Middle East policy under Donald Trump

Return of the dictators

Just how the Trump administration will handle the thorny issue of the Middle East remains to be seen. Trump's policy of non-intervention and "pragmatic" alliances with authoritarian rulers is, however, likely to encourage the return of repressive dictatorships, lending them apparent respectability in exchange for guarantees of stability. By Rene Wildangel

Donald Trump will enter the White House at a time when the situation throughout the Middle East could not be more catastrophic. Devastating violence, the disintegration of nations, ethnic and religious conflicts and a return to autocracy as a supposed cure-all: this is the state of affairs facing Donald Trump even before he takes power.

The track records of his two predecessors are sobering: George W. Bush and his fellow neo-conservative ideologues set out to spread democracy in the Middle East through military intervention and regime change. And members of his administration – above all Vice President Dick Cheney – also had substantial economic interests in the region. In the so-called "War on Terror" after 9/11, the standards of international law were simply ignored. US occupation spawned embittered and violent resistance in Iraq, creating a new battlefield for international terrorism.

President Obama took office in 2008, avowing change. With his electrifying speech in Cairo in 2009 ("A New Beginning"), he aroused high hopes in the region: "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam (...) share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

Obama doubtlessly adopted the right approach here and during his presidency he expressed his personal respect for people in the region on many occasions: long before the nuclear treaty with Iran, for example, he sent a video message with greetings for the Nowruz celebration and he also wished Muslims all over the world "Eid Mubarak" for Ramadan. His most important move after taking office, though, was to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

No end to the "War on Terror"

But that didn't put an end to the failed "War on Terror". Although Obama did put a stop to the CIA's use of the infamous "waterboarding" interrogation technique, he was unable to close Guantanamo. The fight against terrorism continued by means of air raids and drone strikes, which took the lives of many civilians.

The latest Wikileaks disclosures show, for example, the extent of US involvement in the war in Yemen. Given radically decreased spending on democratisation measures as the Obama era draws to a close, coupled with arms sales to the Middle East in the record amount of $100 billion, the US think tank POMED sees a trend toward "close alliances with repressive regimes and stepped-up military aid."

When the Arab revolutions faltered, the president helplessly stood by and watched. When the Assad regime then overstepped Obama's own red line by deploying chemical weapons, the US president was unable to respond. The young people who once took to the streets across the region, seeing Obama as a beacon of hope, are today sitting by the thousands in Egyptian or Syrian prisons. Obama has ended up disappointing the huge expectations raised by his Cairo speech, which played a role in the decision to award him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

As a result, no one expects much of Donald Trump′s Middle East policies – considering his Islamophobic tirades and praise for dictators like Bashar Al-Assad, Saddam Hussein and Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, not to mention his blatant indifference and failure to comprehend the dynamics in the region.

Avowed Islamophobes in positions of power

During his election campaign, Trump fomented massive fears, painting a black-and-white picture of Muslims and "Islam" as the enemy. Trump even referred to Obama in his campaign speeches as the "founder of ISIS" because he felt the current president had not done enough to fight Islamist terrorism. Apart from harsh rhetoric, however, he has to date brought nothing to the table. Several potential members of Trump's future administration are likewise blazing haters of Islam, such as his designated security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn has called Islamism "a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people that must be excised."

Michael Flynn, designated national security advisor to the Trump administration (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Hate and prejudice towards Muslims: his designated security adviser Michael Flynn enjoys something of a dubious reputation among colleagues. At the beginning of 2016, Flynn twittered that it was ″rational″ to be scared of Muslims. According to Flynn, ″Islamism is a political ideology... like a vicious cancer"

Trump's tactic of scoring points with voters through Islamophobic sound bites was evidently successful. He refrained however from burdening his constituents with details about the actual situation in the Middle East, the causes of the crises and wars and the problem of millions of Muslim refugees who are themselves fleeing from terror. Instead, he pointed to Germany, alleging that it is descending into chaos in its attempts to deal with the influx of refugees.

Since winning the election, Trump has furtively discarded his Islamophobic and racist demand to arbitrarily forbid Muslims entry into the USA. The truth is that even the Obama administration already tightened entry restrictions for people from countries such as Iran and Syria and needy refugees had little chance of being let into the country. Only 10,000 Syrian refugees were allowed into the USA in 2015/16. Under Trump, the programme could be ended permanently.

Trump has also been outspoken in his remarks on Iran, lashing out against Obama′s internationally celebrated nuclear treaty. He has already announced his intention to renegotiate the agreement and impose new sanctions on Iran.

Furthermore, the designated head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo and prospective UN Ambassador Niki Haley are outspoken opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran. A return to the warmongering of recent years is unlikely, yet nor can an improvement in US-Iranian relations be expected in the next four years, given the hostile attitude toward Iran prevailing in Trump's cabinet and the Republican-dominated Congress.

