Trump and Tillerson face the Middle East

A vendor sells newspapers with the Arabic headline ‘Trump era’ in Cairo, Egypt on Nov. 10, 2016. AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Can President-elect Donald Trump adopt policies that respond to the realities of today’s Middle East, despite his lack of regional knowledge, absence of deep engagement in global issues and use of inflammatory language toward Muslims?

It’s still too early to answer this question definitively, but Trump’s pick of oil executive Rex Tillerson for secretary of state heightens concerns about the Trump administration’s possible excessive closeness to Russia, while leaving other likely U.S. foreign policy priorities unclear.

Nonetheless, it is conceivable that some of Trump’s postures on the campaign trail and the general appeal he made to his voters could help him respond to issues facing the contemporary Middle East. That’s especially true if he could build policies that eschewed Islamophobia and American militarism.

As a scholar with broad expertise in contemporary Middle Eastern law and politics, who was among those who foresaw the likely rise in Islamic extremism and instability following the U.S. regime overthrow in Iraq, I’m in a good position to analyze the realities the Trump administration will face.

First of all, ignoring the Middle East is not an option. Humanitarian crises – think Syria – and regional popular dissatisfaction with politics and economics will inevitably affect Americans’ security at home and abroad. That’s why it’s important to envision how the new U.S. government can actually capitalize on Trump’s lack of prior foreign policy experience to seek policies that can help both Americans and Middle Easterners.

Anti-Islamic postures are not productive

The aftermath of the 2011 mass uprisings against unpopular, coercive governments in the Middle East and North Africa was renewed authoritarianism and devastating civil war. As a result, leaders and many citizens in today’s Middle East have deferred their hopes for democratizing change. They fear that the violence and chaos that decimated Syria and Yemen will spread to them. Yet the region has a young population with strong interest in better economic opportunity and greater freedom.

Muslims are a large majority in the region. As a candidate, Trump’s clearest stance relevant to the Middle East was a willingness to appeal to some Americans’ mistrust of Muslims. People who have experience with Middle Eastern extremism warn that looking at the region through an Islamophobic lens won’t lead to any good.

Even common sense, which Trump and Tillerson seem to share, suggests hostile statements by a world leader toward a region’s majority religion are destructive. Indeed, militant group propagandists have been gleeful in their expectations that the incoming U.S. leader’s anti-Islamic statements will enhance their recruitment.

President-elect Trump should back off from inflammatory language that demeans Muslims broadly in favor of a clear-headed appreciation of regional concerns. Doing this is imaginable if he can build on aspects of other positions he took during the campaign. Key among these postures are the view that the U.S. is too enmeshed in global alliances and politics, a determination to destroy the Islamic State, concern about spillover of the Syrian crisis into the U.S. and mistrust of Iran.

Let’s consider each one.

US involvement in the Middle East

Like Trump, some Middle Eastern governments, concerned with a legacy of excessive Western imperial domination and American interference, might favor less extensive U.S. enmeshment in the region.

Others realize that a less robust American engagement risks enhancing the power of repressive leaders like Syria’s Assad or decreasing U.S. global power. It would also likely mean no progress, or worse, for long-suffering Palestinians and Israelis.

Israelis wave flags and hold signs that say ‘Trump, the Israeli interest.’ AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Yet, weaker U.S. unilateral enmeshment in regional issues may avoid future long-term disasters like Iraq. It would prevent inconsistent or hypocritical efforts to promote American priorities in the region from making some issues worse. Tunisia, the one Arab country that made a transition to democracy after the 2011 regional uprisings, did so without being a major U.S. priority. Some scaling back of U.S. efforts in the region, assessed soberly with a view to U.S. priorities, would be not only welcome in some quarters, but arguably no less effective than current policy. Indeed, a well-planned reduced U.S. role could encourage greater capacity for Middle East regional institutions like the Gulf Cooperation Council, which has proven elusive in the past.

Defeat IS, but then what?

