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Trumping 'change': What Trump's victory means for the Middle East

Donald Trump speaks during the opening ceremony for the Trump International Hotel, Old Post Office, in Washington, USA on October 26, 2016 [Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency]
Image of US President Donald Trump in Washington, USA [Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency]

"Let's go finish what we started. Let's elect Hillary Clinton!" outgoing US President Barack Obama said a couple of days ago. Of course, he was referencing his election motto of "Change!" from eight years ago. He truly believed that the American people's support for him in two elections meant true, lasting change that needed to be protected and promoted with the election of Clinton. In reality, the only change that the United States and the rest of the world saw was the skin colour of the commander in chief.

Obama did not change the US, nor did he make it or the world a better place, as some liberals would have us believe. He failed to fulfil many of his own promises, including the closure of Guantanamo Bay; it's still open, exposing Obama as a bare faced liar. In fact, Obama only succeeded in further crippling America's prestige and position as the world's superpower. He finished what Bush started in 2001, with the reintroduction of a multipolar world due to American bungling, where the US is no longer preeminent and can be challenged and humiliated by even minor players such as Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad.

When a Trump supporter heckled him at a Clinton rally the other day, Obama responded by saying to the assembled Democrats, "Don't boo. Vote!" And vote the Americans did, with an anti-establishment ballot bent on keeping "Wall Street's candidate" Hillary out of office. Trump managed to do this despite being a key cog in the establishment, portraying himself as a champion of the working class American, and promised to "Make America Great Again!"

Whether he will or not is highly questionable, but we will at least be in for an interesting – if not amusing – four to eight years.

Trump and Syria

Though an isolationist, Trump is seen as a more decisive personality than Obama, and so international political actors – state and non-state alike – are likely to view his victory with trepidation or excitement. One man must certainly be happy; step forward Russian President Vladimir Putin. Throughout the election campaign, Trump expressed his admiration for the strongman in Moscow and how he takes decisions in a way perceived to be showing his strength to the international community.

Not only does Trump admire Putin, but he also has a problem with Muslims, claiming to have seen them celebrating after the Twin Towers were hit on 11 September 2001. Of course, not only is this a lie, but also a part of his campaign strategy to demonise a segment of society that had already been subjected to extensive profiling and discrimination by the US authorities since that fateful day.

Admiration for Putin plus hatred of Muslims means that Trump and Moscow may have plenty in common. In terms of Syria, this can only spell bad news. Obama was spineless in his approach to dealing with the Assad regime, infamously ignoring his own red line regarding the use of chemical weapons. Obama may have allowed Assad to stay in power, but Trump may well help Putin's backing of Assad by completely cutting off or greatly reducing US support for opposition factions.

Trump and Iran

 Trump has commented frequently that Obama's nuclear deal with Iran is "a bad deal" and many would agree with him. However, he has not said that he will go back on the deal; instead, he has said that he will renegotiate a "better deal". Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has already asked Trump to adhere to "international accords", displaying Tehran's nervousness that its diplomatic successes over the past couple of years may be reversed by an obstinate new commander-in-chief.

Whether this will come to pass or not is questionable. Trump's closer affinity to Putin may be used as leverage to get him to ease up on Iran and to allow the deal to stand, but Trump will likely still have to do at least something to seem like he is maintaining his campaign pledges to sort out Obama's bad deal with Tehran's mullahs. Then again, campaign pledges can be broken just as easily as they can be made – just ask Obama.

Furthermore, the reality of actually being president may cause Trump to sober up and find a less abrasive way of dealing with foreign policy issues that he deems problematic. Like it or not, Iran is now a major regional player in the Middle East, and the only way to weaken it is for the US to strengthen regional allies like Saudi Arabia. Obama was famously hesitant to support America's traditional allies, and empowered Iran as a result. Trump may decide to rebalance in Saudi Arabia's favour, but any extremely open vitriol is likely to be tempered by the sheer weight of Washington's bureaucratic machine.

 Trump and Iraq

Trump's Iraq policy will simply not change tack from what has been followed by successive US administrations since 2003, although peripheral foreign policy issues, such as support for Saudi, may have a residual effect. The securitisation of the Iraqi problem means that the Iraqi people are dehumanised, and there will always be an American obsession with Daesh or even Al-Qaeda-type groups who will continue to exist in Iraq long after Daesh has been forced out of Mosul (something that is still a long way off).

Trump is unlikely to bring pressure to bear on the Iraqi Green Zone regime and get it to pare back its open, rampant sectarianism. This is for numerous reasons, not least of which is the overblown threat represented by Daesh that has been used by the Iran-backed Iraqi government to portray itself as a bulwark against terrorist attacks in the Western world. In fact, this will lead to Trump continuing to support Baghdad with weapons, irrespective of the fact that it is likely to use them against its own people. This, however, would be no different from Obama's current policy.

The funny thing is, in his rush to crush Daesh to salvage some kind of legacy before the year is out, Obama's only presidential legacy is Trump. His failure to enact actual change, both at home and abroad, led American voters to lash out against the establishment, which in turn led directly to Trump becoming president-elect. Time will tell just how bad a president Trump will be, but there is little doubt that he is unlikely to be worse than having Hillary Clinton at the helm of what remains of the imaginary "free world".

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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