The Middle East in the Age of Trump

What little we know about the president-elect’s plans for the region does not inspire much confidence.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump gives a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015 (Michael Vadon)

We should, of course, discount rumors that Trump will be deposed before even taking office on account of hacked voting machines; until evidence of that becomes clear, we must carry on the discussion of what the new president-elect will do with humanity’s most powerful nation state.

Nowhere will this be more apparent than in the Middle East, long the recipient of a disproportionate amount of American hard and soft power. I say “disproportionate” because America has, especially since the Cold War, spent a ridiculous amount of power trying to reorder the region as though it were Europe in 1950.

The Middle East is important: for energy, for security from terrorism, for trade routes and for the lingering worry that one day a pan-Islamic political force will emerge capable of threatening the West, as the Ottoman Turks once did. But despite those goals, America has managed its interests there rather badly: first by oversupporting Israel, then by invading Iraq. Only in its relationships with the Gulf Arabs, Jordan and Egypt has America remained consistently rational, albeit utterly amoral.

Yet that consistency may give way and we should consider that.

Problem number one: What the hell does Trump plan to do?

And that’s still a huge mystery. We have a partial list:

  1. Destroy the Islamic State at nearly any cost
  2. Renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal
  3. Reset relations with the Russians

That leaves out a few big items.

  1. How much will Trump’s America supply and support Israel?
  2. Will Trump redefine anything in America’s relationship with the Gulf states?
  3. Will democracy or human rights matter at all to a Trump Administration or will we see a Nixonesque return to brute self-interest?

Let’s consider the first three known agenda items.

1. Destroy the Islamic State at any cost

Trump has made it plain that he wants to at least appear to unleash the dogs of war on the Islamic State; having said during the campaign that he’d authorize troops to kill the families of Islamic State fighters, but then quite recently backing off that, it’s obvious he wants to look strong but has some encouraging limits to acting strong.

Yet this is still a shift from the Barack Obama years, which has largely tried to please everyone and ended up pleasing no one.

The Obama Administration wanted to secure a transitional Syrian government to usher out Bashar Assad, to secure the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria, to allow empowered local allies to destroy the Islamic State and to restore the Iraqi government’s full writ over northern Iraq (minus Kurdistan).

Obama seemed to believe that this moderate course of gentle compromise would please everyone with its lack of American invasions and it’s commitment to securing as many human rights as possible.

But virtually none of the actors involved care about human rights and have made that plain. Each fears the other factions and has acted ruthlessly to secure themselves, preferring the battlefield over the negotiating table.

This is something Americans find hard to understand, when so much of American life is sorted through peaceful compromise.

Trump appears to be cutting through all that and choosing any side willing to destroy the Islamic State, including Assad’s bloodied regime.

He may be prepared to sacrifice the Syrian Kurds as well, who the Turks hate and fear, and whose president feels awful Trumpesque in his bombast.

So much for a greater Kurdistan, but that was always a dangerous pipe dream, threatening allies and enemies alike. Iran, a foe, and Turkey, an ally, hardly welcomed the coming of a free Kurdistan.

This may reinforce a measure of America’s primary in the region: thou shalt not be Sunni supremacist and live. Yet it also opens the door to challenges. Those who become Trump’s ally de jure may become America’s foe in the future. Iran could use its increased influence and power to push American power out of Iraq completely and then begin encroachment upon the Gulf states.

Meanwhile, Russia might well seek to supplant America as a reliable ally in both Lebanon and Iraq, both states threatened by the Islamic State, both of which would be stabilized by its annihilation.

2. Renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal

This, of course, is madness from the perspective of both peace and American power. To say now that the deal is not good enough — nay, even terrible — is to say that all the American soft power used up building a sanctions regime and then an inspections regime was for naught.

What America managed in this deal cannot be understated: A rogue state agreed to no longer be rogue. Yet Trump and his allies seem to believe it’s a good idea to recategorize Iran as a rogue state simply because it makes them feel better.

