What Trump's words tell us about his Middle East policy

Trump has made several controversial statements about the Middle East but yet he has led some to believe that he would be less hawkish than Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration. Is there any truth in that?

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A Palestinian man reads the Al-Quds newspaper depicting images of newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem's Old City.

Updated Nov 14, 2016
David Hearst David Hearst is the Editor in Chief of the Middle East Eye. He was previously The Guardian's chief foreign leader writer and has a career spanning 29 years covering foreign affairs. @davidahearst

President of the United States Barack Obama greets President-Elect Donald Trump in the White House. Trump's outlook on foreign policy has often been touted as less "interventionist" than the Obama administration's policy in the Middle East.

He got his wish. Now its up to President-Elect Trump to figure out what the hell is going on. Sewing together his ad-libbed soundbites does not amount to a foreign policy, let alone a coherent vision.

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” Trump said when he was just a candidate.

Trump called Abdel Fattah el Sisi a “fantastic guy”. He said of the Egyptian general who, if he did not have immunity from prosecution as a head of state, would be on a charge for war crimes after the Raba’a massacre: “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.” 

Trump, whose in-laws are Orthodox Jews, has promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and said he would “rip up” the nuclear deal with Iran, which puts the “number one sponsor of radical Islamic terrorism on a path to nuclear weapons.”

This is music to the ears of Naftali Bennett, Israel's education minister, who said Trump’s arrival heralds the death of the two state solution, and to Benjamin Netanyahu. He does not like Assad, “but he is killing ISIS”. Putin is in Trump’s eyes stronger than Obama, and “if he says great things about me, I am going to say great things about him.”

Trump would protect Saudi Arabia only if the Saudis continue to invest in the US. So US action against Iran would depend “on what the deal is”.

He thinks Mosul and Raqqa should be carpet-bombed: “They have some in Syria, some in Iraq. I would bomb the sh*t out of 'em. I would just bomb those suckers. That's right. I'd blow up the pipes, I'd blow up the refineries, I'd blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.”

President of the United States Barack Obama greets President-Elect Donald Trump in the White House. Trump's outlook on foreign policy has often been touted as less "interventionist" than the Obama administration's policy in the Middle East.

Such is the president-elect’s weltanshauung: dominate or be dominated. When he looks in the mirror (his favourite activity) he sees a strong man, whose will can prevail over women, the GOP and finally the nation itself. He likes the company of other strong men, Putin, Sisi. But he has no time for fellow travellers.  He wants allies to pay up. He wants America to be feared and respected on the international stage, but Trump is no Franklin D. Roosevelt. He has no intention of making America the “arsenal of democracy.” America is a company of which Trump is CEO.

You may be tempted to think that this world view is so simplistic, that his isolationist nationalism is so full of holes, that it is in fact a blessing in disguise, precisely because he is prepared to rip up Clinton’s interventionist playbook.

There was one exchange on Twitter which may be a sign of things to come. Walid bin Talal, a Saudi magnate and prince called Trump as a “disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America”. Trump shot back by calling out the “dopey” prince who “wants to control our US politicians with daddy’s money. Can’t do it when I get elected.”

So there’s a temptation to see Trump rather like a hurricane. It clears the air. Everyone, the argument goes, can take something from him and it is possible to sup from Trump’s menu with a long spoon, so long as you do it a la carte.

Turkey thus thinks Trump is more likely to deliver Gulen, and indeed retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s national security advisor is tipped for a top post like Defence Secretary has said as much. He wrote in the Hill newspaper: "What would we have done if right after 9/11 we heard the news that Osama bin Laden lives in a nice villa at a Turkish resort while running 160 charter schools funded by the Turkish taxpayers?"

Okay. But what then about the Egyptian MPs who are hailing Trump’s election as a defeat for the Muslim Brotherhood because “Hillary Clinton was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood — rather than the Democratic party — in the US presidential election”? Trump’s election has given Sisi a wholly undeserved boost of international legitimacy.

What will Putin proceed to do with east Aleppo, with the knowledge that Trump is prepared to tolerate Assad? What will the new map of the Middle East look like if it is carved up by regional dictators, all administering their own sectarian protectorates? Very shortly Sykes and Picot will re-emerge as benign figures from the past.

One final thought : how will ISIS itself react? Historically this form of Takfiri absolutism has never been stronger than when faced with extinction. It has risen from the dead, time and again since its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by a joint U.S. force on June 7, 2006. What better time to mount another mass terror attack on US soil than now, when Trump is in charge? And how do you think Trump would respond if such an attack succeeded? 

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.