The Trump Administration’s Middle East Policies: A Mid-term Assessment

Event Information


The Middle East Policy Council convened its 95th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, January 25th: “The Trump Administration’s Middle East Policies: A Mid-term Assessment.” Convened at the midpoint of President Trump’s first term, all of the panelists agreed that the Trump administration has approached U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East with the goal of remedying perceived failures of the past Obama and Bush administrations, something often frustrated by the disconnect between administration policy formulation and the president’s direct communication via Twitter. But in analyzing its implementation, the panelists differed on their assessments, particularly how well specific policies will further the Trump administration’s overall goals in the region.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice chairperson of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event; Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) was a contributor and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Philip Gordon (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations); Michael Doran (Senior Follow, Hudson Institute); and Jon Alterman (Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, CSIS).

Mr. Gordon began by stressing how hard it is for any presidential administration to get high marks at the midpoint of its first term, particularly given the near constant convulsions in the Middle East. Yet he sees contradiction in the approach being taken by the Trump administration: on the one hand there is far-reaching ambition to tackle large, historically intractable issues like Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while on the other hand, President Trump views the region as one where the U.S. has wasted money and lives with little to show for it. Mr. Gordon ultimately sees the latter being the more prominent driver of U.S. policy in the region. In terms of priorities, he sees containing Iranian influence as the central goal of this administration, but doubts that the associated policies will achieve it. For example, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal may have increased the pain on the Iranian economy, but has not changed Iranian behavior in the region. Similarly, the ambition to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians appears to be undermined by the controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Mr. Doran summarized President Trump’s approach to the Middle East as “I will do more with less” when compared to the past Obama and Bush administrations. This is rooted in a sharp difference between how Presidents Obama and Trump view the region, with the former seeing it as a round table with different stakeholders whom the U.S. is tasked with organizing and the latter seeing it as a rectangular table with allies and adversaries, with the U.S. goal being to strengthen its side. Viewed through this lens, Mr. Doran graded the current administration’s effort quite favorably. There has been a successful effort to shore up the relationship with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the three Middle East countries capable of projecting military power beyond their borders. In terms of policy performance, Mr. Doran conceded that some of the problems in the region may be too big for the U.S. to really “solve,” with the best-case scenario being to effectively manage them.

Mr. Alterman defined three main pillars to the Trump administration’s Middle East policy: rebuild close ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia; counter Iran; and limit the U.S. involvement in the region, particularly costly military interventions. Yet he questioned the reasoning behind these priorities. Ties were never really that frayed with Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration, save for personality differences between the heads of state. And the focus on Iran is peculiar given the immense disparity in power between the U.S. and Iran and the reality that Iran can always be a spoiler but never an actual winner. Ultimately, Mr. Alterman warned of an erosion in U.S. moral standing in the region, particularly as the Trump administration embraces authoritarian leaders and tactics while at the same time disparaging U.S. institutions. This turns U.S. foreign policy into a series of bilateral, transactional relationships where the U.S. is always the stronger party, rather than one guided at least in part by principles and values.

The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email

Event Speakers

Philip H. Gordon 

Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow, U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Senior Advisor, Albright Stonebridge Group

Former White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region 


Michael Doran

Senior Fellow, Middle East Security, Hudson Institute

Former Senior Director, National Security Council 

Former Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution


Jon B. Alterman

Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, CSIS

Director, Middle East Program, CSIS

Former Member, Policy Planning Staff, Department of State

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top