WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump sent two private letters to Middle East allies in recent weeks complaining that the United States had spent too much money in the region and urging them to pick up more of the burden as part of a coalition to counter Iran’s influence, a person familiar with them said Thursday.
“As we drive these ISIS killers from Syria, it is essential that the responsible nations of the Middle East step up their own contributions to prevent Iran from profiting off the success of our anti-ISIS effort,” Trump said last month at a news conference with President Emmanuel Macron of France, referring to the Islamic State.
“Very rich countries are in the Middle East,” Trump added. “They have to make major contributions. They have not been doing it as they should. A major topic that we discussed a little while ago: They have to step up tremendously — not a little bit, but tremendously — their financial effort.”
He has said repeatedly that the United States spent $7 trillion in the Middle East since 9/11 and had gotten nothing out of it, a figure that fact checkers have deemed false. He may be taking that number from a study by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University that estimated future debt from war spending by 2053 at $7.9 trillion. For “war-related activities” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001, the institute says the cost has been $1.88 trillion.
Either way, of course, it is a lot of money, and Trump essentially enshrined this point in a letter that was sent a few weeks ago to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, according to the person familiar with it. Trump talked about the need for the allies to work together with the United States to strengthen their united front against Iran and urged them to resolve a dispute with their neighbor, Qatar, that has led to a blockade.
After receiving a response from the Arabs, Trump then sent a second letter about a week ago reinforcing the points. It was not clear what specific steps might follow. He made a vague offer to send a team to help resolve the Qatar conflict if it would be helpful, but the Arab states have resisted the idea, saying it was for them to handle.
The existence of the first letter was made public Wednesday by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who appeared intent on using it to undermine the Sunni Arab states that received it. He posted a message on Twitter jabbing the Arabs a day after Trump announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
“A few days ago Trump wrote a letter to leaders of #PersianGulf states, which was revealed to us,” the supreme leader wrote. “He wrote: ‘I spent $7 trillion and you must do something in return.’ The U.S. wants to own humiliated slaves.”
The ayatollah did not disclose how he obtained a copy of the letter. The White House and State Department declined to comment on private correspondence between the president and foreign leaders, but the person familiar with it said the Iranians distorted it to make it seem more divisive than it was. A Trump administration official told The Washington Post that the first letter was sent about two weeks ago.
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group advocating tougher policies against Iran, said Trump’s refrain about the need for Middle East allies to do more was aimed partly at a domestic audience of Americans tired of involvement in the region.
“Trump’s demand for our Arab allies to pick up the tab to fund our military commitment to the region is critical for persuading his political base to keep U.S. troops in Syria, which is an essential element of his Iranian pressure strategy,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.