The Trump administration’s early record

Sunday 05/02/2017

Barely two weeks after the inauguration, the Trump administration is embroiled in controversy over its decision to peremptorily ban entry into the United States of all refugees and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries.

It is clear that US President Donald Trump is trying to reassure his core voters. A narrative of fear has created relatively large constituencies in the West, who routinely associate Arabs and Muslims with terrorism and violence.

Obviously, every country has the sovereign right to decide who enters its territory and who does not, but it is impossible to ignore the human toll of this decision. Piteous stories have emerged of the thousands of victims of Trump’s sudden rule change.

The new restrictions may not even serve US interests. Security and immigration experts say the move will not help the US fight against terrorism. They say that such a ban may even make it harder for US officials to work closely with allies in the Muslim world to counter extremism.

Besides, in an age of greater intertwined trade, cultural commin­gling and swift communication across the global village, such sweep­ing restrictions are unrealistic and unwise.

The issue of travel and immigration restrictions should, however, not overshadow the larger issues at stake in America’s relations with the Arab world.

Despite Trump’s campaign statements, Israel cannot rely on getting the free ride it imagined it would in Washington. On February 2nd, an unidentified senior Trump administration official took a relatively hard line on Israeli settlement building, reiterating the president’s commitment to a comprehensive two-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and calling on Tel Aviv to cease “undermining” efforts to forge peace.

A subsequent White House statement seemed slightly less forceful. Settlements, it said, “may not be helpful” and Trump had not yet “taken an official position on settlement activity”.

This two-track approach may become a feature of Trump’s Washing­ton with the wider world wondering which approach will prevail. Unsurprisingly, across the Middle East and North Africa, the mood is sombre, even though many analysts are willing to wait until they see how the Trump administration addresses the hard questions and makes hard decisions.

There are three things to watch out for: The administration has given the US military one month to devise a strategy to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). The clock is ticking. Also, in the past few days, the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria have received a bit more support than usual from the Pentagon, signalling greater material engagement in the fight against ISIS.

Finally, the US approach to Iran. Early signs show a determination to stand up to Iran’s aggressive policies in the region. US national security adviser Michael Flynn did not hesitate to put Tehran “on notice” calling out its “destabilising behaviour across the Middle East” after its recent missile launch and the Houthi attack on a Saudi frigate. On February 3rd, Washington announced a new set of sanc­tions against Iran.

There is a lot happening but the full picture of Trump’s intentions towards the region is clearly yet to emerge.