he did have the acumen and wherewithal to recognize the opportunity that they presented, which counts for much.
Writing earlier this year in the Texas National Security Review about the Good Friday Agreement that ended Northern Ireland’s civil war, James B. Steinburg, a former deputy national security advisor and State Department official in the Clinton administration, noted the importance of what he calls “ripeness” in international diplomacy and conflict resolution. In the case of Northern Ireland, the parties adopted in 1998 what they had rejected in 1973. Changed circumstances, says Steinburg, played a major role, but so did the recognition that circumstances had changed:
While policymakers are often limited in what they can do to create the conditions that make a conflict ripe for settlement, it is a vital tool of statecraft to be able to spot an opportunity when it is emerging. It is equally important to understand when a conflict is not ripe for negotiation: It can be argued that the premature effort leading to the Sunningdale agreement in 1973 actually contributed to prolonging the conflict.
Give Trump credit, then, for recognizing the “ripeness” of the moment in the Middle East. Give credit as well to the leaders of Israel, UAE, and Bahrain, who recognized that a window is open right now for peace and closer regional ties that might not stay open forever.
After all, Joe Biden has promised to revive his old boss’s discredited Iran policy—the very thing that helped push these countries closer together. They rightly figured that if Biden wins the White House, the chance to normalize relations will have passed and the conventional Mideast wisdom will return, unfazed by reality, embodied once again by the blob that failed.