Last November we asked the hypothetical question of "What a potential Trump presidency might mean for the Middle East?" And now, from last Friday we will find out. We spoke to three political commentators and asked them to grapple with a few opening questions of what all this means for our region.
Arsalan Iftikhar - an American human rights lawyer, senior editor at The Islamic Monthly, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and author of 'Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies & Threatens Our Freedoms'
Juan Cole - the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the proprietor of the Informed Comment blog.
James Zogby - the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based organization which serves as a political and policy research arm of the Arab-American community.
ESQUIRE: What are the implications for the Middle East of Donald Trump’s victory?
Arsalan Iftikhar: American foreign policy in the region will be even more schizophrenic than it is today. At least with President Obama we had a rational actor who had a foreign-policy vision, whether you agreed with it or not. With Donald Trump, we now have an irrational actor who can play a wildcard role in virtually any Middle East country without any warning whatsoever.
Juan Cole: Trump has evinced three instincts with regards to his policies toward the Middle East. One is to stay out of it and avoid entanglements and adventures. The second is to support strongmen, including Egypt’s Abdelfattah al-Sisi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, as guarantors of stability. The third is to intervene directly with US troops against threats that arise in the region, such as ISIS. It is unclear whether his isolationist side or hawkish side will win out.
James Zogby: I don’t think anyone knows what Trump will do, because I’m not sure he knows what he will do
. He has only provided vague slogans, and that’s not enough. For example, he says he wants to cooperate with Russia to defeat ISIS and end the conflict in Syria. That sounds simple enough, but what if Russia’s interests aren’t the same as ours? Or Iran doesn’t go along with it because their interests aren’t the same as Russia’s? Or Turkey and Saudi Arabia
don’t agree to go along with this US/Russia effort? Or the opposition won’t stop fighting as long as Assad remains in power? There are two things we do know that cause real concern: while he appears to be non-ideological, I am deeply worried about the hardline ideological appointments he has made to sensitive national security. He is impulsive and can behave recklessly. These appointments will not serve to restrain these tendencies he has shown. Second, his inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims has unleashed hate here in the US and this has been seen overseas. Arabs and Muslims see that we have elected someone who has made bigoted statements during the campaign and has appointed Islamophobes to his team. This will have consequences.
ESQ: To set come context, what are the main changes we’ve seen in terms of Middle East policy with Barack Obama’s presidency?
AI: Unlike with the presidency of George W. Bush, Barack Obama took a less interventionist stance, outside of Libya. The downside to a non-interventionist worldview is that when you have a humanitarian crisis like in Syria, it makes it look to the rest of the world that you do not care about the suffering of millions of innocent people who are being slaughtered.
JC: President Obama’s signature achievement was the Iran nuclear deal, which also entailed the lifting of sanctions and the opening of Iran for diplomacy and commerce. He also tried to manage the fallout of the Arab Spring, giving Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak a push and intervening directly against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, as well as supporting the Free Syrian Army even after it went Salafi jihadi. He deeply angered the Sunni Arab Gulf oil monarchies with both policies. He also tried to push diplomacy on the Israel-Palestine front and between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but signally failed in both instances, in part because he would not put any of his own prestige behind these talks. On the whole, Obama had relatively little impact on the region, except in Libya where he declined to follow through. Arguably, he may have avoided a war that had been building with Iran.
JZ: He correctly read that after two failed and costly wars the American people were wary of any new conflicts. In addition, the Pentagon is war weary. With 22 veteran suicides each day, they are not ready to commit large numbers of troops in conflicts we can’t win. In response, Obama pulled back and looked for less costly ways to confront terror. He made excessive use of weaponised drones. And he has alienated many of our Arab allies by what they have felt was his dismissive manner toward their concerns. Some say that Bush was ‘too much’ while Obama was ‘too little’. We need ‘just right’.
ESQ: How are those policies likely to change with Donald Trump in charge?
AI: I do not think anyone has an idea what Trump will do as president in the Middle East. He is clearly aligning himself with right-wing hawks who will probably offer a redux of the Bush foreign policy doctrine, but anyone who tells you they can predict Donald Trump is lying.
JC: Trump is completely unsympathetic to popular movements in the region and if trouble breaks out again in Egypt, for instance, he will support al-Sisi to the hilt. He will let the Israelis do pretty much anything they want to the stateless Palestinians. He wants to see ISIS crushed, but that organisation will likely be on its last legs as a territorial threat by the time he gets into office and gears up to address it. Obama’s diplomatic breakthrough with Iran presents an opportunity for deal-making, as Iran needs a great many things from US manufacturers, which may attract Trump. But he has hawks around him who want to overthrow the Islamic Republic. So to the extent that he can, Trump will reinforce authoritarian tendencies in the region even if he decides on an isolationist course. If he is persuaded to intervene forcefully, he could produce another Iraq, this time in Iran.
JZ: Trump also reads the American public’s aversion to more war. But I’m afraid how he’ll use drones. Obama opened that door, Trump now gets the key. I’m also afraid that despite his stated position of not wanting to send US troops into war in the Middle East, his recklessness may get the best of him. If there were, God forbid, a terror attack or an attack on US Special Forces in Syria or Iraq, I can’t imagine that he would merely tweet his displeasure.
ESQ: What are the key drivers of change that are happening in the Middle East?
AI: Both the reduced reliance on Middle East oil and the Arab Spring have led to political uncertainty in many countries, and they will do anything in their power to retain control. I think that unemployment and economic stagnation will be the key factors moving forward in the region.
JC: There is an enormous youth bulge in the Middle East, and not nearly enough jobs. Economies are mostly stagnant and there is little sign of innovative thinking in that sphere. Long-term droughts exacerbated by climate change are creating rural discontents that then spill over on cities as workers migrate. Governments are attempting to deal with instability by moving in an even more authoritarian direction, which makes several states in the region brittle.
ESQ: How much can an American president actually influence outcomes in the Middle East?
AI: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that American interventionism can have a seismic effect on nations in the Middle East. We have successfully Balkanised Iraq into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish regions, and Afghanistan continues to remain the “graveyard of empires”. Ultimately, it will only be the citizens of these countries who will ensure prosperous futures for their respective societies.
JC: The US is probably not willing to put the kinds of investments into the region that would make a difference. Once ISIS is defeated, the new president may want to get out of Iraq and Syria. In the absence of a substantial investment, the president can only talk up the leaders he supports. The potential hot spot is Iran, which could be targeted for a 1953-style covert op.
JZ: After 16 consecutive years of neglect of mismanagement, the Israel/Palestine conflict is no longer solvable on the basis of two states. There are too many hardline settlers in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and there is no Israeli government on the horizon willing to start a civil war to remove them. The conflict has now become a struggle for equal rights and human rights. Trump can’t affect that.
I also do not see Syria or Iraq on the way to being resolved in a Trump Administration. Both conflicts need a regional solution. Iran and Saudi Arabia hold the keys to creating a regional security framework. I don’t see Trump any more interested in advancing big ideas like this than Obama was.