Four must-read books on Trump’s Middle East policies

What we learned from Michael Wolff, John Bolton and Bob Woodward about the Trump administration and the Middle East.

al-monitor US President Donald Trump (3L), US First lady Melania Trump (2L), Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud (C), and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (3R) pose for a group photo with other leaders of the Muslim world during the inauguration of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh on May 21, 2017.  Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images.

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Trump

Dec 31, 2020

Our end-of-year columns and articles sometimes include reviews of books we read, or re-read, on the Middle East.

This year, with the Trump administration winding down, we thought to take a similar tack. 

The four books here are must-reads on the Trump administration, including how US President Donald Trump approached the region.  

They provide essential detail and background on the evolution of Jared Kushner’s strategy for the Middle East, and how it influenced planning for Trump’s first foreign trip as president to Saudi Arabia; the twists and turns of US policy toward Syria and Iran; the positions of Trump's advisers and Cabinet members on the key decisions; and more. 

Some of the Middle East highlights follow. 

"Fire and Fury"

Michael Wolff had unusual access to members of the administration before and soon after Trump took office. "Fire and Fury," released in 2018, was the first credible insider account of the administration’s working. Two sections on the Middle East stand out:

-Syria, April 2017: Wolff recounts Trump’s decision to respond to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykun — which killed at least 89, including children, and injured scores more — on April 4, 2017. This was the first time, Wolff writes, that "a major outside event had intruded on the Trump presidency." The images of the dead and injured children outraged Trump, who responded with a missile attack on Syria within 72 hours. Wolff recounts how White House chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon, "at perhaps his lowest moment of influence" and who had already been booted off the National Security Council by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, was alone among Trump’s advisers in arguing against a strike, foreshadowing Bannon’s departure four months later. 

-Saudi Arabia, May 2017: Wolff presents here the background behind Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner befriending Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and why the president’s first foreign trip was to the kingdom. Wolff explains that the "Trump thinking" was that Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia were the three US partners in the region that mattered, and they could be aligned against Iran. By keeping Riyadh and Cairo close, the thinking went, the United States could also count on them to pressure the Palestinians into whatever deal would be worked out with Israel. In the Middle East and elsewhere, Wolff writes, "Kushner was the driver of the Trump Doctrine."

"Fear"

Bob Woodward’s books are always required reading, part of the Washington insider canon. Few authors, if any, can match his sourcing and access. The tale is not complete until Woodward weighs in. This was the case again with his two Trump administration books, "Fear" and "Rage." "Fear," also released in 2018, after "Fire and Fury," covers roughly the same time frame while adding further details on the events chronicled there.

-Iran, March 2017: Woodward recounts the first of several agonizing arguments by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to prevent Trump from withdrawing from the Iran deal before an alternative strategy was in place. "You aren’t going to jam this down my throat!" Trump said in March, adding that there would be "no more renewals." The Trump administration renewed the deal every 90 days as required for another year, until May 2018.

-Syria, April 2017: Woodward adds even more color to Wolff’s account. Trump called Secretary of Defense Mattis after the attack and said “let’s f**ing kill him [Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad] … the f**ing lot of them!" Mattis told Trump he would get right on it, then told a senior aide "we’re not going to do any of that" and devised a plan for a more measured military response. Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping about the attack as it was happening, while they were having dinner in Mar-a-Lago. Xi replied, "Good, he [Assad] deserved it."

-Saudi Arabia May 2017: Woodward provides even more detail on how Kushner and NSC official Derek Harvey seized the idea that MBS was the "future" for Saudi Arabia and successfully maneuvered for Trump’s visit to the kingdom, overcoming initial opposition from Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson.

-The Pentagon, July 2017: Woodward describes the disastrous tutorial Mattis, Tillerson and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, prepared for Trump at the Pentagon on the need for alliances. "Trump’s message was no on everything that had been presented," Woodward writes. The president called out allies as free riders, tagged Tillerson as "weak" for not withdrawing from the Iran deal, and told the assembled military leaders that "you should be killing guys. You don’t need a strategy to kill guys." After the meeting broke up and Trump left, Tillerson called Trump a "f**ing moron" in a voice "so everyone heard."

"Rage"

"Rage," released in 2020, goes back to the beginning of the Trump administration, including the best accounts to date of his selections of Tillerson and Mattis to be secretaries of state and defense, and covers events, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mueller investigation and the George Floyd protests, through the summer of 2020. On the Middle East, a few highlights:

-Kushner’s ‘peace plan,’ 2017: Woodward provides further detail on Trump’s tasking of Kushner to deal with the Middle East, including a proposal for Israel to annex the Jordan Valley, which was rejected by Tillerson. "If you make the economic benefits big enough, people will say yes," Kushner said. Tillerson considered Kushner’s dealings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "nauseating to watch."

