MESOP TODAYS OPINION : TRUMP & THE MIDDLE EAST – BETWEEN HOPE & APPREHENSION
By Salim Abdullah el-Haj – Fikra Forum – November 30, 2016 – Although most everyone in the region badly wants to turn the page on present-day failures, uncertainties about the next administration abound.
When Republican nominee Donald Trump won the majority of Electoral College votes in the American presidential elections on Nov. 8, it astonished many communities across the world. The outcome was unexpected, given that most analyses and predictions had pointed to a completely different trajectory than the one that occurred that night. However, everyone soon realized they were facing a reality that needed to be dealt with seriously to avoid negative side effects, and this is what characterized international political activity in the two weeks following the election. Considering the possibility that there may be a major difference between Trump the president and Trump the candidate also helped move along communications between the newcomer to the White House and a world apprehensive about his inclinations.
The Middle East has not been isolated from these developments, as it has long been an essential region within international politics in general and American politics in particular. There is no doubt that the subject of the United States presidency has been a source of great interest among the region’s influential circles, which are concerned about the present and future alike.
In terms of the present, the traditional Arab powers have been consistently frustrated by the administration of the outgoing president, Barack Obama, ever since he called on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011, revealing his principle of creating an internal balance in the Middle East through local forces without direct American commitment to traditional allies, as had been the case for many decades. The Iran nuclear deal was the culmination of this path. For its part, Turkey has not felt comfortable with the Obama administration’s positions, and tensions have overshadowed the relationship between the two allies due to their differences over the Syrian crisis and what role the Kurds should play in fighting ISIS. The failed coup last summer made matters worse when Ankara expressed its astonishment at the lackluster way the United States dealt with the event in contrast to the Russians, who hurried to support the Turkish leadership despite the acute and ongoing historic rivalry between Moscow and Ankara.
Resentment of the U.S. administration has not been limited to allies. It has also included the newly emerging powers who had previously welcomed America’s stance in support of the changes that occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but then began to feel frustrated by America’s hesitation to end the suffering of the Syrian people and its failure to protect the democratic trajectory of Egypt and Libya, as well as by the continuation of sectarianism in Iraq after the American withdrawal.A little further away from the hotspots of the Middle East, the Maghreb countries in general — and Algeria in particular — do not seem worried about Trump’s election, and are looking forward to continued economic and security partnerships with the United States under the care of their permanent joint interests. However, they will wait for a clearer picture to emerge to judge the extent to which the details of the relationship will change or remain consistent. These countries are waiting for Trump’s vision to emerge on the issue of political reform and the nature of America’s role in a region historically considered a base of French influence. The exception in the Maghreb is Libya, as there seems to be a clear worry that Trump could turn his back on efforts to support the Government of National Accord, which faces many difficulties carrying out its duties because of the power struggle between various regionally backed factions.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia will work on restoring the trust that has been lost with the United States on more than one level. Iran, meanwhile, will face a domestic dilemma during the presidential elections next year given that the legitimacy of the reformers was to a large extent tied up with the success of the nuclear deal that allowed Iran to rid itself of the burden of international sanctions. If Trump escalates his rhetoric against Tehran and works to limit its influence, Iranian conservatives will find an excuse to head backward. The return of tensions between Iran and the United States to its previous levels would be convenient for Turkey and Saudi Arabia given the ongoing regional competition between the three countries. But it would not necessarily mean that Trump’s policies would be easy on the Saudis and Turks — he could work to neutralize elements of the sectarian conflict as a whole and coordinate with other forces, such as Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, which share Trump’s desire to fight Islamist extremists.
In terms of the future, the situation appears to be a combination of hope and apprehension. Everyone badly wanted to turn the page on the failures of the present era, and the policies of both candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, bore indications of change in one area or another. Various parties found reasons for hope, and there was a belief among them that the future could break the deadlock which had prevailed on many levels. Now, faced with Trump’s surprise victory, hope is not the only sensation in the field, as it jostles with apprehension about the nature of the change the new White House will bring. Trump has not yet revealed all his cards, and it seems that the future will be a mystery to some extent because he has sent mixed signals about the foreign policy paradigm he plans to pursue. This comes with the knowledge that Republicans are in control of the levers of power in America, which, in general, is relatively convenient for the traditional powers in the Arab Gulf and a cause for concern for Iran. That said, no one knows how the Republican blend will be with Trump at its head, considering that he has held negative stances on America’s allies and rejected the nuclear deal with Iran at the same time, in addition to his desire to cooperate with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader is working to expand his country’s sphere of influence in the Middle East through his intervention in Syria and by aiming to establish positive relations with Washington’s friends, such as Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, and now even the Turks.In this situation, the groundwork may be laid for an American-Russian understanding joined by the aforementioned countries to confront the primary challenges, such as fighting ISIS and bringing about a political transition in Syria while also limiting Iranian influence. However, there are those who believe that Donald Trump’s international approach will combine one part Obama and one part Nixon. That is, Trump may openly declare his desire for compromise and stability but refrain from direct intervention in the crises of the Middle East, whether through military force or through political and diplomatic pressure to try to change the regional reality.
However, some also believe that Trump’s team of conservatives will not approve of this policy and will push him toward greater extremism regarding the existing sources of danger, which will not disappear overnight. This could provoke negative reactions and unbalanced preemptive measures that could lead to a deepening of the rift in the Middle East along the lines of what occurred after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is a major reason for apprehension about what is to come.
Finally, whatever the new administration’s orientations, it should be noted that the political and media elites in the region are interpreting the results of the American elections to comment on them alone while ignoring the heart of the matter, which is the need to strengthen democratic practices in their countries and conduct transparent elections, the results of which the world would be eager to see.
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