Trump offers no vision for Middle East policy
With the party’s national security heavyweights absent from the floor of the Republican National Convention and the Donald Trump campaign not offering tangible guidance for supporters, the GOP foreign policy platform and rhetoric were in disarray.
The hands-off approach of the Republican presidential nominee has led to a manifesto that is in stark contrast with Trump’s populist foreign policy views. The Republican platform reiterated that the United States needs to lead by “peace through strength” and should endorse conditional free trade agreements, while Trump has been campaigning on non-interventionist and anti-globalisation rhetoric.
Tough talk on Russia was included in the platform, to highlight the weak posture of US President Barack Obama in regards to Moscow, but Trump recently suggested to the New York Times that he would only defend the Baltic states against a Russian invasion if those countries in the NATO alliance have “fulfilled their obligations to us”, a policy statement that was refuted by his conservative ally US Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, on the sidelines of the convention.
The platform adopted during the convention hinted that Obama, by failing to gain the trust of US allies in the Middle East and bolster Israel’s security, has empowered Iran and the Islamic State (ISIS). It described the nuclear deal with Iran as a non-binding “personal agreement”, even though indications from the Trump campaign had been that a Trump administration would make sure to either implement or renegotiate the deal, not repeal it.
In his acceptance speech, Trump said the deal “gave back $150 billion [to Iran] and we got back absolutely nothing” but he did not say what he was going to do about this.
While noting that Obama “has been unable to rally the world” against Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Republican platform did not offer a way forward in the conflict. It mentioned a safe haven in northern Iraq but not on the Syrian border with Turkey, even though some Trump supporters of Middle East origin told The Arab Weekly they believe he would establish a safe haven for Syrian refugees.
In his acceptance speech, Trump merely blamed the Syrian debacle on Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton without offering a strategy to deal with the conflict.
It is clear that Republicans and their nominee want to make national security a major campaign issue in the battle against Clinton. The level of violence across the United States and the world, whether a terrorist attack in San Bernardino or Nice, is allowing Trump to sell himself as the “law, order and security” candidate who will succeed as president in defeating ISIS.
“We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS,” Trump said to great applause, “and we are going to beat them fast.” He offered no details or strategy, however.
One of the most peculiar lines in his speech was his pledge, in the wake of the Orlando terrorist attack at a gay nightclub, to defend America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community against ISIS. The party’s platform is stridently opposed to expounding on LGBT rights.
With neither Trump nor his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, having much of a background in foreign policy or national security, Republicans are not offering any substantive change on the Middle East. During the convention, there were no foreign policy talking points given to Trump supporters and surrogates, who struggled to defend and explain their nominee’s positions.
What is alarming about Trump is not merely his unconventional policy proposals but his unpredictability. Before becoming his party’s nominee, Trump had backtracked on his views of Israel, torture and banning Muslims. Like any demagogue, his motivation in the primaries was polling, not policy. Now, after winning his party’s nomination, he has yet to put together a traditional campaign with a clear foreign policy vision.
However, a Trump presidency would not necessarily be drastically different from Obama’s. The Trump camp talks about working with Russia on Syria and advocates a non-ideological foreign policy. The Republican nominee also shares with Obama the concept of “free riders”, a reference to allies who ask for US protection without paying in return. Both share a disdain for the neo-conservatives who orchestrated the 2003 Iraq war and a belief that America should not be the world’s policeman.
Trump will be incapable of radically changing US foreign policy or altering the nature of its relations with key allies. He might change the style of the presidency but at the end of the day, like recent presidents before him, he will have to deal with an increasingly divided Congress and a complex US bureaucracy that is split on many global challenges. Where Middle East turmoil is concerned, more than tough talk is needed.