Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The next US president and the Middle East

Regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election, whether a Democrat or a Republican claims the presidency, US foreign policy in the Middle East is expected to change, and not necessarily for the good, writes Stefan Weichert

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was a confident Donald Trump who took questions from reporters in Florida after the results of the so-called “Super Tuesday” last week. Seven out of 11 states pointed at him as the Republican presidential candidate for the November presidential election. He thanked his followers by promising, “We’re going to make it [America] great again.”

After that, he focussed on the Democrat Hillary Clinton who, not far away in Florida, was giving her victory speech after winning seven out of 11 states for the Democratic nomination, putting distance between herself and the other Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders.

Even though Trump and Clinton had a great “Super Tuesday”, they still face challenges from other candidates. For the controversial Trump, the opponents are Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich, while Clinton is battling Sanders.

Trump especially has made headlines across the globe for his comments about Muslims. In December he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, ostensibly to protect the country. Not long after he told a Fox News reporter that he believed America should bomb families of the Islamic State [IS] group.

“We’re fighting a very politically correct war,” Trump told Fox News. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”

But Donald Trump is not the only candidate under fire for controversial comments. Republican candidate Ted Cruz, who is second in the race after Trump, said that he would “utterly destroy IS” and “carpet bomb them into oblivion”. His comments were heavily criticised by top US generals.

“When President Obama stands up and says the Islamic State is not Islamic, that’s just nutty,” Cruz also said, according to The Texas Tribune. “That’s not a reasonable foreign policy discussion. That’s not an interesting view on national security. That is bizarre political-correct blindness.”

In contrast, Clinton, who served as secretary of state for four years under Barack Obama, has distanced herself from partisan issues and focussed on Sanders, who some experts criticise as being a one-issue candidate focussing on Wall Street without a foreign policy.

“While it’s difficult to predict exactly what each candidate might well do in real policy terms, they will all take a more outwardly bellicose position than Obama has done in the Middle East,” said Karim Makdisi, associate professor of political studies at The American University in Beirut, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly. Reflecting on the candidates’ views on the Middle East,

Makdisi believes people in the Middle East should be worried about the outcome of the elections, particularly given the increasing and alarming anti-Muslim sentiment, even in mainstream US politics.


THE CONTROVERSIAL BUSINESSMAN: “Trump, for example, will be impossible to predict. He is a loose cannon, who has little knowledge about the Middle East. What he does say may seem rash, but it reflects the chest-beating jingoism his constituents seem to love,” Makdisi said.

“He does not appear to be in the pocket of any particular lobby in the tradition of US elections, partly because he thinks too highly of himself.”

Makdisi pointed out that the important thing with Trump, as with the other Republican candidates, is who is on his foreign policy team. They are the people, who “will shape the candidates” he said, pointing out that only Clinton has the experience to lead such a team.

Makdisi also said that while Trump strongly supports Israel and its occupation policies, there is little doubt he is the candidate most right-wing Zionists fear most, because he is unpredictable.

Makdisi believes it is unlikely that Trump would try to cancel the Iran nuclear deal, because of Western business interests in Iran. However, as with the other candidates, the real danger would be if Trump feels the need to compensate for keeping the Iran deal by appeasing pro-Israeli groups, making a more bellicose stand somewhere else in the region.

“Donald Trump said that he is totally pro-Israel and that he knows Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu,” said Allen Keiswetter, who is leading a study on the candidates’ views of the Middle East for the US based Middle East Institute in Washington. Speaking to the Weekly, Keiswetter said: “However, Donald Trump did not comment on the Israel and Palestine issue, because he wants an important role in the negotiations. So it looks like we can expect him to do something.”

Keiswetter, who spent 36 years in the US State Department and has countless years of experience in the Middle East, also expects Trump to make “a forceful and strong stand” towards IS.

“He has said that he would bomb the IS financial centres, but there is already a very active programme in all of these areas. So maybe he wants to do more?” said Keiswetter.