Trump's remarks on Syria stand in sharp contrast to his tough stance on Iran. He wants to come to an understanding with Russia and seems to be willing to accept the Russian strategy of a graveyard peace under the Iranian ally Bashar Al-Assad. Assad for his part welcomed the election of Trump, whom he described as a "natural ally in the fight against terrorism".

President Putin is taking advantage of the US government's restricted capacity for action during the transition phase to launch a major offensive against Aleppo, threatening hundreds of thousands of civilians. The US President Elect has not breathed a word about it. Assad, who is responsible for the gravest human rights violations, might then very well be granted an upcoming military victory. As long as he is at the helm, however, Syria will find no peace.

Return to unilateral, isolationist policies

In an interview with the New York Times, Trump underscored that he is generally against any further intervention. "I don't think we should be a nation-builder," he said.

He favours unilateral, isolationist policies, oriented more towards the interests of America, not to mention his own personal ones. The USA no longer wishes to be regarded as the world's policeman, let alone a multilateral player.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and the Russian president Putin (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Autocrats united: dealing with dictators who create supposed security through intelligence apparatus and suppression does not bother Trump. At an encounter during the UN General Assembly in New York with Egyptian President Sisi, under whose rule more political opponents have already been imprisoned than under Mubarak, Trump called the leader a "fantastic guy" and remarked on the good chemistry between them. He is also seeking to reach an understanding with Putin

Dealing with dictators who create supposed security through intelligence apparatus and suppression does not bother Trump. At an encounter during the UN General Assembly in New York with Egyptian President Sisi, under whose rule more political opponents have already been imprisoned than under Mubarak, Trump called the leader a "fantastic guy."

Less clear is Trump's stance on Israel. But relations with Netanyahu, badly damaged of late under Obama, are likely to improve. The Israeli right wing celebrated Trump's victory. The Israeli Right wants to see the idea of a Palestinian state laid to rest once and for all. According to Trump's advisors, the settlements are allegedly "not an obstacle to peace." That view would be a green light for the right-wing Israeli regime and the proponents of an annexation of parts of the West Bank could triumph.

The unification of Jerusalem and the transfer of the US Embassy there could also become a reality, just as Republicans in Congress have demanded for the past several years. The previous red lines defined by American foreign policy in the Middle East would then be shifted and the 50-year-old Israeli occupation finally become a permanent state of affairs. One possible consequence would be the much-invoked Third Intifada, along with a huge boost for the global boycott movement against Israel.

Temporary pretence of stability

What US policy on the Middle East will look like in detail is impossible to predict at this point. Trump's own business interests could very well play a role. He has been doing business with the Gulf States for decades and is in the process of building luxury golf resorts in Dubai. Trump will not want to jeopardise these investments. And even though Trump railed against Saudi Arabia during the campaign, he will surely continue to supply weapons to the country, sales of which rose to the record levels under Obama.

Trump's non-intervention policy and "pragmatic" alliances with authoritarian rulers could encourage the return of repressive dictatorships, lending them apparent respectability in exchange for guarantees of stability. Yet this is the very paradigm that plunged the region into chaos in the first place. At best, Trump′s retreat would give the temporary impression of stability. But social, religious and ethnic divisions will continue to deepen. And the civil societies and all democratically-minded people in the region will be the ones to suffer.

Rene Wildangel

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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Comments for this article: Return of the dictators

Fear is Trump's major method of gaining his backing. As of this AM Pew polls find 21% trust Trump but obviously another 28% voted for him. Being Republican was one factor. My father would have voted for him if he were still alive. Another is that many men in particular do not want a female to rule--at home, at work or in politics, so they chose Trump thinking he'd change afterward. Fat chance by his choices of advisers and Dept. heads. Many of the things he claimed he would do are physically impossible--like detaining 11 million people, sending home all Muslims--30% or more have citizenship, Not enough courts, lawyers etc. Constitution doesn't allow mass deportation. FDR may have overridden it in 1941 but we paid for it in the 70's. My neighbors are Middle eastern. I'm assuming Syria or Lebanon. They were long dresses--usually dark prints; headscarves--like Russian babuskas did in Gary, Indiana when I was a child--70 years ago--their children squeal and laugh just like the other kids in the complex (300 apartments). One boy likes to remark about my Christmas tree, its lights and my many candles in the window after dark. What danger are they??? One mother likes Starbuck coffee that she gets regularly passing my window and another washes clothes in the laundry--how unusual!!! ( Tongue in cheek.) They are no different than any one else in a strange land and most likely better mannered than many Americans in Europe or the Middle east. We will get through this mess with Trump but those who don't trust him--79%--must make sure he and the Congress do what is right ( it will be hard!!!!) or we will pay for it in numerous ways long after I die. Take care and enjoy the Christian holidays as they are and enjoy your EID when it comes.

trishjw10.12.2016 | 21:09 Uhr