[With less than a month remaining until Donald Trump takes custody of the White House, there are growing indications but few certainties about the shape of his administration’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the Middle East. To obtain some insight into what the next four years may have in store for the region, and as part of a series of Quick Thoughts with International Crisis Group Middle East analysts, Jadaliyya Co-Editor and Quick Thoughts series editor Mouin Rabbani interviewed Rob Blecher, the organization’s Deputy Middle East and North Africa Program Director. The Quick Thoughts series provides background, context, and detail to issues that are, or should be, currently in the news.]
Jadaliyya (J): Analysts and observers seem at a loss in understanding the next US administration`s Middle East policy, and indeed its foreign policy in general. What do you see as the main guidelines or principles that will inform this policy?
Rob Blecher (RB): Even when presidents come into office with a consistent message and well-rehearsed set of principles, reality often puts paid to their best-laid plans. In 2000, George W. Bush proclaimed that his administration would focus on domestic affairs, and in 2008 Barack Obama announced that he was going to extricate the United States from its Middle East wars and pivot to Asia. It did not quite work out that way, and Donald Trump is likely to have a similar experience. There’s also the question of competition for Trump’s ear and for institutional primacy. The two heavyweight national security designates—Michael Flynn for national security advisor and James Mattis for secretary of Defense—seem to have different visions and approaches. Mattis has a reputation as a sober if hawkish military mind; Flynn by contrast is said to sometimes subscribe to theories that bear little connection with reality. And from Trump’s own reports of his meetings with them, it seems the president-elect is easily swayed—I am thinking for example of his public reconsideration of his previous (and also very public) belief in the effectiveness of torture after meeting Mattis. Given Trump’s lack of experience in foreign affairs, policies could end up reflecting the views of his most recent interlocutor.
All that said, there is no reason not to take at face value Trump’s statements that he wants to see the United States involved in fewer conflicts; that he prizes stability, which in his mind does not seem to have any ingredient other than iron-fisted security; and that when the United States does get involved in conflict, it should use overwhelming force, including in cooperation with partners who do so too and without necessarily giving proper consideration to the political dimensions of armed conflict. This agenda isn’t all bad, at least with respect to the first goal of less involvement in foreign wars. The problem is that retrenchment will open more space for the second and third.
J: To what extent can the Trump administration produce significant shifts in US Middle East policy, and to what extent will his administration’s policies be determined by his senior appointments as opposed to the multiple bureaucracies responsible for implementing them?
RB: The conventional wisdom is that US presidents steer a big ship whose course they can nudge a few degrees to one side or the other but whose overall direction they cannot radically change. You can understand why many in the Obama White House felt this way—the business of governing is a daily routine involving millions of people doing mainly the same things that they did the day and the year before—and the same will apply under Trump.
But there is another kind of restraint that presidents such as Obama engage in: self-restraint. For the most part, the only kind of candidate that can emerge from the Democratic or Republican party machines has been one who is not going to rock the national security boat all that much. By contrast this election produced a president who was opposed by the elites of his own party and who is not known for self-restraint. Perhaps world leaders will grow desensitized to his sensational statements and tweets composed in the small hours, but being president is different than being a candidate, when you can say one thing and then another without much consequence. Whether uttered deliberately or recklessly, statements by a US president can mobilize armies.
J: Do you expect the Trump administration to implement the policies on Iran, Syria, Israel-Palestine and the Gulf states (particularly Saudi Arabia) that were proclaimed during the presidential campaign?
RB: Some proclaimed policy shifts would be more significant than others. In places where there has been much talk and little progress under Obama, Trump may do more to point up the contradictions of US policy rather than effect any kind of real change.
In Syria, Trump says he will work with Russia to fight the Islamic State (IS) movement, which implies going easier on the Assad regime. But with some 500,000 people killed, Aleppo destroyed, and US-backed rebels disintegrating into political irrelevance, what would Trump’s big shift look like on the ground?
In the broader fight against groups like al-Qa`ida and IS, Trump could relax targeting rules, and that could have painful consequences. But Obama himself has greatly expanded the use of drones and killed a lot of Muslims—a fact clear to everyone on the receiving end of such strikes even if Obama sensibly refuses to use terms like “radical Islamic terrorism”.
In Israel-Palestine, Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to broker final status talked failed, Gaza’s plight is worse than ever and, US criticism notwithstanding, Israel’s settlement construction expanded significantly during the past eight years, including beyond the separation barrier and in sensitive areas. Certainly Trump’s tone will be different from his predecessor’s—you can already see this in his choice of David Friedman for ambassador to Israel—but it’s not as if there were any prospects of reversing these negative trends or an imminent breakthrough to a two-state settlement on the horizon.
Do not get me wrong: a change in tone can have significant long-term consequences in a place like Israel-Palestine. It might shake things up in helpful as well as harmful ways. More costly violence, particularly damaging to Palestinians, could be triggered by several dynamics: a big Israeli settlement push in the West Bank; an Israeli move to change the status of parts of the West Bank; and a rising sense among Palestinians that that the international community, such as it is, has nothing left to offer them. But most of these dynamics are already playing out. So it is not about Obama vs. Trump, it is about long-term US policy toward the conflict.
In places where Obama has achieved more, the consequences could be more obvious. Here Iran stands out. It would be relatively easy to pull apart the Iran/P5+1 nuclear deal, whether by openly repudiating it or by inflicting death by a thousand cuts. If Trump were to do so, he could hope to adjust the US relationship with the Gulf, which has chafed at the Obama administration’s opening to Iran. But even here, one can imagine Trump being quickly pulled into the same contradictions that shaped Obama’s policies. Some of the president-elect’s advisers are already telling him that if the nuclear deal unravels in the wrong way, he will find American leverage weakened rather than strengthened. So too in Syria: if he allies with Russia and lets the regime in Damascus run the table even more than it already is, Iran will be among the biggest beneficiaries. And in Iraq, where the US military has been instrumental in shaping the Mosul campaign by brokering a distribution of roles among antagonistic forces and balancing regional concerns, any deviation from Obama’s policy will end up accelerating the two trends already underway: the consolidation of Iranian influence in Iraq and the destruction of Sunni areas without a sense of how to reintegrate them into the Iraqi state. Nobody has a clear idea about how to put Iraq back together again, but without US attention, Islamic State 2.0 is surely just a matter of time.
J: What do you anticipate will be the Trump administration`s main challenges in the Middle East during the next four years, and do you think these will be generated within the region or by the administrations actions and statements?
RB: Trump could generate challenges with loose talk and action, but he can be pretty sure that regardless of what he says or does the region has surprises in store for him. The region provided Jimmy Carter with the Iranian Revolution (and hostage crisis) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Iran-Iraq War, and Bush Sr. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bill Clinton had the Oslo Agreements fall into his lap; Bush Jr. had the attacks of 11 September 2001; and Obama’s approach to the region was defined by the Arab uprisings and the legacies of Bush’s adventure in Iraq. Something surely awaits Trump.