Any attempt to predict with confidence what America’s foreign policy in relation to the Middle East will be during the presidency of Donald Trump is fraught with problems. On the one hand, there is the capricious and volatile nature of Trump himself. On the other, both the nature of the team around him and what occurs on the ground in the region will be important factors helping to mould US policy during his presidency. The aim of this piece is to speculate on the broad trajectory of power dynamics in the Middle East in the context of Trump becoming US president. What about American influence in the region over the next few years? Has US influence declined irreversibly? If so, will Trump seek to change this? If he does, what would it mean both for the Middle East and for the USA?
It is, of course, a truism that political leaders come and go but a state’s foreign policy tends to have (virtually) unalterable components which endure over very long periods. What do we know about the long-held views of the USA in relation to the Middle East?
America is: (1) an enduring supporter of Israel; (2) at least rhetorically, a strong adherent of democratisation in the region; (3) a staunch enemy of “Islamist extremism/terrorism”, especially in relation to the current bêtes noires Al-Qaeda and Daesh; and (4) not prepared to engage with the region systematically and with long term focus to try to help amend the Middle East’s myriad political problems.
Any incoming president of the USA seeks to set out his (never, her, so far) vision for the Middle East, claiming a desire to balance America’s “national interests” – which are, in practice, whatever the incoming president says they are — against other issues, especially the “special relationship” which America “enjoys” with Israel. This seems to have three main dimensions: political — both countries are long-term democracies, with Israel the only enduring democracy in the region; cultural — millions of Jews live in America; and security — Israel as a bulwark against chaos, “Islamist extremism/terrorism” and the foreign policy adventures of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It does not seem to matter much whether a US president can be described ideologically as left- or right-wing. George W Bush, for example, was a right-wing, evangelical Christian whose personal beliefs fed into his pro-religious outlook in foreign policy during his presidency, including the key foreign policy disaster of his term in office, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ousting of Saddam Hussein. This cataclysmic event can plausibly be seen as the start of the region’s current period of increasing volatility, uncertainty, destabilisation and insecurity.
What of the presidency of Barack Obama? To what extent, if at all, was there continuity or discontinuity between his presidency and that of George W Bush regarding US foreign policy in the Middle East? On coming to power, in early 2009, Obama’s first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in the course of one of her first overseas trips, asserted that the US would continue strongly with a policy announced during the preceding Bush presidency. During the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Bush, democratisation and more generally human rights promotion, including increased religious freedoms for Christians and other minorities, were (at least rhetorically) paramount in US foreign policy. Hillary Clinton made it known in 2009 that henceforward these goals would be secondary behind an abiding goal of US “national interest” economic objectives, including increased US trade with the region and more financial opportunities for American corporations.
The Hillary Clinton view appeared to chime better with public opinion than the democracy/human rights/religious freedom preference of Bush and his conservative evangelical supporters. A Pew Poll published in 2011 showed that public support for the notion that the USA should promote human rights abroad declined from 37 per cent in 2005 to 29 per cent in 2009. In addition, public support for the idea that the USA should promote democracy abroad also declined – albeit by a smaller margin – from 24 per cent in 2005 to 21 per cent in 2009. Finally, the Pew poll also showed a decline in the view that the US should seek to improve living standards in poor countries, from 31 per cent in 2005 to 26 per cent in 2009. Overall, the three policies noted here – promoting human rights abroad, promoting democracy overseas, and seeking to improve living standards in poor countries, especially in the Global South – were bottom of the list of 11 US foreign policy goals. So, the fact that Obama didn’t put much into these goals during his presidency can at least be explained by shifting public opinion even if it leaves the ethical targets of US foreign policy during Obama’s presidency open to question.
There was, however, one important area of US foreign policy in the Middle East that Obama appeared to want to make progress on; improving US relations with the region’s Muslims. In June 2009, he made a historic speech in Cairo urging “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims.”1 The speech was actually aimed at Muslims across the world.
Obama defended his decision to increase US involvement in Afghanistan and did not apologise for the invasion of Iraq that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. On the Israel-Palestine conflict, while he did not call for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories he did liken the Palestinian struggle to the US civil rights movement and said that Israeli settlement building should stop.
Finally, he acknowledged the US role in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected government. This did not imply, of course, that the US government was content with Iran’s nuclear capacity-building programme and Obama continued strongly to oppose it.
It is not, however, obvious that in the years following Obama’s Cairo speech much was achieved in rebuilding links between America and the Muslim world. A July 2011 Zogby International survey of Egyptians found that only 5 per cent had a favourable opinion of the USA, a lower proportion than during the George W Bush administration. In addition, a 2011 Pew Research survey found that Egyptians overwhelmingly (82 per cent) disapproved of Obama’s handling of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, while over half – 52 per cent — felt that Obama was not handling political change well in the Middle East during the “Arab Spring uprisings”.
What then of Trump and the Middle East as a focus of US foreign policy today? Less than a month into his presidency, the administration is in chaos, and no clear – or even coherent –foreign policy in relation to the region has emerged. As I write, Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has been compelled to resign due to his links to Putin’s Russia. Trump seems more interested in protecting the availability of his daughter’s clothing range at Nordstrom, and tweeting about all and sundry in an often bizarre and impulsive style. The travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, while (temporarily?) on hold, is virtually guaranteed to make the USA’s name liked even less in the Middle East than it has been since the 2003 Iraq invasion. In addition, Trump’s fulsome support for Israel and the implicit acceptance of growing illegal settlements across occupied Palestinian territory also seem geared to make the USA persona non grata for millions of Muslims in the Middle East and worldwide.
In sum, I see no chance whatsoever that the Trump administration will be able to reverse the decline of US power and prestige in the region. Add to this, the Canute-like attempt by Trump to roll back the tides of globalisation and the appearance at least of wishing to usher in a new period of US isolationism, and we have the necessary ingredients for a continued decline of US authority in the Middle East. We are in dangerous times and I cannot think of anyone worse than Trump to be in the White House today.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.