Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1320, (17 - 23 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The Middle East and Donald Trump

Ahmed Mahdiexamines the impact of US President-elect Donald Trump’s election victory on the Middle East

Al-Ahram Weekly

In a surprising outcome that defied most expectations and opinion polls, Republican Party nominee Donald Trump won the American presidential elections of 2016.

His controversial behaviour, his rude remarks against his political opponents, his racist remarks against Muslims (and Islam itself), African-Americans and Mexicans, his boasting about sexual harassment, the allegations of sexual harassment from tens of women, and of fraud against his so-called Trump University, his not paying contractors who work for him, his refusal to reveal his tax records to the American public and his constant lies and flip-flops did not prevent him from winning by a landslide. 

Obviously, both Trump and his Democratic Party opponent Hillary Clinton are crooked in one way or another. Clinton’s controversies include donations to the Clinton Foundation in return for political favours, involvement in the death of the American ambassador to Libya during the Benghazi events of September 2012 and her use of a personal e-mail server to send and receive state department e-mails. However, it could be argued that Clinton’s campaign was more respectful than Trump’s.

Events in the Middle East did not escape Trump’s controversial remarks and behaviour. His racist remarks against Islam and Muslims have offended many, as have his flip-flops on various issues.

During his campaign, Trump flip-flopped on several issues on the Middle East. He said during his campaign that he opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq before it started. However, there is evidence from an interview with US radio host Howard Stern in September 2002 that he actually supported the war. There is also evidence from an interview with Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto in January 2003 that he was not against the invasion of Iraq.

He can be forgiven for making the mistake of supporting the war, as he was not a politician or a political expert at the time, and he gave the then American government the benefit of the doubt in supporting the war. But he should not be forgiven for lying to the public later by denying that he had supported the war.  

Trump flip-flopped again on the 2011 war on Libya. He said in February 2011 that “now we should go [into Libya], we should stop this guy [former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi], which would be very easy and very quick,” and that American companies should invest in Libya’s oil after the military operation was over. He reiterated his support for the military intervention in Libya during an interview with British reporter Piers Morgan on 28 March 2011.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Evans in April 2011, Trump said he would not support the intervention in Libya unless the United States took the oil fields. He added in the same interview that it was “smart” to invade Iraq to take its oil in 2003, and that the United States should take over Iraq’s oil to prevent it from falling into Iranian hands.

Despite the evidence that he supported the Libya war, however, Trump said on 24 February 2016 that he had been against the military operation in Libya from the beginning. “I never discussed the subject. I was in favour of Libya? We would be so much better off if [Gaddafi] was in charge right now,” he said.  

To his credit, though, Trump’s policies on the military operations against the Islamic State (IS) group may prove more practical than Clinton’s. Trump has said that he is not interested in removing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and is more interested in focusing the American military effort against IS in cooperation with Russia. “Al-Assad is bad, maybe [the anti-Al-Assad rebels] could be worse,” he said in October 2015.

Clinton’s plan to fight IS is to impose no-fly zones, or “safe zones,” in Syria to weaken the Al-Assad regime and fight IS with expanded American military involvement that may include airstrikes, special forces and possibly regular combat troops. She would still continue to push for overthrowing Al-Assad, a target which, as bloody as Al-Assad may be, looks more dangerous and impractical with each day that passes in the civil war in Syria.

Another mess-up that has been made by Clinton and present US President Barack Obama was by indirectly funding terrorist groups in Syria, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert at the US Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, wrote in an article on the US Website The Daily Beast.

According to Gartenstein-Ross, the mistake the Obama administration, including Clinton when she was secretary of state, made was supporting moderate armed opposition groups against Al-Assad, when many of these moderate groups had severed ties with the CIA and decided to join extremist groups like the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, in order to achieve more military and territorial gains. This meant that Obama and Clinton ended up indirectly supporting Al-Qaeda in Syria. 

Furthermore, Trump added in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on 8 July 2015 that he would “bomb the hell” out of the oilfields under IS’s control in order to weaken the group’s ability to finance itself. But this is similar to what the Obama administration is already doing. 

One result of the Syrian crisis has been the refugee crisis. No doubt, Trump is correct in saying that the American authorities should monitor who enters the United States among the refugees who escape the civil war in Syria in order to make sure that no terrorists enter American territory. But are his methods correct? He (sort of) said in November 2015 following the Paris attacks that he would establish a database for Muslims in the United States. He also said in December 2015 that he wanted to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States, following the San Bernardino attacks in California.

He also said in an interview with Cooper in March 2016 that “I think Islam hates us.”

PRACTICALITY:Are such statements practical? Or effective? Even US terrorism experts and the intelligence community have said that such methods would backfire and give IS rhetoric more power by asserting that the United States is indeed involved in a war against Islam and discriminating against Muslims. This would be great propaganda and a great recruitment tool for IS. Clinton has said that such policies would be “dangerous” and against America’s values.

The Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House), the UK think tank, released a report in October by analyst Flynt Leverett entitled “Middle East Policy after 2016”. This says that “perceptions that Trump is anti-Muslim could limit cooperation from states in the region” against terrorism. This statement may prove to be wrong, however, as the Arab states may be willing to deal with Trump to achieve their own interests, despite his anti-Islam rhetoric.

In the Arab Gulf states, for example, there are mixed feelings about Trump’s victory. There are indeed concerns about his Islamophobic and/or anti-Arab comments. In March 2016, for example, during an interview with the New York Times, Trump said he would stop American purchases of Saudi oil unless Saudi Arabia “stopped providing troops to IS.” (WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange announced in 2016 that leaked e-mails showed that Saudi Arabia and Qatar had funded both of Clinton’s campaigns and IS).

