Luskin Center for History and Policy Workshop

February 7, 2018

“Obama v. Trump: Was ‘Leading from behind’ such a bad idea after all?”

James Gelvin, Professor, UCLA Department of History

The fifth meeting of the Luskin Center Workshop in History and Policy was led by James Gelvin, professor of Middle Eastern History at UCLA. The workshop, entitled “Obama v. Trump: Was ‘Leading from behind’ such a bad idea after all?” began with a question. Does the Trump administration have a clear policy on the Middle East?

Professor Gelvin began the session by looking back on the Obama administration’s policy on the Middle East. Obama, Professor Gelvin suggested, attempted to turn American foreign policy away from the Middle East. Obama reoriented the thrust of American foreign policy toward Asia and the Pacific Rim. Under his administration, the only intensification of American action in the Middle East was in response to ISIS and, briefly, in Libya. Despite having drawn a red line at the use of chemical weapons, he refused to intervene in Syria even after the Syrian regime deployed chemical weapons against its own people, decision for which he was severely critiqued.

Professor Gelvin argued that Trump does have a clear policy on the Middle East. First and foremost, he has sought to undo and reject the strategies pursued by Obama. In that sense, Trump has “turned back” toward the Middle East, reframing that region as a central site for American foreign action. He has accepted wholesale the official Saudi position that holds terrorism to be the most pressing concern in the region, and he has reasserted American allegiance to old allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as a response to Obama’s more distanced relationship with the leaders of these countries.

Several questions arose. One participant wondered what the role of oil—and Trump’s perception of oil—plays in the Trump administration’s pro-Saudi position. Professor Gelvin reminded participants that, for all the rhetoric, America is in reality less dependent on Saudi fossil fuels than Trump asserts. In articulating well-known rhetoric about the relationship between the US and the Saudi oil industry, Trump is exercising popular “muscle memory” still common in America that suggests that the US is dependent on Saudi Arabia for fossil fuels.

Another question was raised about the future of American policy. What should America do in the Middle East? What about Syria in particular? Professor Gelvin suggested that one of the main problems with American policy in the Middle East is its failure to recognize an overarching regional concern: the persistence of bad governance in several countries, which has meant that long-term social welfare systems have been difficult to develop and human security hard to guarantee. Putting this issue at the forefront of American policy on the Middle East, argued Professor Gelvin, would allow for a more comprehensive approach toward understanding some of the issues that Middle Eastern populations faced.