Most countries in the region have no love for IS. They have cooperated financially, logistically or militarily, in the effort to destroy it that is succeeding on the battlefield. Yet, as was true with Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in Iraq in 2003, U.S.-supported military efforts to oust a toxic political entity are just a first step. Understanding the reconstruction that must follow is central.

The Iraqi government’s lack of control over parts of the country’s territory, its ties to Iran and the expectations for some subnational ethnic group autonomy are key problems that no great power can afford to ignore. Doing so may sow the seeds for future IS-like entities.

Spillover from Syria

A third point that Trump stressed while campaigning was a fear that the Syrian crisis’ spillover would lead refugees to the U.S. where they could pose a security risk.

This fear is unfounded. Only a small number of Syrian refugees are accepted by the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security has a stringent process of refugee approval. What’s more, refugees have historically made important contributions to American society. Practically speaking, people fleeing groups like IS could help American efforts to combat the groups and their violent ideology.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine Trump opening U.S. borders to Syrian refugees. But the Syrian humanitarian crisis won’t go away simply because Trump might prefer to ignore it. Syria’s tragedy has only intensified in the wake of limited global action.

As with IS, it would be foolhardy if the new administration turned its back on the broad dangers represented by Syria’s collapse. Europe and Turkey are turning away people fleeing Syria’s and Yemen’s violence. A policy that would be consistent with Trump’s unwillingness to increase refugee presence on U.S. soil would be to provide more consistent post-conflict services. These could include vocational training and jobs for the millions of Syrian civilians in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Research on extremism suggests that recruits are driven by issues of identity and perceived deprivation or social exclusion, not specific ideological or religious beliefs. This danger has been, and remains, acute in Syria and will require practical attention.

What about Iran?

Trump has also promised to renegotiate the multilateral treaty that stopped Iran’s move toward nuclear weapons. Arab Gulf states frequently express anxiety around Iran’s power. They see Iran as a threat to their countries’ autonomy and to the majority Sunni Islam that differs from the assertive minority Shi’ism central to Iran’s political ideology.

While some Middle Eastern countries may welcome a renewed U.S. hard line toward Tehran, other factors could nudge the Trump administration toward little more than a symbolic push against the treaty. These include the opportunities for American companies to sell to Iran; Iranian oil, in which Tillerson’s company has shown interest; Russia’s good ties to Iran; and the real risks of an Iran with nuclear weapons.

In any case, the U.S. will not be able to ignore Iran’s role as a player in regional politics. This role annoys Israel and some Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. Indeed, American pragmatism and fresh eyes could actually help an ongoing, acrimonious struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the oil-rich Gulf that can be expected to be viewed as important by Tillerson.

The bigger picture

Perhaps candidate Trump’s main message was that bloated government has failed to serve many people. Many Middle Easterners feel this exact sentiment toward their own political systems.

“Drain the swamp” could well have been a winning slogan during the 2011 Middle East uprisings – except for its geographical mismatch in a desert region. Trump should readily understand the long-seething anger which Middle Easterners harbor toward their leaders and economic prospects.

If the new U.S. leader works with his pragmatic, deal-oriented nominee for secretary of state, and can tune his ear toward this frustration that ordinary Middle Easterners share with his own supporters, he might apply his affinities for business and construction to policies and projects that could address the region’s predominantly sociopolitical grievances. This is admittedly a huge “if.”

It means focusing U.S. foreign policy on common interests between nonelite Americans and Middle Easterners, rather than deference to either regional governments’ or Russia’s often-repressive definitions of these interests, or a narrow conception of American nationalism.

For now, the incoming U.S. top leaders should deploy their outsiders’ independence to reject both dangerous generalized Islamophobia and calls to renew failed militarism. If President-elect Trump could develop an approach to the Middle East that’s distinct from Russia’s, and that’s attuned to, and not a retread of, past U.S. failures in the region, he might actually find some support among the many experts skeptical of his foreign policy.

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