On the other hand, according to journalist Frank Gardner of the BBC, the Arab Gulf states have been concerned that President Barack Obama has been improving relations with Tehran at the expense of the Gulf Arabs, so they have welcomed Trump’s victory and his tough stance against the Iranian nuclear deal.

During his campaign, Trump slammed the nuclear deal Washington signed with Tehran in the summer of 2015. This puts limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment abilities, limits Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium and introduces more international inspections of Iran’s nuclear reactors and activities. Trump described the nuclear deal with Iran as “the stupidest deal of all time,” a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated,” adding that it would lead to a “nuclear holocaust.” He said he would have negotiated a better deal, with tougher restrictions against Iran.

Somewhat paradoxically, he criticised the remaining US sanctions that prevent American companies from dealing with Iran. But during a speech to the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby group in Washington) in March 2016, Trump declared that his “number one priority” would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”

Suzanne Maloney, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in the US, told Reuters that Iran might see in Trump “the most cartoonish American enemy” and that Trump’s statements against the nuclear deal would give an excuse for Tehran to walk away from its obligations under the deal, while “pinning the responsibility on Washington”.

Zachary Goldman, executive director of the Centre on Law and Security at New York University in the US and a former US treasury official, agreed that Trump’s statements could make Tehran “feel freed from its commitments, and we may be blamed for the deal falling apart.” Goldman also doubted that Iran and the West would agree to re-negotiate a “better deal” as Trump promised during his campaign.

In Egypt, there is a general air of optimism among the Egyptian authorities and in the media following Trump’s victory. Hillary Clinton was unpopular in Egypt for, allegedly, stimulating the 25 January 2011 events, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and helping the Brothers cheat their way into winning the Egyptian presidential elections in 2012. Trump, on the other hand, has accused Clinton of supporting the Brothers. He said in a speech in New York in June 2012 that Clinton had “helped force out a friendly regime in Egypt and replace it with the radical Muslim Brotherhood... [Clinton has] opened the Pandora’s Box of radical Islam [in Egypt].”

There is no clear evidence supporting such allegations. For all her faults, Clinton may have been too rational and acted too much by the book during the events in Egypt that led up to the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. In fact, she was initially not very supportive of the 25 January Revolution. On the first day of the protests leading up to the revolution, she showed support for Mubarak, saying that his government was “stable” despite the protests. As events unfolded, she wanted Mubarak to stay in office. During these events, she did call for political reform in Egypt in order to settle the situation, but she was against the hasty exit of Mubarak, saying it could lead to instability or extremism.

Furthermore, the personal relationship between Trump and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is much smoother than that between Clinton and Al-Sisi. When Al-Sisi was in New York in September 2016 for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, he had a meeting with Trump at a hotel in Manhattan. Following the meeting, Trump said that Al-Sisi was a “fantastic guy” and that “there was a good chemistry there. You know when you have good chemistry with people.” Trump also praised how Al-Sisi had taken control of Egypt and his policies against terrorism.

Clinton also met with Al-Sisi at the same Manhattan hotel during the General Assembly meeting. Like Trump, she discussed bilateral relations and anti-terrorism with Al-Sisi, but she also paid more attention to human rights issues and called for the release of an American human rights activist who was imprisoned in Egypt. It is telling that Al-Sisi was the first foreign leader to call Trump to congratulate him on his victory in the elections.  

In the Egyptian media, there is also a general tendency to support Trump. TV anchors and hosts argue that the Egyptian (and Muslim) public should forget about the racist remarks Trump made during his campaign, because his behaviour and policies after his victory would be much more rational than during his campaigning. 

Finally, perhaps the most important historical issue on the minds of the Arabs in the wake of the Trump victory is the Palestinian problem and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. On 25 September, Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at Trump Tower in New York that he would recognise Jerusalem as “the undivided capital of the state of Israel” if elected president. In all fairness, Trump is not the only US presidential candidate to have given this promise to Israel; American presidential candidates have been giving such promises to Israel in one election after another.

In 2008, while campaigning during the presidential elections, Obama called Jerusalem the “undivided capital of Israel,” but then backtracked the next day. However, Obama can be credited for trying to stop Israel’s illegal settlement building programme during his first two years in office. Clinton, too, on several occasions, said that she recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. There is an impression in Tel Aviv that a Trump administration will be among the most pro-Israeli in the history of American foreign policy.

Israeli Education Minister Natalie Bennett has said that Trump’s victory is “an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state.” According to the UK Guardian newspaper, Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, said that a Trump administration would likely be “much more understanding if Israel has to use force in order to damp down Palestinian violence.” He also felt that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be “much less of a priority, and when it’s not a priority, this means that Israel in some ways gets off the hook.”

CONCLUSIONS:Trump’s clear advantages over Clinton regarding US-Middle East policy are his more friendly approach towards the regime in Cairo, which might lead to more benefits for the Egyptian people, his avoidance of regime change adventures in Syria, and improved relations with Russia that could lead to a more efficient fight against IS.

One worrying factor is that Trump is being advised by the US neo-conservatives, a group whose influence increased during the George W Bush administration and pushed for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Trump is advised by neo-conservatives such as Zalmay Khalilzad, a former American ambassador to Afghanistan, who advised Bush on the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Another neo-conservative advisor to Trump is former CIA director James Woolsey, who according to conspiracy theorists is supposedly the “engineer” of the Arab Revolutions which started in 2011. Trump is also advised by Michelle Bachalette, a Republican Party congresswoman known for her pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab stances.

In any case, the sad truth is that this lying, racist Islam-hater will now be the next president of the United States. Whether we like it or not, the world will just have to deal with him as the president of the most powerful state in the world, unless we work hard to come up with a better option. One has to hope that Trump’s rash behaviour will not lead to a major global disaster and that the members of his administration will be able to give him good advice on how to lead the world.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at the Future University in Egypt.

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