Iran as of now has been forced to empower moderates, who championed the deal. Hardliners are pressured to prove their method of Shia supremacism is effective; it has only brought isolation and stagnation until now. But should America burn their tenuous bridges with Iran so Trump and his supporters can feel as if they magically protected Israel, it will certainly empower hardliners and ensure their viewpoint becomes mainstream again. They will see America not as an ally perhaps but an implacable foe who must be expelled. That will set them on a collision course with all of America;s allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

This was one of the greatest successes of the Obama Administration. From every standpoint but the irrational nationalist one, it was a win. To undo it would be the biggest setback of the Trump Administration.

3. Reset relations with the Russians

This is less disaster prone and more “bad precedence”.

First, it threatens to repeat the mistakes of the past. In 2001, George W. Bush famously looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and failed to see a man intent on subverting Russia’s nascent democracy. Obama did the same in 2009, once more failing to see the war in Georgia as anything but a naked power grab.

There is no reason to believe that Putin will not use the opportunity afforded him by yet another pointless “reset” to expand his influence and establish footholds wherever possible.

This has a wide range of targets: Egypt, Iraq and Libya are all potential opportunities for the Russians, with each regime not entirely convinced the Americans will do the best for them. The more the Russians appear to be a partner, the less these powers will presume that buying arms or allowing Russian influence into their countries will upset the Americans.

That is even worse in the long run. Should Russia ever decide on a full on confrontation with the United States, it will have several proxies in the Middle East to activate. Having saved Assad, this means America suddenly returns to 1989, when it still divided the Middle East with the Soviet Union. This is far from ideal. The Middle East will not benefit becoming a pawn yet again between two great powers.

So that leaves the wildcards: what will Trump do with Israel, with the Gulf states and America’s interests in human rights?

President Obama chose to focus on human rights over relations with Israel, but blithely ignored them in the Gulf states. Yet he won no favors anywhere. His pivot to Asia worried Gulf Arabs, his attempts to establish a more just Israel convinced Israelis he’d let them be driven into the sea and his peace deal with Iran convinced both that it would be Iran, and not Jerusalem or Riyadh, that would dictate the terms of the region.

Thus it remains to be seen if Trump will carry on Republican tradition and lathe huge amounts of military and political support on Israel, despite the strategic backlash this causes. If he does, we can continue to expect stagnation in the Holy Land: Tit-for-tat fighting and hardly a peace deal.

Yet there is something else to consider: Under Bush, Ariel Sharon felt safe enough to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, knowing Bush would allow him to bomb it should he feel the need. If Israel feels safe under Trump, it may well grow able to compromise. Perhaps not a full state, but at least it would be a step toward rationalizing the geopolitical situation there.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Arabs worry not just because America is losing interest but also because their social contracts are growing creaky and unstable in the twenty-first century. Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is just one of many attempts to shore up royal rule; they hope they will not face American opposition when the day comes to butcher an uprising.

They may not worry under Trump. He has a very Gulf Arab approach to the world, saying whatever people want to hear and then doing what he really wants as soon as the audience has left the room. Such a mutual understanding of politics may build a powerful bridge that allows Trump to condemn Saudi to the human rights people, but then supply the regime with the guns and advisors they might need.

But that’s not the only possibility. Old enough to remember the oil boycott, Trump might just be vindictive and let the Gulf Arabs twist in the wind, simply to show his supporters at home he can. That may be done without consideration that what comes after the Saudi regime will almost certainly be worse than the royals: Islamic State or the like, let there be no illusion some secret, secular liberal order is prepared to take power there.

It is in regards to human rights that Trump seems most likely to return to the Bush years. Human rights will be given lip service at times, but largely ignored by policy.

This isn’t so different from the Obama years, except that Trump may be openly display the brute approach best exemplified by Richard Nixon, who bombed North Vietnam and Cambodia to secure a peace he could live with. If Trump kills civilians, we can rest assured he won’t be bothered by it and won’t cooperate much with investigations to find out what happened. This should unnerve both Syrians and Yemenis, who will doubtless be the target of the Trump regime.

A less interested America led by a less educated man

Surely, one consistency will be that America has less of a stake in the Middle East than it has in decades. Fracking has assured that. And surely, we must acknowledge that Donald J. Trump is far from a foreign policy expert and so his orders will either be dominated by his advisors or they will be the kind of gut decisions that led him to bankruptcy multiple times. This may not totally undermine America’s position in the Middle East, but surely it will do it harm.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, November 23, 2016.