What a Donald Trump Presidency Means for the Middle East

On November 8, Donald J. Trump was elected the forty-fifth president of the United States. In transcribed interviews, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East experts weigh in on what a Donald Trump presidency means for the Middle East.

Frederic C. Hof
Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

We’ve just experienced a political earthquake here in the United States. Candidate Donald Trump has defied all the predictions and polls and has won an upset victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There is a lot of question as to what President-Elect and President Trump’s policies towards the Middle East generally, and Syria specifically, are going to be and my message at the moment is it is simply too early to tell. It would probably be dangerous and inaccurate to take statements that the candidate has made during the campaign and project those statements in the assumption that they will represent actual policy. On Syria, for example, candidate Trump has said it’s very important to defeat Daesh (ISIS) but that this is a job that should be left Russia and to Bashar al-Assad. Neither of those parties is really involved directly in combat against Daesh. Presumably this will be something that President-Elect Trump—in the course of intelligence briefings and discussions with experts—will discover and will no-doubt modify his opinion. This will be true across a broad range of foreign policy issues.

It seems to me that to the extent that candidate Trump mentioned foreign policy issues at all during this campaign, it was in support of a much broader point he was making—trying to bring about a populist sort of uprising against the foreign policy and political elites of the United States. He succeeded in that as evidenced by the elections, but the foreign policy commentary was simply a supporting prop. It was not the main event. So President-Elect Trump essentially has a choice now. Rather than just sticking with his original team of foreign policy advisers, I suspect he will reach out to Republican internationalists, to people who have specific experience in the Middle East, and will revise his views of what needs to be done policy-wise in this very important part of the world, considerably. But I think what candidate Trump was able to do was capitalize on the feeling of many Americans that we should somehow disengage from the Middle East. Many Americans believe that the Middle East is just a place of unending, intractable problems, and they’ve believed that since 2003.

As the Trump team is beginning to form into a specific transition organization, on November 30, the Middle East Strategy Task Force report of the Atlantic Council will be released. This will be of extraordinary importance. It is a bipartisan work headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley—one democrat, one republican, bipartisan—and it lays out a roadmap of how the United States and its partners in the region and in the transatlantic community can come together over the coming years to change the political trajectory of the Middle East. I think this is extraordinarily important and I suspect that this report, its findings, and its recommendations, will be critical to helping the next president of the United States find his way policy-wise with respect to this region.

Mirette Mabrouk
Deputy Director and Director of Research and Programs, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

On Egypt: As regards Egypt specifically, both then Presidential Candidates had met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who had said that he would be happy to work with either of them. One of the main differences, of course, was that Secretary Clinton had specifically brought up the issue of human rights and Mr. Trump had not. So there are people now in Egypt who are worried that human rights will no longer be a priority or on the agenda of the United States.

The relationship with Egypt is an important and complex one that needs to be managed carefully. Mr. Trump has not made any particular comments on Egypt other than that he looked forward to working with us and he expected that the US would be an ally and a friend to Egypt, but there has been nothing more specific, so we now have to wait and see.

On the Region: More generally speaking, Mr. Trump has made comments about the Middle East that have people in Egypt, and in the Middle East more generally, apprehensive. He has made comments about Muslims that have not gone down well. Egypt is a Muslim majority country and those comments were not taken well. He’s made comments about immigration, that have made—whether they are Muslims, Christians, or Baha’is—apprehensive. Throughout the Middle East, his comments have also made people slightly worried in the sense that he has said that he would like to work with the Russians and with President Bashar al-Assad over Syria. He has spoken about taking oil in Iraq. Now of course there is a difference between comments one makes during a campaign, and foreign policy that is pursued in conjunction with a country’s foreign policy and its legislative bodies. This is not going to be a one-man show.

Stephen Grand
Executive Director, Middle East Strategy Task Force

On the Region: It’s hard to know just yet what a Trump presidency will mean for the Middle East. You heard President-Elect Trump when he was a candidate talk about defeating ISIS, he talked about wanting to abrogate the Iran deal, he talked in the context of strong leaders he admired about Bashar al-Assad and he also talked about Vladimir Putin, who of course is now playing a prominent role in Syria. It’s really hard to know whether this is just campaign rhetoric or this represents a world view. I don’t think we really have seen yet a world view. Donald Trump was elected primarily because of the disenchantment of many in the American electorate with the elite within Washington and issues of jobs and unemployment—not about international issues. They elected Donald Trump because he’s a businessman who they thought could solve these problems, but not because he’s a diplomat. But now he is in the role of America’s chief diplomat and he will have to make some important decisions as to what America’s priorities are around the world, but I think most particularly in the Middle East. Our policies when it comes to Asia, when it comes to Europe are probably pretty clear. But when it comes to the Middle East there’s a real choice to be made as to whether the United States will remove itself—which I think would be a disaster—or find some sort of way of being engaged, short of all-out war, that is constructive—a new kind of American engagement that tries to address the civil wars, tries to address the tremendous problems of governance in the region, and tries to unlock the tremendous human potential that I see in the region.

