Judging by the headlines, the last two years of U.S. Middle East policy seem to be marked by a whiplash-inducing series of radical shifts. U.S. President Donald Trump ran on opposition to a foreign policy of “intervention and chaos,” then ramped up U.S. airstrikes from Somalia to Syria. He announced a complete pullout of U.S. troops from eastern Syria in December, declaring, “They’re all coming back and they’re coming back now,” only to reverse himself and then trumpet additional military deployments to the region to counter Iran six months later. He has simultaneously decried his predecessor’s overinvestment in the Middle East and his weakness there.
These conflicting signals have allowed wildly different interpretations of the Trump administration’s posture in the Middle East. Focusing on one announcement leads to warnings of a new war; focusing on others allows for proclamations of a “post-American era” in the Middle East. Yet most Middle East watchers seem to agree that something fundamental about America’s presence in the region is changing.This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.