Steven Simon, a National Security Council director for the Middle East and North Africa during the Clinton and Obama administrations, gave a lecture called “The US and the Middle East in the Age of Trump” on Wednesday. In this lecture, Simon argued that President Donald Trump’s policy toward the Middle East reflects a deeper trend of disengagement that began under President Obama. 

Simon read from his new book, “The Long Goodbye: The US and the Middle East from the Islamic Revolution to the Arab Spring.” He explained that “the bloom was off the rose” of liberal interventionism: enthusiasm for interventionist policy has wilted due to declining U.S. reliance on the Middle East for oil, the chaos of the Arab Spring and the failures of U.S. interventionism in Iraq and Libya. 

One clear example of changing U.S. policy toward the Middle East, Simon said, was when Obama endorsed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power but warned that “the United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders.” Simon observed that Obama’s policy regarding Syria was noticeably more cautious than that of President George H. W. Bush in 1991 toward Iraq — Bush actively encouraged the Iraqi people to overthrow then-President Saddam Hussein through international television channels and leaflets dropped by coalition aircraft.

Simon linked these examples to the current relationship between the United States and the Kurds in Syria, remarking that the Syrian Kurds are now “sipping from the same bitter chalice” of those who hoped for a “salvific America” and were ultimately disappointed. He explained that Syrian Kurdish forces assisted the United States with their fight against terrorist group Islamic State in exchange for U.S. support of an autonomous Kurdish region within Syria. On Oct. 13, however, Trump abruptly announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, abandoning the Kurds to an uncertain fate.  

This decision seemed especially sudden due to a general “sort of confusion about the role and relevance of the West Wing” in their ability to coordinate policy, Simon said. He explained that “on the one hand, Trump is seen as omnipotent, on the other, as a blowhard to be disregarded.” Trump repeatedly expressed his desire to withdraw from Syria, but military officials, such as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, had reassured the Kurdish forces that “the United States would never let them down.” Despite this, Trump simply fired Mattis and moved forward with his announcement of withdrawal.  “It turned out that Trump’s views actually mattered and that he can and does often get his way,” Simon remarked.

Simon said that aside from stopping extremist activity, the United States does not have any significant stake in Syria: the two countries lack affinity groups, they were on opposite sides of the Cold War and they share minimal economic connections. “As dramatic as these developments are, they are just one half of a double feature,” Simon said. He argued that the second factor in United States Middle Eastern policy, perhaps more relevant to U.S. interests, is the relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

According to Simon, there has been a pattern over the past few administrations where each president has come into office determined to humble an Iran that was “enriched and emboldened” by their immediate predecessor. Ultimately, each president has somewhat softened their stance and attempted to establish a working relationship with Iran, such as the when the Obama administration joined the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Simon said that Trump appeared as though he might break that pattern. Trump has certainly been tough on Iran, withdrawing from the Nuclear Deal and and carrying out a maximum pressure policy of reimposing harsh sanctions. 

Simon pointed out that if “the United States decides to wreck a foreign economy, it is positioned to do so” due to its status as a “financial hegemon.” However, because the U.S. sanctions were unilateral, the impact on Iran’s economy was not as harsh as it could have been. Simon explained that the United States attempted to coerce other countries, including U.S. allies in Europe, to follow the sanctions by imposing secondary sanctions prohibiting trade with Iran. European countries, resenting the sanctions, established mechanisms to trade with Iran in a way that bypassed the U.S. banking system and made efforts to salvage the deal with a new round of negotiations. Iran reinforced international support for its position by continuing to cooperate with the terms of the deal, while also making measured threats to reduce this cooperation.

Although Trump has reimposed sanctions on Iran, Simon remarked that Trump seems reluctant to go any further. When Iranian fire shot down an expensive U.S. drone, the U.S. military threatened force. Many believed that the United States and Iran would soon be at war, but Trump refrained from retaliating against Iran. Simon explained that Trump was turning away from hardliners in his party, such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton, because Bolton would involve Trump in a war he had no desire to be in. Trump’s softening policy toward Iran was made clear when Iran allegedly attacked two Saudi Arabian oil fields. Trump again brushed off the attack as trivial, despite Saudi Arabia being an important U.S. ally. A few weeks after the attack, he even attempted to set up a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, although that endeavor ultimately failed. 

Simon observed that the changing U.S. policy in the region is “unsettling for Israel.” He explained that Iran’s strategy against Israel has been to focus on a long-term erosion of Israeli capacity for self-defense. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 reinforced support for this strategy, according to Simon. Iran supports Hezbollah, a Lebanese terrorist group, allowing Iran to effectively share a border with Israel and with Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group. According to Simon, they also promote rhetoric remarking that Iran could survive as a country if it were attacked by a nuclear weapon, but that Israel would be wiped out with one hit. According to Simon, Israel follows a similar defense strategy. The Iran Nuclear Deal had promised to put a stop to this posturing, but U.S. withdrawal from the deal has disincentivized Israeli cooperation. Simon ended his reading on an ominous note, remarking that “when Israel feels alone, it is liable to act alone.”

One audience member brought up the upcoming 2020 elections, asking Simon how he believed a potential future Democratic president should approach policy regarding the Middle East. Simon stressed that climate change was a central factor influencing Middle Eastern politics as it affects food supply, leading to increased migration. Secondly, Simon argued that the Iran Nuclear Deal needed to be approached from scratch, as the deal is nearing the sunset clause and the political rhetoric is overwhelmingly against it.