During the second US presidential debate, Donald Trump was asked how he would contend with the Syrian conflict, specifically the humanitarian disaster under way in such places as Aleppo.
Trump’s response began with a litany of criticism against Hillary Clinton for talking “really tough against Putin and Assad” as secretary of state without backing it up with action; her support for the Syrian opposition when “she doesn’t even know who the rebels are;” and accusing Clinton of empowering Iran “with perhaps the dumbest deal I’ve ever seen in the history of deal-making, the Iran deal.”
He went to declare, “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is ISIS.” He later added, “I think you have to knock out ISIS. Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS... We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved.”
One thing missing from the president-elect’s rambling response was any clear indication of just what exactly his Syria policy would be.
Was he indicating that his administration would abandon support for the Syrian opposition and cancel even the relatively small assistance they now receive from the US? Hinting at the possibility his government would ally itself with the Syria-Russia-Iran troika in the battle against ISIS? And if so, how would that square with his repeated statements in favor of canceling the Iran nuclear deal, a step certain to dramatically raise tensions in the region and make any such cooperation even more unlikely?
No area of foreign policy the incoming president will have to deal with is more urgent than the combustible situation in the Middle East, particularly the proxy war being fought in Syria involving almost every state in the region, and several beyond as well.
Trump focused almost exclusively on domestic policy during his campaign; when he did reference the Middle East, it was mainly in the context of restricting Muslim immigration, and defeating ISIS. On the latter point he offered almost no specifics, other than once expressing the notion of bombing oil installations in ISIS-held areas of Iraq and Syria.
Trump did speak extensively against the Iran nuclear deal, sometimes declaring he would “rip up” the agreement crafted by the Obama administration in partnership with other world powers, and other times saying he would just police the Iranians more tightly to insure they follow all of its conditions.
Trump’s combination of tough talk, vagueness and contradiction on Middle East issues have unsettled many in the region who still look to the US as a primary stabilizing force for a volatile region. One response to Trump’s remarks on the Middle East thus far, and perhaps the most sensible, is to simply ignore most of what he’s said on the subject, and regard it as no more than campaign rhetoric that has little relation to what he will actually do once ensconced in the Oval Office.
On that score, the London-based Al-Arabiya newspaper cited unnamed Arabic diplomatic sources, mainly in the Gulf states, that have been in contact with members of Trump’s campaign team and reassured readers that, regarding his public comments on the Middle East, “what is being said is different from how he would govern.” That outreach may have been primarily motivated by a desire to protect Trump’s business ventures in the Middle East, and less by concern over diplomatic ties, but given his hyperbolic speaking style there it’s a logical assumption.
One clear change coming in Mideast policy is the next administration’s relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. While the Obama administration preferred maintaining a certain distance from the Egyptian leader over the human rights concerns that earned him frequent State Department rebukes, Trump has praised Sisi as a “fantastic guy,’’ and not surprisingly he was the first Arab leader to congratulate him on his victory. It is likely Sisi will now have a free hand to deal with domestic matters as he sees fit without concerns over its impact on the Egypt-US relationship.
Relations between the Trump White House and another US regional ally, Saudi Arabia, are likelier to be testier. The Saudis are “ripping us off” he said in August. The US, he asserted, backs Saudi Arabia “at tremendous expense. We get nothing for it.”
Some indications of a possible Trump Mideast policy may also be gleaned by looking at the records of those officials who will likely be dealing with the region.
That involves considerable speculation, given Trump’s own lack of public service and prior experience in foreign affairs, and the uncertainty over which of his campaign advisers and associates will actually end up in his administration, and in which roles.
The only certainty is Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the governor and former senator from Indiana. With far more extensive experience in foreign policy matters than Trump, Pence is poised to be a hugely influential voice in policy-making, perhaps fulfilling a role similar to that played by Dick Cheney in the second Bush administration. Like Cheney, Pence is a traditional right-wing Republican hawk, a staunch supporter of Israel and firm advocate of using military force to advance US interests.
One potential problem area may be the clash between Pence’s muscular interventionist instincts, and the more cautious attitude expressed by Trump regarding the use of American troops. This difference already emerged in the campaign, with Pence firmly endorsing the creation of “safe zones” in Syria and a willingness to “use military force to strike the targets of the of the Assad regime” – a stance Trump unequivocally rejected in his debate.
Another official who will possibly play a key Middle East role in the Trump administration is retired lieutenant- general Michael Flynn, who has been advising the president-elect on security matters, and is tipped as a leading pick for national security adviser.
Flynn served as a top intelligence officer in the Afghanistan conflict and later commanded the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was an advocate of broadening the war against ISIS beyond the strategy of pin-point targeted killings against its leadership, vociferously opposed the Iran nuclear deal, and after leaving the Obama administration described its Mideast policy as “willful ignorance.”
Flynn has said he is helping Trump utilize “more precision in the use of the language that he uses as the potential leader of the free world.” Yet Flynn himself, in contrast to the Obama administration, has not hesitated to declare the battle against terrorism as a war on “radical Islam,” along with other comments critics say veer close to anti-Islamic sentiments.
Flynn might be considered circumspect compared to two names that have emerged as top contenders for next secretary of state: former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich, and ex-US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
Bolton in particular, as a leading neo-conservative thinker, has a rich history of engagement with Mideast issues. Last April he penned a piece for The Washington Times titled “Revamping America’s Middle East Policy, post-Obama,” in which he wrote that, “The new president should, therefore, stress to Middle East friend and foe alike that America is not neutral in the region’s major, long-standing conflicts, and that a strong US political, economic and military presence in defense of its interests is a force for peace and stability.”
One way Bolton says this aim can be achieved is a “rear areas” strategy in the war on terrorism to reduce pressures faced by US allies. Bolton offers one particularly interesting example of this approach: “We must also help Egypt (and Israel) reimpose order on the Sinai Peninsula, perhaps readjusting the role of the Multilateral Force and Observers (created by the Camp David accords) to participate in anti-terrorism efforts.”
Its ideas such as that which emphasize the apparent clash between the “big footprint” approach favored by many of the figures now being tipped to play major roles in setting the Mideast policy for a Trump administration, and what appears to be the more cautious instincts of the president-elect himself.
Whichever outlook prevails in the next administration, a region that is already contending with no shortage of wrenching change from within, is also going to have to contend with some dramatic shifts in US policy beginning on January 20.
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