Will Trump marginalize the Middle East after centuries of geopolitical centrality?

The Trump era could marginalize the Middle East and herald the end of the era that began with Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt more than two centuries ago.

Art by Avi Katz (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Art by Avi Katz
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
“TO DESTROY England, we must seize Egypt,” a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte wrote in 1797, shortly before cruising in that direction ahead of a 400-ship flotilla.
Napoleon’s most ambitious aim – to threaten British India – remained unachieved, as did his subsequent attempt to conquer the Holy Land. Yet, in terms of geopolitics, his intrusion would plant the Levant where it hadn’t been since the days of Alexander the Great ‒ at the heart of the world.
Watching Africa approach from his flagship, L’Orient, Napoleon unleashed his 55,000 troops on Alexandria, which they conquered swiftly before marching south to the Pyramids, where two weeks later they saw a vast Turkish-Egyptian army eager to decimate and expel them.
The consequent Battle of the Pyramids was decided in two hours, as Napoleon’s artillery trapped in crossfire 24,000 Turkish-Egyptian troops who had never faced cannons and now fled helpless to the Nile.
Having thus demonstrated its industrial superiority, Europe soon turned to display its political rifts with Britain’s Admiral Nelson, sinking some of Napoleon’s ships and severing him from the rest, while the Frenchman was in the Sinai chasing after Turks.
In the interim, the French occupiers created in Egypt a printing press, newspapers, library and hospital, and introduced weights, measures and a multicultural calendar.
David Friedman at Pro-Trump rally in Jerusalem before elections: A Trump administration will never pressure Israel into two-state solution (credit: REUTERS)
Napoleon soon returned to Europe, but his visitation granted the Middle East a new relevance that, over the next 220 years, would repeatedly morph only to repeatedly recast the region as a major arena of global conflict.
Now, as the Donald Trump presidency approaches, this history may be drawing to a close.
Alexander’s reinvention of the Middle East as a cultural bridge between Europe and Asia worked well in antiquity, but in recent history it became impractical. The modern powers were too secular and industrialized, and the Levant too angry, religious, tribal and poor for such cultural harmony to emerge.
The modern Middle East’s centrality would instead be geographic, religious, industrial and political.
Geography was about the Suez Canal, which, upon its completion in 1869, became a major conduit of global commerce and diplomatic intrigue.
The waterway’s role as an imperial gateway to India made Benjamin Disraeli buy a 44 percent stake in it from a bankrupt Egypt. Then, as World War II approached, concern for the canal made London decide to appease the Arab world at the Jewish people’s expense.
This geography again lifted the Middle East to global centrality in 1956 when Britain and France tried to forcibly resist the canal’s nationalization by Egypt.
This aspect of Middle Eastern centrality is now pretty much history. The powers still care for the canal’s freedom of navigation, but its Egyptian sovereigns no longer use it as a poker chip because their economy depends on its tolls.
Meanwhile, the Middle East lost its other colonial-era claim to relevance – religion.
Back in 1853, four superpowers lost 675,000 men in the three-year Crimean War that was sparked by rivalries over custodianship of the Christian shrines in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with the Russians championing the Eastern Orthodox Church while Britain and France backed the Catholics.
Now, this part of the Middle East’s geopolitical relevance is also an anachronism, not because Christianity’s status in the region is secure, but because the powers share a disinterest in its demise.
Then again, as its Christian significance waned, the modern Middle East wielded a much more durable claim to centrality: oil.
True, the Middle East did not embrace the industrial revolution while it gathered force in Europe yet it stored much of the oil, which the industrialized world craved.
As the black gold became to the developed world what ancient Egypt’s grain was for Rome, the Middle East won a new claim to relevance.
Alas, this claim has just collapsed, as reflected in the plunge in oil prices from over $100 per barrel in the winter of 2014 to less than $50 today. The commodity that once allowed its Arab producers to rattle financial markets and pressure rich governments has since been mined extensively elsewhere, while alternative sources, from wind and sunrays to shale, now make a boycott like 1973’s as anachronistic as a war over the Suez Canal.
The Middle East also lost its relevance as a supplier of superpower proxies.
The Cold War era’s scramble for global allies was dramatized in 1956 when the USSR recruited Egypt by promising to build the Aswan Dam. For the next 33 years, the Middle East was a major wrestling arena between Washington and Moscow, whose weapons sparred here more intensely than anywhere else while every country in the region orbited around either of the superpowers.
Now, with post-communist Russia building new bases in Syria and its bombers actively joining a local civil war, one might get the impression that the Middle East’s centrality is being restored. It isn’t.
Russia’s current meddling in the region, a byproduct of its effort to distance the West from Ukraine, is not part of an ideological effort to dominate the world as it was for the USSR. The West also has lost the messianic fervor that inspired Washington’s applause while Hosni Mubarak was toppled and Europe’s cheer while Gaddafi was lynched.
The Middle East has been at the center of American presidencies since the Yom Kippur War 43 years ago. Two presidents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, suffered setbacks there – the former in Lebanon and the latter with the collapse of the Oslo Accords – but emerged with only minimal damage.
The rest were seriously bruised.
JIMMY CARTER paid dearly for his mishandling of Iran’s Islamist revolution.
George H.W. Bush’s liberation of Kuwait and convening of the Madrid Peace Conference created the impression that the Middle East distracted him from focusing on the economy, whose recession cost him his job.
