January 2, 2024 - 1:00pm

During the four erratic years of Donald Trump’s presidency, the underlying conflicts in the Middle East were kept on a (relative) simmer. Joe Biden’s election was supposed to herald the return of sensible decision-making, but chaos has instead sprung up in the region during his tenure. How Middle East policy might change in a hypothetical second Trump term is difficult to judge, especially because of the thoroughly inchoate nature of the ex-president’s vision for foreign intervention.

Under Trump, the US had a two-pronged message: “Don’t poke the eagle, and let’s make a deal.” On one hand, his administration tapped into the “Jacksonian” tradition of using military might to deter foreign aggression and strike back if the national interest is threatened. On the other, it also embraced a realpolitik approach of forging alliances based on strategic interest.

US airstrikes pummelled Isis, and focused military efforts took out high-level targets (such as the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani). At the same time, the Trump White House tried to solidify an anti-Iran coalition while diplomatically integrating Israel into the greater Middle East. Fostering ties with Saudi Arabia was a central part of Trump’s Middle East policy, and his administration oversaw deals normalising the relationship of Israel with some of its regional neighbours, including Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

Conversely, Biden’s approach to the Middle East has been defined by a combination of Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism and the idealism of the antiwar 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. Biden entered office pledging to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state and immediately set about trying to improve relations with Iran.

This combination might have exacerbated instability in the region. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan suggested that the hand at the tiller was in fact unsteady. The Biden administration’s growing security commitments to Ukraine have aimed a Klieg light on the soft spots of the American defence-industrial infrastructure. The President’s own limited appearances and public displays of confusion have only added to the sense of a power vacuum. The perception that the United States was overtaxed, adrift, and wracked by internal divisions was an important strategic backdrop for Hamas’s 7 October assault on Israel and recent Houthi attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea.

If he were to regain the Oval Office, Trump might be pulled in conflicting directions. One of the most prominent contemporary exponents of a Jacksonian foreign policy, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, has called for strikes against Houthi helicopters and drones in order to protect shipping lanes in the Red Sea. It is not hard to see Trump returning to those hawkish roots and launching strikes against Houthi rebels and other Iran proxies, particularly when his allies in Washington are advocating for similar responses. That targeted military action could intertwine with elements from Trump’s past record — backing Israel while also assembling a coalition to restrain Iran. 

But there is also a chance that a second Trump term could see a more retrenchment-oriented approach — less “don’t poke the eagle” and more the “come home, America” that was George McGovern’s slogan. During Trump’s time in office, defence spending swelled. However, some in Trump’s orbit now suggest a more sweeping reduction of the military budget. Appointed acting secretary of defense after the 2020 presidential election, Christopher C. Miller has been mentioned by Trump himself as a possible Pentagon chief in a second Trump term. In his recent memoir, Miller mused that the defence budget could be cut in half, a reduction that would form a major break from the instincts that guided Trump’s first term and could send geopolitical shockwaves around the globe.

Trump thrives on conflict and ambiguity, and MAGA Republicans are far from united on foreign policy. What “America first” means for the Middle East could be very much up for grabs, and the future of the region may depend on it.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.