“I cannot predict to you the action of Russia. Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” What Churchill wrote about the Soviet Union in 1938 seems apt for any attempt to forecast Donald Trump’s foreign and national security policy, and specifically so with regard to the Middle East. The President-elect has limited familiarity with international affairs and during his election campaign made a series of incendiary statements with regard to different parts of the world: his attitude toward NATO, his view of the nuclear umbrella for allies like Japan and South Korea, his statements regarding to Mexico and Muslims, his threat to cancel or radically modify the nuclear agreement with Iran; and his and his advisers’ statements on Israel and the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The ensuing confusion and concern have been enhanced by the murky nature of his attitude toward or relationship with Vladimir Putin and Putin’s Russia, who were patently interested in Trump’s success.
The Middle East would have presented a daunting challenge to any incoming U.S. administration. The Arab world is in turmoil: several failed states, the Syrian civil war, the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate; the Saudi-Iranian or Sunni-Shi‘a conflict; the manifest unhappiness of several traditional U.S. allies (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia) with Washington’s policies; a fraying of the West’s alliance with Turkey; and Russia’s return to the Middle Eastern arena, first and foremost its military intervention in Syria. Many of these difficulties are the results of underlying social and economic instability and political failure but some of them derive from U.S. action (the invasion of Iraq) or inaction (the failure to respond to the Syrian crisis in 2012 and to the use of chemical weapons by Assad). During the Obama years there was a clear decline in Washington’s interest in and commitment to the Middle East (“the pivot to Asia”). Putin exploited the vacuum left by Washington, and through military intervention in the fall of 2015 became the arbiter in the Syrian crisis.
It is too early to tell what comprehensive policy the Trump Administration will craft for the Middle East and what policies it will choose on specific issues. It is one thing to denounce the nuclear agreement with Iran and to threaten to scrap or change it and an entirely different matter to cope with the consequences of such action. Is Trump ready to deal with an Iranian resumption of the quest for a nuclear weapon? It would be much easier to deal with Iranian aggression in the region, primarily in Syria, but this again raises the question of Trump’s relationship with Putin, Iran’s partner in the Syrian arena.
On Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Trump and some of his advisers made contradictory statements during the campaign: from promises to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and to support Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank to questions about U.S. aid to Israel and an opaque statement regarding the candidate’s desire to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Middle Eastern reactions to the U.S. elections have reflected this confusion. Egypt’s President Sisi was very positive. This is hardly surprising given the Obama Administration’s warm relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and criticism of Sisi’s own ascent to power. Saudi Arabia, another critic of Obama’s policies, has been characteristically coy. Syria’s Assad dispatched his spokesperson to announce that he would be happy to do business with the new President. In Israel the radical right wing hastened to celebrate the good news and called for announcing the end of the two-state solution and for expediting the construction of new settlements, while the Left explained that reality will moderate the new President’s policies. The impact on Prime Minister Netanyahu is complex. He is patently happy with the election of a seemingly friendly President and Republican control of Congress. But he knows that Trump can be unpredictable. Furthermore, while he is trying to preserve the status quo in the West Bank, Netanyahu does not share the zeal of the settlers and the radical Right. Invoking U.S. opposition was a tool he used against his radical right-wing partners. If Trump ends up being the opponent of the two-state solution he is sometimes said to be, Netanyahu may find himself drifting further to the right, beyond his own red lines.
Some of these questions will be answered, at least in part, when Trump’s foreign and national security team is announced, but it will be a while before a clear picture emerges. Nor should the region’s proclivity for producing reality-changing, surprising events be forgotten. And in the meantime attention should focus on what Barack Obama will seek to do during the transition in order to improve his Middle Eastern legacy.