The Uncertainty of Trump and the Middle East

As the United States recoils from the aftershock of an outsider from the DC establishment—President-elect Donald Trump—winning the presidency, the international community, including the Arab world and the wider Middle East, does the same. There will be those who will favor his victory –Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt being the most obvious example – but by and large, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the region’s leadership. Because, quite simply, it remains to be seen how Trump is going differ from his predecessors. It is not that they doubt he will be different – it is that so few imagine quite how he is going to be different.

It is somewhat difficult to identify what a Trump administration might do differently than its predecessor on any issue for two reasons. The first is that Trump himself gave contradictory or constantly changing messages on a variety of issues—so it is unclear how he might formulate one of those perspectives into policy. His ‘Muslim ban,’ for example, was first described as a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States. Despite how preposterous and outrageous such a ban might be, an American presidency has the effective capacity to enact it, and to do so withstanding legal challenges if done properly.  Trump also suggested a ‘Muslim registry’ where all Muslims in the United States would be obliged to register – an idea that conservative billionaire, Charles Koch, described as ‘monstrous.’

Trump later dropped the registry idea, and the ‘Muslim ban’ was modified to ‘extreme vetting’ of immigrants coming from countries affected by terrorism, with proposals to introduce a registry system for them once they arrive. One of Trump’s Middle East advisors, Walid Phares, argued that the ‘Muslim ban’ was actually intended to target the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists, rather than Muslims in general. Phares is an interesting figure in his own right, reportedly linked to the Lebanese Forces, a far-right wing and brutal militia in Lebanon during the 1980s.

None of this should be taken as evidence of Trump’s moderating his position on the Muslim ban—but that he hasn’t actually chosen a position one way or the other. His policies are unpredictable and erratic and it will take the hard realities of government for presidential candidate Trump to realize that president-elect Trump can’t be the same.

The second point to keep in mind is the tug of war currently taking place in the Republican Party. There are ideological wars underway between the Republicans and the Democrats – but also within the Trump camp, as a result of the Trump victory. The most right-wing and most fringe elements of the Republican camp supported Trump, while the party establishment didn’t. They had to go along with it, albeit reluctantly, for a variety of reasons—while a number of party leaders never did come around. With the election over, the Republican party has to figure out which parts of the Trump message they want to uphold, and which parts they will try to hold back.

When the different key points of American policy on the region are considered, there’s a lot of noise to get through. When one tries to examine Trump’s policies on ISIS, one is at a loss – because he insists that to reveal those policies would be detrimental to defeating ISIS. He has, however, given small glimpses into what a Trump presidency would mean for the fight against ISIS—glimpses which include US boots on the ground, taking control of the Iraqi oil fields now controlled by ISIS, an international conference with allies in the region, working with NATO and Russia, and shutting down ISIS’ access to the internet. But then he has contradicted himself on so many issues thus far, it is unclear as to how seriously he can be taken on this.

On Syria, Trump appears to be leaning towards ending support for rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. Famously, Donald Trump disagreed with his own vice-president on the most crucial crisis of the region—Syria. Now, in and of itself, that’s not unusual—after all, vice-presidents and presidents don’t always see eye to eye. But what was striking is that the disagreement was made very public coming to light during the second presidential debate viewed by 63 million on ten broadcast and cable channels. It was also a disagreement that followed the absence of any communication between the two on the issue, as Trump himself declared. On Monday this week, he spoke with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, about Syria – on Tuesday, Putin substantially escalated strikes on Aleppo. It is difficult not to see a connection between the two—and the future of the Syrian quagmire may be adversely affected as a result.

These frustrations between the establishment and the ‘Trumpists’ will likely prove to be very interesting on Middle East policy, and more widely. Many Republicans are sympathetic to Trump on some issues in the Arab world—but there are senior Republicans who are deeply opposed to Assad, for example. Most of, while not all, of Trump’s most ideological backers have virtually no experience in government—and may be very reliant on relatively less extreme figures to enact any kind of policy shift in a more radical direction, whether domestically or internationally. That would suggest something of a mixed administration, even if the more radical in Trump’s camp are appointed to senior positions. They would presumably be joined by relatively more reasonable Republicans, if only because of a dearth of personnel willing to serve in the Trump administration, with a symbiotic relationship presiding between the radicals and the more moderate. The question, however, is who will win in a deadlock. Much of this, however, does rely on where Trump himself will land on these issues – or whether he will just take off again. The appointment of Stephen Bannon, chair of the ‘alt-right-wing’ (which is regularly pilloried for its bigotry and racism) website, Breitbart, to a senior position in the White House is hardly encouraging. That the head of the Republican National Committee is the chief of staff is better news—but with such bad news, ‘better news’ is phenomenally relative.  

The question is how the region intends to respond. For so long its leaders have become used to relying on the United States in many different ways. Will a Trump presidency serve, perhaps, to remind them that such reliance is not always necessarily the best way forward? We shall wait and see.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. 

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Image: Photo: Gage Skidmore