THE DANGEROUS SENATOR FROM TEXAS: The Texas Senator Ted Cruz is the real danger man in the US elections, according to Makdisi, who deems him a “Christian Zionist ideologue” with strong ties to Israel.

“He is incredibly dangerous — a dangerously right-wing fanatic. These people do not care about the rest of the world and have a limited worldview based on narrow, violent ideological understandings,” said Makdisi.

“In policy terms, he may prove to be worse than George W Bush. He has little knowledge of the region and could do some real damage with the Iran nuclear deal, plus add fuel to the fire between Saudi Arabia and Iran and fan the flames of sectarianism. This is not good for the US and will certainly not be good for the Middle East.”

Keiswetter pointed out that Ted Cruz’s comment on carpet-bombing in Syria “makes no sense whatsoever”. He suggested that Cruz could be open to more forceful military reactions in general and said, “If Trump said he was pro-Netanyahu, then Cruz will be absolutely, very much, absolutely pro-Israel.”

It could create internal problems and tensions within the US if Cruz becomes president, Makdisi explained, as some in the military, for instance, might be reluctant to support militaristic views.

Keiswetter finds Cruz unelectable. “Nobody likes Ted Cruz personally. It actually looks like he only has one friend in the entire US Senate,” Keiswetter said.


In contrast to Trump and Cruz, the US senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, served four years on the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He is therefore expected to have a “fair grasp of the issues”, Keiswetter said.

“However, he claims it gives him better experience than it really does. It is at least not to the extent of Hillary Clinton,” said Keiswetter. “Rubio has a positive view on the Israelis, but he does not have much policy towards the Middle East, because his biggest issue is Cuba.”

Rubio is therefore more or less in the same boat as Cruz and Trump in terms of knowledge of the region, according to Keiswetter.

 “We have seen several times in the past that an elected president did not know the aspects of foreign policy that well,” Keiswetter says. “It’s the case with most of these candidates except Clinton. They are saying things without knowing what the government is doing already, which means that reality as a president will be very different from what they thought it would be.”


THE EXPERIENCED CANDIDATE: Former secretary of state Clinton is the most likely candidate for the Democrats for the presidential election, and is the most experienced in the Middle East.

But though she has not made comments attacking Muslims, as Cruz and Trump have, she could be bad for the Middle East, according to Makdisi. She has, like the Republican candidates, extremely close ties with Israeli lobby groups and would quickly ratchet up ties if elected, Makdisi said.

He adds that Clinton, in regional terms, will want to avoid Obama’s perceived timid policies with more belligerent stances, at least in the beginning. “She will probably also be more aggressive in calling for regime change in Syria and more defensive of some within the opposition,” Makdisi suggested.

Keiswetter agrees that Clinton will seek to differ from the foreign policy of Obama. “Obama’s policy is to remain on the sidelines in the current Middle East crisis. That view is different from Clinton, who will be expected to be more interventionist,” Keiswetter explained, suggesting that Clinton could enforce a no-fly zone and send more help to the opposition in Syria, which she advocated in 2012 when she was secretary of state.

“However, nobody really knows what the circumstances will be in 2017, when the new president actually comes into office, which makes it hard to say what she will actually do, because the question arises: What about the Russians? Is Hillary Clinton going to shoot those planes down?” asked Keiswetter. “It’s hard to tell, what she might do, but she will not be as reluctant as Obama.”


THE ONE-ISSUE CANDIDATE: Clinton’s opponent from the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders, is hard to analyse because he does not talk much about foreign policy, Keiswetter pointed out.

“Foreign policy is not Bernie Sanders’ thing. He is a domestic candidate who is all about Wall Street,” Keiswetter said. He added, however, that Sanders did oppose the Iraq war, which Clinton supported. Sanders was also the first to announce that he would boycot Netanyahu’s speech in the US Congress last year.

“But there is only one button on his website on foreign policy. So I think in the Sanders case he would have to look around for a strong secretary of state. But it’s the same for the Republican candidates.”

For Makdisi, however, a Sanders presidency would provide the most stability in the region, as he would likely continue Obama’s policy and avoid a belligerent and interventionist agenda.

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