Donald Trump and the Arab world

Sunday 20/11/2016

Trying to sketch an outline of US Presi­dent-elect Donald Trump’s Middle East policy is no easy matter. As Rami Khouri, a senior fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University in Beirut, pointed out after the election, the foreign policy aspect of the presidential campaign “was little more than an extension of Saturday morn­ing cartoon shows”.

The fact of the matter is that Trump probably does not know himself. Until we know whom he appoints to lead the Defense and State departments and the Nation­al Security Council, commentators are whistling in the dark.

Two things we do know: Mike Pence, the vice-president-elect, who is the governor of Indiana and a former congressman, will play a key role as will Trump’s son-in-law, 35-year-old Jared Kushner, who is a kindred spirit.

The president-elect has his admirers in the region, however much he stigmatised Muslims and tolerates anti-Semites in his entourage. The United States is mistrusted for its support for tyrants in the Middle East but a Trump presidency will signal the end of an era in which America symbolised democracy to people living under corrupt authoritarian governments around the world.

Misguided projections of force in the Middle East and beyond have given the United States less influ­ence than its soft power. It is, thus, not surprising that enthusiasm at the outcome of the US presidential election was on display in France (National Front leader Marine Le Pen), Britain (the UK Independ­ence Party’s Nigel Farage), Turkey (President Recep Tayyip Erdogan), Egypt (President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) and Israel (Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu) where the right wing attributes the results to divine intervention while liberals are in despair. In Syria enthusiasm was no less great for being muted.

Where Syria is concerned, neither the United States under President Barack Obama nor the European Union was willing to commit resources that would have allowed the opposition to prevail and it looks unlikely Trump will change the course of US policy.

Working with Russia on Syria might be unavoidable, as it has looked for some time. To that ex­tent, a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin would confirm Moscow’s enhanced clout in the Middle East and beyond and could lower tensions with the European Union, whose internal divisions and ever-lower military spending deny it the luxury of a hard-nosed foreign policy.

Turkey’s newly minted friend­ship with Russia has changed the dynamics on the battlefield in Syria and the best that might be hoped for in Western capitals is that a victory for Syrian President Bashar Assad is not followed by a bloodbath of the Syrian opposition.

US relations with China and Russia will dominate the agenda followed by the turmoil in the Middle East. A strong US military presence remains necessary but not sufficient to address all three.

Maintaining a strong military balance in Europe and East Asia is an important source of American influence but if the new president appreciates that trying to control the internal politics of national­ism, tribe and the Sunni-Shia divide, which bedevil the popu­lations of the Middle East, is a recipe for failure, that will mark an improvement from previous US administrations, either Democrat or Republican.

The complex set of revolutions in the Middle East, the result of sectarian strife and delayed modernisation, will fuel radical jihadism, long encouraged by Saudi Arabia, for years to come. Obama has been much criticised for withdrawing from the Middle East but US military interventions in the region have hardly helped it modernise.

Obama’s legacy for that part of the world will be determined by how the Iran nuclear deal plays out. Trump excoriated last year’s deal between Iran and world powers to shrink Tehran’s nu­clear capacity but that accord was incorporated into international law by the UN Security Council. It is not simply up to Washington to tear it up.

What the Russians and the Chi­nese think cannot be disregarded by Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani would not be in a comfortable position vis-à-vis Iranian hardliners were US-Iran re­lations to revert to confrontation. It is too early to say how events will work out.

Trump might ratchet up support for Israel but if he pursues the kind of isolationist, America first, real­ist foreign policy he has declared he would follow, might he be inclined to reconsider the terms of the tremendous — and largely un­conditional — support the United States provides to Israel? That seems unlikely and neither settle­ment expansion nor rising intoler­ance towards any criticism of the Israeli occupation are likely to curry favour in Washington. Many autocracies in the Middle East and North Africa will be thankful not to be lectured on human rights.

Robert Hunter, a former US ambassador to NATO, has sug­gested that “quality people, able to think for themselves and give good, solid, strategically relevant advice to a president, exist in both political parties. They were largely absent from the past two adminis­trations”.

Such a judgment seems to me rather harsh, especially where Iran is concerned. I would not be too sanguine about the number of people able to think strategically about the Middle East in the new administration.