Trump enters Mideast cycle of hope and disappointment

The US president might find himself in the same position as all his predecessors in the Middle East. Loathed for trying and loathed for not doing enough.

WHAT DEAL will President Donald Trump try to push when he gets to Israel later this month? (photo credit: REUTERS)
WHAT DEAL will President Donald Trump try to push when he gets to Israel later this month?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Donald Trump took office in January many parts of the world looked askance at the new US leader. He had offended Mexico, seemed ready to ditch NATO and cozied up to euroskeptics. China was nonplussed at his critiques of its trade policy. But in the Middle East the rise of Trump was greeted with optimism. Praise and high hopes for Trump came from across the spectrum, from left-wing Kurdish fighters in Syria to the Israeli right wing, from Ankara to Cairo.
However, as Trump prepares his first foreign foray, with a focus on the Middle East, he faces what every US administration before his has. Great expectations and the inevitable disappointment. Many parts of the Middle East have a unique love-hate relationship with Washington. They see the US as both the Mr. Fix-It which, with the wave of a hand, can make all problems disappear, and they blame America for many of the problems in the region.
This perception of the United States as both all-powerful and a conspiratorial scapegoat for everything can be seen from conversations on the street of any major Middle Eastern capital and in discussion with policy-makers and in the op-ed pages of local media. Trump is already ruffling feathers in Israel with his backpeddling on promises to move the US Embassy, and in Turkey there is concern over the US Defense Department’s decision to up the arming of Syrian Kurdish fighters opposing Islamic State.
Many countries in the Middle East had laundry lists of grievances with the Obama administration. High hopes that he might bring peace in the Israel-Palestinian conflict were dashed. In Egypt Obama was initially praised for welcoming the Arab Spring in 2011, but then accused of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood. After mass protests in 2013 and the toppling of the Brotherhood by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, public and officials accused Obama of fomenting chaos in the country and the region and seeking to turn Egypt into another Syria or Libya.
The Bashar Assad regime opposed Obama’s policy of training and support for Syrian rebels. At the same time the rebels accused the US of selling them out or not doing enough to oppose Assad. Once the US carved out a close alliance with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the US began to alienate Turkey. Saudi Arabia was incensed with the US support for the Iran nuclear deal, and in 2016 when Obama visited the king refused to meet him on the tarmac, which was interpreted as a snub. Anger at the US soft approach to Iran was common across the Gulf states. In the Palestinian territories protesters greeted Obama in 2013 with shoes as a symbol of contempt and posters reading “No hope.”
Now Trump wades into all this. With the exception of Iran, which is wary of Trump’s boasting he would tear up the nuclear deal (he has now gone back on that), people and leaders in the region welcomed Trump’s inauguration. This seems counterintuitive because of the candidate’s anti-Muslim comments. But there is a regional tendency to downplay the comments and marvel at Trump the man. He is sometimes seen as a classically Middle Eastern leader; brash, manly, and his supposed success in business is admired. For instance the “Muslim ban” was not greeted with the usual protests in the region, primarily because most US allies did not fall under the initial ban, except Iraq, which the second iteration of the ban left off the list.
Saudi Arabia forecasts a strengthened US alliance after feeling the Obama administration gave Riyadh a cold shoulder. Turkey saw new light in Washington and hopes the Trump administration would extradite Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan even appeared to praise Trump’s rough treatment of major media. Jordan’s King Abdullah, after two visits to Washington, has hit off a close relationship with Trump. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi believes the new US administration will give support in its fight against terrorism and tone down critiques about human rights. In his May 3 meeting with Trump, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas was effusive. “I believe that we are capable under your leadership and your stewardship to – your courageous stewardship and your wisdom, as well as your great negotiating ability... to bring about a historic peace treaty.” Israel’s right leaning government also initially thought Trump was a blessing who would allow it to do whatever it wanted in the West Bank.
Now comes the inevitable disappointment, just as the region turned on previous US administrations despite initial embraces. The Kurds in Syria may force the US into conflict with Turkey. Jerusalem will be annoyed that Trump actually wants a peace deal. The Palestinians will be disillusioned. The Syrian rebels, who celebrated the April 7 Tomahawk missile strikes on Assad, will find that the US won’t do enough for them. Riyadh and Cairo may eventually find the administration less supportive than they thought.
Trump told Time magazine on Thursday, “I’m getting very good marks in foreign policy.” While his administration appears to be in total chaos in Washington in the last weeks, it is still trying to manage a coherent strategy abroad. Success in that strategy should mean tamping down expectations, or the US president will find himself in the same position as all his predecessors in the Middle East. Loathed for trying and loathed for not doing enough.