-Trump meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, May 2017: According to Woodward, Netanyahu showed Trump a video of remarks by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seemingly inciting violence against civilians, including Israeli children. The next day, when Trump met privately with Abbas and his advisers in Bethlehem, he called the Palestinian president a "murderer" and a "liar" (Kushner disputes this account). Before the requisite press conference, Trump told Abbas, "I’m going to say some nice things about you, and you’re going to say some nice things about me.  But now you know how I feel."

-Soleimani, January 2020: Woodward recounts a conversation held Dec. 30, 2019, between Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in which Graham tried to talk Trump out of killing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Graham told Trump killing Soleimani would be "over the top." Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, "almost begged" Graham to convince Trump not to do it. Trump gave the order for the strike, which killed Soleimani on Jan. 3, 2020.

"The Room Where It Happened"

John Bolton’s memoir of his time as national security adviser from April 2018 to September 2019 presents an unusually detailed insider’s account of the Trump administration’s national security policy and process, in the tradition of memoirs by Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinksi and James Baker. Some of the highlights on the Middle East are:

-Syria, April 2018: Syrian government forces reportedly used chemical compounds in an attack on the town of Douma in April 2018, killing between 40-50 and injuring over 100. Bolton, who had joined the administration just days prior, describes Erdogan as sounding "like Mussolini" in a call with Trump about Syria. Bolton pressed for a more robust military response, while Mattis successfully pushed "innocuous options." Trump also tasked Bolton with exploring options for an "Arab expeditionary force" to replace US troops in Syria, which went nowhere.

-Iran, May 2018: Bolton had a well-established position as an opponent of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the Iran nuclear deal — and just one month on the job "shred the Iran nuclear deal" against Mattis’ objections, shifting policy to "maximum pressure" sanctions. Bolton explains the interactions with other administration officials and US allies in stepping back from the deal, in his words "showing how easy it was to do once somebody took events in hand."

-Helsinki, July 2018: Bolton’s account of Trump’s summit meeting with Vladimir Putin represents an often overlooked chapter in the Syria conflict. While much of the media accounts of the summit focused on Trump meeting with Putin one on one, without staff or a notetaker, Bolton fills in the substance. Trump told his team that “much of the conversation was on Syria … and getting Iran out." Putin did 90% of the talking. Al-Monitor’s coverage of the consequences of the Helsinki summit for Syria by Maxim Suchkov and others was the most detailed and comprehensive at the time. 

-Erdogan, December 2018: Bolton recounts how Trump seemed to relish sanctioning Turkey to secure the release of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical preacher imprisoned in Turkey, who was released in October 2018. With Brunson home safely, Trump and Erdogan’s relationship warmed up. At the Buenos Aires G20 summit on Dec. 1, 2018, Bolton recounts, from his perspective, a wince-inducing exchange between Trump and Erdogan that couldn’t end soon enough. "Nothing good was going to come of this renewed bromance with yet another authoritarian foreign leader," Bolton concluded. On Dec. 14, in a phone conversation with Erdogan, Trump said he wanted out of Syria, turning security there over to Turkey, creating a "personal crisis" for Bolton, who opposed the idea, and which led to Mattis’ resignation on Dec. 19. A few days later, Trump spoke with Erdogan again and asked him not to attack the Syrian Kurds. Erdogan assured him that he had a "special love and sympathy for the Kurds," and it was only the Syrian Kurdish groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party who were terrorists and enemies. Bolton recounts how a briefing by military commanders at Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq days later marked a "turning point" in Trump’s thinking and a call for a "strong, deliberate and orderly withdrawal," which slowed down the planning for a full departure. The fallout for US-Turkey ties is presented in detail.

-Iran, spring 2019: Bolton provides the most detailed account yet of the internal decision-making leading to "maximum pressure" sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and the designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. Bolton makes clear that he didn’t believe any of these policies would change Iran’s behavior; that would only come with regime change. Bolton describes increasing provocative actions by Iran in spring 2019, leading to the US downing of the Global Hawk drone. Despite an initial decision to respond with a military attack on Iran, Trump at the last minute stepped back, claiming the planned US response was "disproportionate" and could lead to "too many [Iranian] body bags," maybe 150 casualties. Trump pulled back after speaking with National Security Council Legal Adviser and Deputy Counsel to the President for National Security Affairs John Eisenberg, unknown to Bolton. Bolton concluded that Trump’s losing his nerve on the strike was "in my government experience … the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do." Bolton writes exasperatingly of Trump’s efforts, via the mediation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron, to broker a meeting and deal with Iran President Hassan Rouhani. The experience provoked Bolton to have his resignation letter at the ready.

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