Blessings and Curses

“I want to be in Trump’s cabinet!” the Egyptian general told a visiting American this summer. His enthusiasm, while extreme, was not isolated. Threats of a Muslim immigration ban notwithstanding, President-elect Donald Trump has many fans in the Middle East, especially among governments that have grown increasingly weary of the Obama administration.

While it is hard to predict just how a Trump presidency will unfold, there are some early signs that the optimism is unfounded. President-elect Trump is likely to break a lot of hearts in the Middle East. The problem is partly in what he says he will do, but also partly in how the world may react.

In December 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The reaction was swift and fierce not only from governments with large Muslim populations, but also from Muslim communities that had been working with governments to curb violent extremism in their midst. Over time, Trump mellowed. His statements evolved into a call for “extreme vetting,” which is largely already in place. Alarm diminished. 

In fact, in Trump’s decisiveness the regional leaders see promise. They feel comfort from Trump’s admiration for the sort of strong leadership he sees in Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many see a little bit of Putin in themselves, in the Russian leader’s indifference to a hostile international press and a harsh—and sometimes murderous—approach to his political opposition. Governments such as Egypt’s, which see little difference between al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood and despair that few Western governments share that view, see Trump as a savior. Rather than nagging them to co-opt their critics, they see a Trump administration as one understanding that many of their critics are irredeemable.

They also like the fact that Trump has advertised a desire to “get tough on Iran.” He seemed to be speaking for many of them when he called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between six countries and Iran “a disgrace,” “an embarrassment,” and “incomprehensible.” Many regional governments complain that Obama’s pursuit of the deal caused the United States to turn a blind eye to Iranian misbehavior. A more skeptical U.S. attitude toward Iranian intentions, they think, would give Arab governments and Israel a freer hand in rolling back Iranian influence throughout the region.

It will not all be rosy, however. Regional governments are likely to feel some frustration at the Trump strategy on Syria, which seems focused on reaching some accommodation with the Assad government and its Russian supporters in order to rid the country of the Islamic State group. While Arab governments have largely given up on the idea that Assad will be forced from power, they had hoped to negotiate his remaining from a position of greater strength. Arab governments are also likely to face calls for additional support for refugees, at a time when revenues are already strained by domestic expenses.

Arab governments are also likely to strain at the Trump administration’s probable warmth with right-wing elements in Israel. While it is unlikely that the U.S. embassy will move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as Trump has vowed, Trump shows little appetite for pressing for Palestinian self-determination, as the Arab leaders have pushed for decades. The two-state solution, which is the view enshrined in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, seems further from the priorities of this soon-to-be U.S. president than any since Israel’s founding.

More fundamentally, a Trump administration seems likely to take a more tactical view toward alliances in general, and with Middle Eastern states in particular. Israel, Egypt, and many of the Gulf states have felt a warm U.S. embrace for decades. Starting with the Cold War, U.S. presidents have concluded that the Middle East is of vital strategic importance. They have sent hundreds of thousands of troops, and tens of billions of dollars in aid, to secure the region. A Trump administration will be looking to these countries to justify their value proposition in ways they haven’t felt compelled to do for more than a generation. It will also be looking for a sharp rise in contributions at a time when most governments’ economies are reeling from low oil prices and rising domestic expenditures.

The new attitude toward alliances also affects policy toward Iran. If a Trump administration is going to successfully renegotiate the JCPOA as it has vowed, it not only needs a successful negotiation with Iran. It will also need the support of several countries that fear U.S. disengagement, and several others that fear a hegemonic United States. The Obama administration was able to bring the Iranians to the table in part because of UN and European Union sanctions, which bit hard in Iran. That global support for U.S. policy was vital; the deal was not merely a consequence of U.S. carrots and sticks.

A Trump administration could certainly change the direction of things. For example, it could roll back many of the Obama administration’s efforts to reassure financial institutions that the United States won’t come after them for making Iranian investments. But Iran’s reintegration into the global economy holds out the prospect of huge profits for investors, and actually sanctioning European and Asian businesses because of a change in U.S. politics rather than Iranian behavior is a different thing. When the dust settles, the United States could well find itself isolated, rather than Iran.

If there is a single thing that Middle Eastern governments—Arab and Israeli alike—seem to want from the United States, it is a sense of a personal commitment from the U.S. president. Eight years of President Obama’s cool distance from many of the problems in the region left many feeling insecure. President-elect Trump is more emotive than President Obama, but he seems to have little more appetite for Middle Eastern entanglements than his predecessor. Rather than being a complete rejection of the Obama strategy of disengagement from the Middle East, President Trump’s strategy may turn out merely to be another elaboration of it.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program