Middle East leaders and publics, like the rest of the world, were stunned by the election results and the ascendance of Donald J. Trump to the White House. Middle East autocrats, like those elsewhere in the world, welcomed Trump’s election because of his perceived proclivities for authoritarianism. Their publics, however, are wondering how the president-elect views their region and what he will do to address its problems.
The Islamic State (ISIS or IS), the destructive wars in Syria and Yemen, the refugee humanitarian crisis, the resurgent Russian presence, Iran’s more prominent regional role, the Iranian nuclear deal, entrenched autocracy, and the region’s bloody sectarianism are some of the issues that will be staring President Trump in the face. Whether he views the region as merely a national interest or a vital national interest of the United States, the president-elect must look for ways to deal with these problems and keep them from threatening American interests and personnel in the Middle East.
Because of his seeming lack of knowledge about the region and disinterest in the complex factors that underpin its endemic violence, the incoming president should take a measured look at the Middle East and the long-term U.S. engagement with it. He must keep in mind at least five central points:
- Regional problems are complex and cut across cultural, political, religious, economic, geographic, and historical narratives that are often contradictory.
- Understanding such complexity requires deep expertise in these areas and complicated, alliance-supported policies. Easy solutions cannot be attained through television sound bites and social media tweets.
- Although the United States is a superpower and one of the most important actors in that part of the world, the indigenous forces at play are often beyond the control of external actors. Seemingly weak and chaotic local forces often defy the wishes of major powers, including the United States. Nor is the deployment of preponderant American military force the answer.
- Bombing the “s…t out of ISIS” might make some Trump supporters feel good, but it is not a lasting solution to a problem that is deeply rooted in the history of that region. Destroying the two strongholds of IS—Mosul and Raqqa—will likely lead to thousands of civilian deaths, which would be difficult to justify. A more sober approach, including the selective use of force, should be explored.
- The temptation to extricate our presence from the Middle East might be music to the ears of those who have repeatedly said, “Let’s get out and let them kill each other off.” Such a posture might make palatable fodder for public consumption but does not make for good policy. The age-old dictum in politics is that “power abhors a vacuum.” If President Trump decides to leave the region, assuming for the sake of argument it’s possible to do so, he would leave behind a dangerous vacuum, which local and external actors would happily fill. Russia’s ascending influence in Syria and beyond is a glaring example of a vacuum filler.
A Virtual Tour for a Puzzled President-Elect
Tunisia is the only relatively bright spot in North Africa. The military junta running Algeria under an ailing and almost incapacitated president cannot hold the country for much longer before it erupts into chaos. The memory of the horrendous bloodshed in Algeria in the 1990s and the iron fist rule of the military plutocracy kept the lid on street demonstration in the past decade. It won’t be long before the power struggle within the military, corruption, and repression lead to popular eruptions and mass violence.
Small-scale local demonstrations in Morocco continue to occur in the streets of some cities since the crushing of a fish merchant by a garbage truck last month. Although street demonstrations have not created another “Arab Spring” in Morocco, they do reflect a smoldering dissatisfaction with the government. It’s difficult to predict how long the king will be able to remain insulated from the growing anger of his citizens.
Libya remains a country in the making. No national consensus has emerged on what kind of country Libyans want. Tribal, geographic and ethnic loyalties have defined different centers of power without much deference to central governmental authority. Tribes, terrorists, and strongmen from both the military and various militias seem to operate within the same swamp of instability, lawlessness, and fear. Libya is a “Somalia with oil,” with very little hope for the future.
Egypt is perhaps the most critical country that requires attention from President Trump. Egypt’s autocratic president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has welcomed the election of Trump as a strongman who shows little concern for people’s rights or the need for political inclusion. Trump, however, must realize that Egypt is much more significant than Sisi and that the popular revolt that forced Sisi’s two predecessors out of office could one day topple Sisi as well. Trump’s main challenge is to prevent Egypt’s internal troubles from spilling over to the region and beyond.
Autocracy in Egypt might serve Trump’s interests in the short-term but offers no long–term protection of US interests in the region. Trump’s apparent tolerance for Putin’s bloody adventurism in Syria may well foreshadow his indifference to the Russians re-entering Egypt and the Middle East. Trump’s foreign policy team perhaps should remember that aggressive American diplomacy in the early 1970s helped eradicate Soviet influence from Egypt.
Syria, as part of the Levant, presents a uniquely thorny challenge for the Trump administration. The two “barbarisms” of Assad and the Islamic State must be defeated. In a media interview the other day, Assad called Trump a “natural ally” in the fight against the “terrorists.” In his warped worldview, Assad lumps Trump with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, which would be the least desirable company for the incoming American leader to keep.
President Trump should internalize a most obvious truth: both Assad and the Islamic State must be defeated because they both have destroyed the country and wreaked havoc and barbarism on that war-torn land. It would be terrible for the region, especially the youth who have been yearning for freedom, dignity, and the right to participate in charting a more hopeful future for their respective countries, to hear the newly elected American president imply that Assad is okay. The Trump administration should not hitch its wagon to a ruthless dictator like Assad.
The incoming president should carefully and calmly ponder Washington’s relations with Iran, especially relating to the P5+1 nuclear deal. Supporters of the deal, including many American nuclear scientists, correctly believe that the agreement is keeping Iran from pursuing its nuclear program. Through an intrusive inspection regime, the United States and the other signatories would be able to quickly detect any possible cheating on Iran’s part.
President-elect Trump, who has taken a stance against the nuclear deal, should consult with the Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who was one of the negotiators. Moniz and other nuclear physicists from the laboratories at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and elsewhere signed off on the agreement. Before “tearing the agreement to shreds,” The highly classified briefings with Moniz, which Trump has been receiving according to media reports, should dispel whatever foggy notions he has about this deal.
Of course, the US has fundamental disagreements with Iran outside its nuclear program, most notably on Syria and Yemen. Iran’s support of the Houthis in Yemen should realistically be discussed in the context of the bloody, unwinnable war that Saudi Arabia is waging in that country. The Saudi-caused human tragedy in Yemen should be put on the table whenever the Trump administration decides to confront Iran on that score.
Which brings us to Saudi Arabia. Serious frictions today characterize US-Saudi relations, which President Trump must become aware of as he resets relations with that country. The two central issues of contention are the war in Yemen and the export of extremist Sunni ideology. The Trump administration must urge the Saudis to end the Yemen war, which in many ways has contributed to making that country a failed state. The Saudi war of choice has emboldened al-Qaeda and its main affiliate AQAP, allowing them to flourish. The situation in Yemen, because of the Saudi war, is threatening US interests in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region. It has also endangered international shipping through Bab al-Mandab, which connects the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea and from there to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.
The Trump administration must also confront the Saudis about the extremist, narrow-minded interpretation of Islam by many Saudi religious leaders. Saudi Arabia correctly claims that it is fighting the Islamic State and that it has suffered from terrorism. But why is it that both al-Qaeda and IS are grounded in religious interpretations that are part and parcel of the Saudi religious fabric? While Saudi Arabia is fighting IS in Syria, it is turning a blind eye to al-Qaeda in Yemen. Saudi Arabia cannot hope to eradicate radicalism and t