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Trump’s Middle East: Back to the Future

The U.S. government under Trump may be on the verge of returning to the old policy of transaction-based support of autocratic regimes in the Middle East.

December 26, 2016

The U.S. government under Trump may be on the verge of returning to the old policy of transaction-based support of autocratic regimes in the Middle East.

In a little-noticed thank you speech in Cincinnati, a stop on his tour of battleground states that secured his electoral victory, President-elect Donald J. Trump recently made an explicit vow.

He wants to break with past U.S. efforts to “topple regimes and overthrow governments” in the Middle East and North Africa.

No interventionist

Trump was likely referring to costly U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those U.S. actions toppled the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but failed to produce stable regimes.

Meanwhile, despite all the advertising and fanfare, actual U.S. support for democracy and the strengthening of civil society was at best half-hearted.

As Trump laid it out:

Our goal is stability not chaos… We will partner with any nation that is willing to join us in the effort to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism… In our dealings with other countries, we will seek shared interest wherever possible and pursue a new era of peace, understanding and goodwill.

In effect, the president-elect was MERELY reiterating long standing U.S. policy. What he did part with was the lip service past U.S. presidents paid to U.S. values such as democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Traumatic consequences

It was actually President George W. Bush, in a rare recognition of the pitfalls of decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa, who acknowledged that support for autocratic regimes that squashed all expressions of dissent had created the feeding ground for jihadist groups focused on striking at Western targets.

That he did so within weeks of the 9/11 attacks only underscores the dramatic consequences of that policy for the United States.

Making that connection was no more true then than it is today. We see significantly stepped-up repression all across the Middle East.

This, in turn, fuels civil strife and humanitarian catastrophes and further swells the ranks of militant and jihadist groups.

If anything, Trump’s seemingly status quo-based, transactional approach to the Middle East and North Africa risks exacerbating the drivers of violence and militancy in the region.

Not that he would acknowledge it, but Trump’s apparent return to old U.S. policy pastures threatens to achieve the opposite of what he has advertised. It will likely enmesh his administration in a labyrinth of contradictory pressures.

One lesson that emerges from post-World War Two North Africa and the Middle East is that the region will go to any length to ensure that it is a focus of attention.

For their part, U.S. administrations tend to come to office with lofty goals and ambitions, only to see their agenda driven by acts on the ground in the region. The Trump administration is unlikely to fare any better.

Multiple pitfalls

The pitfalls are multiple, as follows:

• Syria

Backed by Russia and Iran, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad may be gaining the upper hand in the country’s brutal six-year war, but that is likely to prove a pyrrhic victory.

The likelihood of Syria returning territorially and politically to the pre-war status quo ante is zero. Al-Assad’s Alawites like Syrian Kurds will not see their safety and security guaranteed by a Syrian state dominated by remnants of the old regime.

Now that he has wrested back Aleppo, Assad, with a long list of scores to settle, will likely be damaged goods for whom the knives will be out once the guns fall silent.

And that silence will at best be temporary with foreign forces covertly and overtly continuing to intervene.

Not to mention the fallout of an angry, disillusioned generation of Syrians that has known nothing but brutality, violence and despair and has nothing to lose.

• Russia

A partnership with Russia may initially reshape Syria, but this rapprochement will be troubled by radically different views of Iran.

While Russia backs Iran, Trump has promised to take a harder line towards the Islamic republic (even if he stops short of terminating the nuclear agreement concluded by the Obama administration and the international community).

• Islamic State

True, bringing Russia on board in a concerted allied effort to destroy IS will contribute to depriving the jihadist group of its territorial base in Iraq and Syria. However, that will do little to help put the two countries back together as nation states.

Nor will it address underlying drivers of jihadist violence fueled by disenfranchisement, marginalization, repression, regimes that fail to deliver economic and social goods, as well as their penchant for a unilateral re-writing of social contracts.

• Egypt

Blinded by a focus on the fight against jihadism, support for general-turned-president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, one of the country’s most repressive rulers, could prove to be an example of the pitfalls of uncritical backing of autocracy. As things stand, dissatisfaction mounts with failed economic and social policies.

• Israel and Palestine

A Trump policy that is less critical of Israeli policy towards the West Bank and Gaza and that moves away from support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state will complicate U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

This will also further undermine the pro-peace faction led by President Mahmoud Abbas and strengthen Islamist groups such as Hamas.

Quintessential approach

To be sure, Trump has yet to articulate a cohesive Middle East policy. The president-elect has nonetheless promised “a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past.”

In many ways, Trump’s statements hold out the promise of harking back to a policy that was first seriously dented by the 9/11 attacks — and then blown apart by the popular Arab revolts of 2011 and their aftermath.

With regard to his personnel choices, Trump’s foreign policy and national security line-up raises the specter of an approach to the Middle East and North Africa that will further stir the region’s demons.

Far from achieving the hoped-for goal of a more assertive, muscular U.S. foreign policy, this will set the scene for an administration that is driven by events on the ground rather than a cohesive, thought-out strategy.


North Africa and the Middle East will ensure that the regions remain a focus of attention.

Trump has promised "a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past."

Trump’s approach to the Middle East will be driven by events on the ground rather than a cohesive strategy.