On the Gulf: He did make passing reference during the campaign to the Gulf doing more to address some of the crises in the region. I think in some ways those comments underestimated the extent to which the Gulf countries already are involved in the rest of the region. But I think that they too were thinking about how in a new era, they play a more constructive role in the rest of the region and I think an American administration could exert leadership in trying to think about how external stakeholders and internal stakeholders could work together to address some of these problems.

On Syria: With regard to Syria, I think there’s a lot of questions. Will his professed admiration for Bashar al-Assad and for Vladimir Putin mean a policy that’s more sympathetic to the Syrian regime? I hope not. Could it be an opportunity to forge a new kind of relationship with Russia and thereby address a Syrian conflict that has raged on for more than five years? I hope so, but we’ll have to see.

Karim Mezran
Senior Fellow for North Africa, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

There are two premises that should be made. First of all, we know very little about the foreign policy of Donald Trump. He has been thought of as being a realist, a non-interventionist, and an isolationist, but if you look at some of his speeches or the comments on international relations during the campaign, he is definitely a president that is not going to ignore the important issues in foreign policy. But so far what he has shown is a very direct and non-nuanced approach to the various crises.

Regarding North Africa, he hasn’t said much of course about Tunisia, Algeria, or Morocco. I think Libya was the only real issue that he addressed from a security point of view, it was still one of the lowest priorities he had. It’s a low priority for his electorate, and it’s probably a low priority for him. Therefore, what are we supposed to expect? It really depends. The real problem in Libya now is regional actors clashing with each other over a proxy war in Libya. The United Nations has led a negotiation that has not been able to put pressure on these actors—like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar—to moderate their involvement in Libyan affairs. Will Trump follow that path? Will he try to exercise pressure on Egypt and the other actors to abstain from supporting the various factions in Libya and play a more constructive role? That remains to be seen. It is also possible that he will simply stay out of it and consider Libya as an irrelevant factor for the United States and let the Europeans try to solve it. This was a temptation President Barack Obama had, except that Obama realized very soon that the Europeans weren’t capable of handling the situation by themselves and requested a stronger American intervention.

The problem with analyzing Trump’s foreign policy is that we don’t know enough. He hasn’t said enough. There’s no program. We don’t even know who his consultants are, who his advisers are. We can only deduce or infer from the few comments he made during the debate or the political campaign, and that’s really not enough to make a coherent analysis of how he will behave on something that is not a US priority such as Libya or North Africa.

Faysal Itani
Senior Fellow, Levant

On Syria: When I think about a Donald Trump presidency in terms of policy on Syria, I think it’s much more difficult to call, than for example had Hillary Clinton won the election. Hillary Clinton was quite vocal and clear about her main ideas on Syria even though the policy details were unclear. We knew she’d be more interventionist. We knew she would be tougher on the Russians than President Obama has been potentially. It’s also the case that we knew her team. Both we knew of them and what their views were. And because they run in the same circles as other people in the foreign policy establishment, we had spoken to them and understood what they had in mind for Syria—at least the ideas, but we didn’t know what was going to happen.

With Donald Trump, we don’t know what he thinks. Firstly, he hasn’t articulated anything clearly. There’s been some superficial commentary about ISIS, about Russia etc. but nothing that will actually give us an idea of practically if he were president what would he do. Secondly, we don’t know his team, mostly because he doesn’t have one yet, and those persons he’s interested in—at least during the campaign phase—were not part of that mainstream discussion on Syria.

There are some tendencies that you can spot by listening to him. The first tendency is an authoritarian tendency, or a tendency to lean towards making deals with leaders of an authoritarian temperament. I guess you can call that a crude realpolitik streak. And the second is a general aversion to doing other people’s work for them, or other people’s perceived work for them. What that means in Syria is obviously, we’re not going to see a deep dive American-involved effort to single handedly solve the problem—that’s not going to happen. But the idea of making grandiose deals over Syria—I’m not sure how much difference that makes. He talks about the Russians, even if they did reach a deal, what would that actually mean in Syria? Would that solve the problem? I don’t think so. I’m waiting to see who his team is going to be and what ideas they will bring to the table—I think they will profoundly shape his ideas.

On ISIS: ISIS during the election was treated as a puzzle, a challenge that we hadn’t quite figured out how to deal with. The truth of the matter is that the election discourse lagged a lot behind where we actually are on ISIS. We’ve made a lot of progress against ISIS. The general idea of how we’re fighting them has worked tactically and militarily. The problem is that it has created a lot of local political problems that could then become security problems but I don’t think that Donald Trump is concerned about that. I think Donald Trump is concerned, or says he’s concerned that the progress hasn’t been fast enough or aggressive enough. So you could see some loosening of the rules of engagement—which have been very tight—against ISIS, for example. You could see more cooperation with Russians over that and that would yield some results, unlike the civil war in Syria, but I think even this may have not been thought out that well. He made comments like, we should have taken Iraq’s oil and there wouldn’t have been an ISIS—obviously that stuff is not fleshed out—and what would happen today if he took the reins in the ISIS war which he is going to—I don’t think it requires a dramatic change. I don’t think he really cares about those things that are wrong with it at the local, political level.

Image: Photo: Gage Skidmore