Trump’s Middle East Fantasies

Based on the outlines of Trump’s apparent goals, all his goals are rehashed versions of past policy failures.

My last week in the United States following the run-up to U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit later this week to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican has only confirmed that the erratic, impulsive nature of Trump’s domestic policy-making also seems to apply to his Middle East policies. As far as one can tell from many press accounts that are all based on discussions with Washington and New York insiders, Trump lacks decisively clear Middle East “policies” right now, and has only attitudes towards major issues in the region—and these attitudes could change any day, and change again a few days later.

Several noteworthy aspects of Trump’s Middle East attitudes seem to be clear, at least as of Tuesday this week:

  • his apparent determination to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts;
  • his wish to explore the creation of an Arab-Israeli-American “Middle East NATO” alliance against Iran;
  • his desire to forge normal Arab-Israeli ties across the region before resolving the Israel-Palestine core conflict;
  • his continuing use of military force against Islamic State (ISIS), without addressing the underlying drivers of IS’s support;
  • his happy friendships with Arab, Turkish, and Israeli autocrats, alongside his non-focus on human rights and rule-of-law issues in these countries;
  • his enthusiasm for massive new weapons sales to Arab states, perhaps totaling over $300 billion by most reliable press accounts; and,
  • a vague desire to promote Islamic-Christian-Jewish interfaith cooperation in the service of regional and global peace.

This is quite a list of decisive and ambitious goals. It would appear to be far beyond the analytical or implementational capabilities of the Trump administration, but it is impressive nevertheless. About half of it is sensible. The other half is delusional, and the entire package in almost every instance repeats the consistently failed policies of the past three American administrations under Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

The broad goals of these policies have all been tried before. Not only have they not succeeded in resolving conflicts or promoting stability and prosperity for the people of the region, they also have directly contributed to bringing the Middle East to the current dire conditions of violence, fragility, terrorism, and mass refugeehood.

More pro-Israeli policies, focus on war-making and bombs-dropping, bolstering autocratic and corrupt local regimes, ignoring international human rights standards, expanding income and rights disparities within Arab countries, hastening the dysfunction of incompetent Arab regimes that focus on elusive security and massive arms purchases before most other priorities, and heightening tensions between Arabs and Iranians have all pushed several hundred million Arabs into conditions of despair and even dehumanization. The consequence of this is what we have seen happen in the past decade or so:

  • several countries collapsed in civil wars,
  • others fragmented along sectarian lines,
  • Russia, Iran, and Turkey have gained major footholds in the Arab region, and
  • refugeehood, emigration, and terrorism have emerged as the fastest growing sectors in our societies.

The Trump administration has yet to attempt any seriously new approach to addressing the many issues involved in the current state of the Middle East—except perhaps to press ahead with support for Kurdish fighters in Syria that has created new tensions with Turkey. The Trump administration is at a disadvantage in all this because it draws on the views of either the same officials who implemented the failed policies of the past three decades, or novices whose knowledge of the Middle East barely exceeds their interaction with Middle Eastern golf courses and Israeli settlements.

This is not a happy picture, and it is complicated by a series of inner subtleties within each of these issues, such as whether the U.S. will move its embassy in Israel to occupied Jerusalem, or push Israel to stop expanding its colonial settlements and land theft from the Palestinians. Also unknown is the impact of the fact that two of Trump’s three main advisers on Israel-Palestine (his son-in-law and ambassador to Israel) are supporters of Israeli settlements that are clearly illegal under international law.

This week we learned of some uncertainties over whether or not Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would accompany President Trump to the Western Wall, a sacred Jewish site in a part of East Jerusalem that was occupied in 1967. Also unclear is whether the White House deliberately deleted a Trump tweet in which he had said it was an honor to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Trump’s attitude toward Iran roams across a wide spectrum, sometimes threatening new sanctions and at other times (like this week) promising to continue sanctions relief stipulated in the nuclear/sanctions agreement reached with Iran over a year ago.

The only conclusion I can draw is that we cannot and should not conclude anything about what Trump may try to do in the Middle East. His beloved deal-making prowess will be tested seriously, and we should all wish him well and hope for the best. What we can say now, however, based on the outlines of his apparent goals, is that all his goals are rehashed versions of past policy failures, Orientalist fantasies, a desire to enrich Arab elites at the expense of ordinary citizens, and a repeatedly proven, woeful American government inability to treat Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, and Turks as people who have equal rights that must be achieved simultaneously.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global