George W Bush set the bar high for the accolade of worst US president in history.
Before 9/11, he ignored warnings of an impending attack, failed to respond to Hurricane Katrina, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol lowering greenhouse gas emissions, set the US on a collision course with Russia by tearing up the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and invalidated the Geneva Convention protocols against torture. His invasion of Iraq, based on false intelligence, lit a regional fire that burns to this day.
To Arab eyes, America’s self-obsessed new ruler looks and sounds all too familiar
That said, the 45th president has made an impressive start to the title race. He has had an executive order struck down by the courts, pulled out of Obamacare with no idea of what to replace it with, authorised a raid on a hamlet in Yemen that killed as many as 23 civilians, including a newborn baby, cost the life of a Navy Seal, and trashed a $70m plane.
One of his key appointees, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has resigned, after lying to the vice president about his calls with the Russian ambassador. The sword of Damocles remains over the heads of an inadequate chief of staff – Reince Preibus – and a boorish White House spokesman – Sean Spicer. Spicer has made Melissa McCarthy’s spoof on Saturday Night Live compulsory viewing, not least for Trump himself.
Swathes of civil servants have resigned. The National Security Council is in chaos. Trump has insulted the president of Mexico, the prime minister of Australia, the judges who overturned his order, John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep. There are more than 300 others listed by the New York Times.
Not bad going for just 26 days in office. Flynn’s forced resignation presents this crew of military has-beens, white supremacists, Christian evangelicals, and assorted floggers of the Trump brand with a paradox.
Breaking all the moulds?
To steady the ship, Flynn’s replacement needs political experience and pragmatism – the very qualities which the gurus of Trump’s revolution, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, claim have polluted the Washington swamp.
Flynn’s replacement needs political experience and pragmatism – the very qualities which the gurus of Trump’s revolution claim have polluted the Washington swamp
On these grounds, the front runner is former CIA director David Petraeus, who began to douse the flames of the sectarian fire the US Army lit in Iraq. He sponsored the Sahwa – or the Awakening Movement among the Sunni tribal chiefs in Iraq.
Petraeus’ problem is the baggage he comes with. Politically, he is close to Hillary Clinton, and was mentioned as her choice for secretary of state. He is also only just recovering from a major fall from grace. Petraeus’s ambition knows no bounds and the man is instinctively competitive. Physically, he is small and wiry and once boasted how he could beat a US Marine escort half his age on his daily runs around Hyde
His protagonist is a former Navy Seal and deputy commander of Centcom, Vice-Admiral Robert Harward. Unlike Petraeus, he is a behind the scenes man. “Someone who’s a good briefer, who can get multiple agencies on the same page and who can work well with others, not someone who thinks he’s more important than everyone else,” former Ambassador Chris Hill told Politico.
Strange how important mould-forming qualities have become to an administration, which set out to break moulds. It says a lot about today’s competition, that Petraeus now re-appears as an old hand
Petraeus figured out that to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, you had to separate the group not only from its Sunni tribal base, but also from other Islamist groups, whose motivations for fighting the invader were nationalist rather than global or religious.
He learned to see al-Qaeda in Iraq as a coalition of forces, and formulated a strategy to unpeel radical Islam of its constituent parts. He realised the most important part of that job could only be done by Islamists themselves.
Dictatorship or Daesh
Exactly the opposite track is being applied by those who are attempting to fill Trump’s empty sceptic tank with various poisons of their own. They seek to conflate political and radical Islam, non-violent and violent actors, and crush the moderates who represent the real political threat to their autocracy.
Their motive is entirely personal. It is to maintain regimes based on torture, repression and autocracy by playing a zero-sum game: dictatorship or Daesh. It’s a tried and tested formula used by field marshals for over 70 years, but it will not solve any of the region’s problems.
These are the despots and absolute rulers of the Middle East, on whose watch four Arab states have failed. The Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has turned a local insurgency in Sinai into an international one, crushed political Islam at home, and is currently growing a new generation of al-Qaeda in his prisons. Trump convinced Sisi to withdraw a UN Security Council resolution on settlements, on Israel’s behalf.
Lurking behind him is Mohammad bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the site of Trump’s latest golf course. Bin Zayed believes he is on a holy war to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood wherever he can strike at it, in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. This has remained the central goal of Emirati foreign policy, more important than the task of pushing Iran back or fighting the Islamic State (IS) itself.