The younger Bush, George W., was overwhelmed by the Middle East following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, but his quest to democratize Iraq drowned in blood, including that of American soldiers.
And Barack Obama’s declared aim in his Cairo speech ‒ to make peace between Islam and the West – ended in tragedy and farce as Islamist terrorism accelerated worldwide while civil wars raged across the Middle East.
This, in brief, is the Middle Eastern legacy that awaits Trump, whose views, feelings and instincts are likely to accelerate the region’s retreat to the global margins from which Napoleon fished it.
The president-elect has no Cairo speech up his sleeve.
Unlike his predecessor, Trump has not hobnobbed with Harvard liberals and he has not been a member of an angry, anti- Israel cleric’s parish. Instead, he has spent his entire adult life and business career among New York’s mostly pro-Israel, and frequently Jewish, business elite.
Moreover, as a high-profile co-builder of Manhattan’s skyline, Trump was affected by the September 11 attacks even more personally than other New Yorkers. This experience Whatever Trump’s actual diplomacy, Israeli officials will be less apologetic, and will feel much more welcome, in his administration’s corridors and milieu, coupled with his impulsive personality and black-and-white view of complex problems, suggest Trump will see in Israel’s enemies not the peacemaker’s partners, but the terrorism victim’s trauma.
The Israeli Right’s hopes, as expressed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, that Trump’s victory will bury the two-state solution, are doubtfully realistic, considering that even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not to mention everything that sprawls to his left, does not believe in annexation.
However, the Trump administration can indeed be expected to avoid Obama’s frequent attacks on the settlement project.
Whatever Trump’s actual diplomacy, Israeli officials will be less apologetic, and will feel much more welcome, in his administration’s corridors. A hint of this warmth was offered early, when the freshly elected Trump included Ambassador Ron Dermer among the first people he met.
Meanwhile, as an opponent of environmentalism, Trump will expand shale’s production, thus further expanding oil’s global supply and intensifying its financial depreciation, which in turn will further diminish the Middle East’s importance to US commerce and diplomacy.
Finally, and most crucially, Trump-the-businessman hates nothing more than a failed investment. While he has had his fair share of such misadventures, he will likely treat the Middle East as a political high-risk zone and, therefore, avoid storming its diplomatic labyrinths unless success is assured in advance.
Trump’s statements to The New York Times that he “would love to be the one who made peace” between the Israelis and the Palestinians and that “I think you can make peace” are, therefore, misleading.
What matters is what he said immediately after that, namely that the US “should not be a nation builder,” and that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, “could be very helpful” in producing a peace deal, meaning Trump will delegate the prickly Mideast situation to subordinates, maybe even political novices, while he himself spends his days elsewhere.
That lower priority probably applies not only to the Middle East, but to most foreign affairs.
Trump’s vow in his acceptance speech to focus on infrastructure projects is apparently what he would like to be busy with in his first presidential years. It is certainly where success is most likely. It is one governmental task with which he is familiar – if even from the other end of the construction site – and it is clearly a treatment the US begs for and its people will adore.
Restoring rusting bridges, revamping aging airports and building new highways, railways and metro systems will create millions of new jobs, besides pleasing millions of commuters. It’s a win-win policy, and Trump very likely will make it his main occupation.
NO ONE knows at this point what will come out of Trump’s many vows concerning foreign affairs, from imposing tariffs and undoing trade agreements to fencing off Mexico. Still, one can expect a more isolationist inclination that will complement a predominantly domestic agenda.
Trump will be much less judgmental about Moscow’s treatment of Ukraine than was Obama. The way Trump sees the world, the economically resurgent China is a threat, but Russia is a nuisance.
Trump’s criticism of the invasion of Iraq as a major mistake and his implicit toleration of Bashar Assad’s butchery of his people reflect apathy toward the way foreign leaders behave domestically. In this thinking, a foreign government becomes a US target only once it targets America.
While the Middle East of peacemakers will be low on Trump’s agenda, the Middle East of terrorists will be high.
Eager to target terrorism at its source, Trump will abandon Obama’s stammering and define Islamism as America’s enemy.
Islamism, the quest to violently impose Islam on the world, will, in Trump’s policy, include this scourge’s abstract ideology, its global apostles, their troops and their assistants.
The consequences will be far-reaching.
Fiscally, this will require a rearrangement of the military’s priorities, possibly withdrawing troops and materiel from Europe and Asia in order to multiply special forces and expand spy agencies.
Diplomatically, declaring Islamism as America’s No. 1 enemy will corner Iran, and with it Hezbollah and Hamas.
Iran, as the 70-year-old Trump’s generation well recalls, pioneered Islamism’s assault on the West first by capturing 52 American hostages in Tehran in 1979, and then, in 1983, by unleashing the suicide bombers who massacred 241 American and 58 French peacekeepers in Beirut.
Trump’s opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran is fed by these memories, which conservative Americans never forgave and, given a pretext, might be keen to avenge.
Iran knows this and will likely lower its head and also go out of its way to fulfill to the letter last year’s nuclear deal.
Trump, for his part, might try to reopen some of the deal’s clauses, but will doubtfully seek full confrontation, despite his revulsion with the mullahs because, at least initially, his focus will be the economy where he will initiate, while in arenas such as the Middle East he will merely respond.
The Trump era, then, is set to marginalize the Middle East and herald the end of the era that began with Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt more than two centuries ago.
Then again, today’s predictions concerning Trump’s moves and their impact are not much safer than yesterday’s forecasts of his imminent defeat.