In Libya, one hundred percent of the military effort of Libyan renegade general Khalifa Haftar, the Egyptian and Emirati surrogate, has been devoted to fighting rival Libyan militias. He has not touched IS in Sirte. On the contrary, when he could, his forces let their convoys go free. In Yemen, the Emirati policy is to deny the Brotherhood-linked Islah the fruits of reconquest. This remains more important than ousting the Houthis themselves.
Finally, there is the Saudi King Salman, whose young son, Mohammed, is in total control. Mohammed bin Salman listed the Brotherhood as the third on the list of Saudi enemies, after Iran and IS in conversations with journalists.
Protecting their own skins
All urge Trump to sign an executive order declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation – against the advise of the CIA, according to a memo seen by Politico. The realists in Trump’s beleaguered band should realise that Sisi, Salman and bin Zayed all have their own skins to protect and that they fear the Brotherhood because it is, in the New York Times Editorial Board’s words, “the most influential Islamist group in the Middle East”.
According to evidence given to a British parliamentary inquiry, it has one million members in Egypt alone. That is twice the size of the Labour Party, which is Europe’s biggest.
Trump should learn from David Cameron’s experience that the Emirati, Saudi and Egyptian interest is not coterminous with the British one. Strong-armed by bin Zayed to outlaw the Brotherhood, Cameron went through the painful motions of setting up an inquiry under a former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins. MI6 quickly spiked Jenkins’ guns by ruling out any links between the Brotherhood and terrorism in Egypt.
Jenkins’ full report was never published, and an 11-page summary could only be issued under parliamentary immunity, such was the government fear of litigation. Trump should also expect a fight in the courts if he goes ahead with his ban.
Further, Jenkins refused to testify before an independent parliamentary inquiry. This rejected Jenkins’ case that the Brotherhood was a rite of passage for the likes of Osama bin Laden, and concluded that the Brotherhood remained the strongest bulwark against extremism. Jenkins could not make a case either in terms of national security or that held up to legal and independent scrutiny.
Trump’s coterie has its own reasons to target the Brotherhood, which has no organisation in the US. It’s principally a means of shutting down Muslim organisations, which they accuse, on no evidence, of being a front.
Trump’s coterie has its own reasons to target the Brotherhood which has no organisation in the US
“The Muslim Brotherhood, amongst anti-Muslim bigots in the alt-right, has been merely code language for Muslims in general,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the organisations in Trump’s crosshairs.
The Brotherhood ban could simply be another way of broadening the scope of the ban on citizens and refugees from seven Muslim countries, which has been suspended in the courts.
A bill by Republican Senator Ted Cruz has already been reintroduced, and the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, bracketed the Brotherhood with al-Qaeda and IS militants in his statement at his confirmation hearing.
The Emiratis, in particular, have been assiduous in courting the Trump administration. They were behind the lobbying exercise that led to Cruz’s bill, and Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US, has opened an important link to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Politico reported that the two are in almost constant contact by email and telephone.
In its potential effect to destablise the Middle East, a ban on the Brotherhood will rival even Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. At a stroke it could close down politics for what remains the largest single political grouping in most Arab countries, whether it is suppressed or not. Is this in America’s interest? Does it want to shut down politics completely in the Middle East? Would it prefer to negotiate with rational actors or irrational ones? Trump and Israel should think about this. Whom would they prefer running Gaza – Hamas or IS? That is the choice. The day has long gone when it was between Hamas and Fatah.
‘Like one of our despots’
America’s relationship with NATO’s second largest army, whose commander-in-chief is another Islamist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will once again be put under enormous strain, as will US links with what it terms the moderate Syrian opposition, which is also partly Islamist. That is to say nothing of Indonesia, Malaysia and mainly Muslim majority nations.
The Islamic State will have received the biggest Valentine Trump could have conceived for it since Sisi’s military coup in 2013, a year that proved to be the turning point in the group’s fortunes.
“Just leaving Florida,” the 45th president tweeted. “Big crowds of enthusiastic supporters lining the road that the FAKE NEWS media refuses to mention. Very dishonest!”
To Arab eyes, America’s self-obsessed new ruler looks and sounds all too familiar.
“He sounds just like one of our despots,” a friend told the New York Times columnist Mona Eltahawy in Cairo in a piece entitled ‘An American Sisi’. To others, his promise of returning power to the people was stunningly similar to Gaddafi’s “rule of the masses”. Trump even gave Gaddafi’s clenched fist salute on Capitol Hill.
But Trump could be about to emulate the actions, as well as the words of a Gulf despot. That, for the region, would be fatal.
This article was first published on the Middle East Eye on 14 February 2017.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.