By Tobi Youssef
Donald Trump’s term as the forty-fifth president of the United States has been hectic and polemical. As a former businessman, Donald Trump hasn’t considered geopolitics as a holistic and complex environment within which multiple actors interact. Rather, he has preferred to operate in either a bilateral or even a unilateral fashion to achieve his foreign policy objectives. This strategy has strongly undermined international institutions and thus, hindered advancements on global governance issues like climate change, advancing free trade, and transnational cooperation on health policies.
Applied to the Middle East and the Muslim World at-large, this go-it alone approach has provoked multiple cataclysms in an already highly complex and unstable zone. Nearing the end of his term, Trump has had a very polarising effect in the region — stirring praise for his pragmatic and aggressive approach on the one hand, and raising concerns for his impulsive decisions that often caused mayhem.
As the 2020 US presidential election approaches, it remains to be seen whether the Middle East is going to be used to galvanise support for a conservative nationalist foreign policy. In 2016 for instance, Trump’s campaign often invoked the Middle East as a region, where the US has needlessly squandered blood and treasure. Furthermore, in September 2015, Trump pledged to deport all Syrian refugees — most of whom are Muslim — from the United States. He said, “They could be ISIS, I don’t know. This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army, maybe.”
Whereas, for his reelection campaign, a paradox seems to be unfolding with Trump touting his successes in the region as a peace broker.
Trump’s record in the Middle East
The term ‘reckless’ is often used to describe Trump’s actions in the Middle East. Notably, the execution of the leader of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force — the Islamic Republican Guard Corps Maj. Gen Qassem Soleimani, brought extreme uncertainty and raised questions over the US’ approach in an already unstable region. On combatting Iran, rather than using American soft power to capitalise on the growing Lebanese and Iraqi criticisms of Iranian influence in their respective countries, the Trump administration’s reckless approach undercut American influence in the region. Instead, the Trump administration chose to draw on its military primacy to remain as an inevitable actor in the Middle East.
However, the gradual alignment of American foreign policy objectives with Sunni powerhouses in the region led to a historic deal between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel. Under this, Trump announced that Bahrain and the UAE would establish “full normalization of relations” with Israel, in exchange of the latter temporarily forgoing its plan to “declare sovereignty” over the West Bank.
While Trump announced that this deal is set to bring more peace and prosperity in the Middle East, counterintuitive results may manifest.
For instance, by isolating Iran, Trump could encourage the appetite for brinksmanship and reactionary militarism — to eventually push the region towards another long episode of violence. Furthermore, the deal leaves the Palestinians in an odd status quo. For instance, despite the threat of annexation being alleviated, Palestinian territories continue to suffer from an acute socio-economic crisis, with the vast majority of its population living in dire conditions. In 2019, the economy in occupied Palestinian territories grew by less than one percentage point — continuing the trend of the two preceding years. Moreover, the West Bank registered its lowest growth rate since 2012 (1.15%), while Gaza’s growth was virtually zero as it failed to rebound from the two consecutive GDP contractions of -7.7% and -3.5% in 2017 and 2018 respectively. With Trump’s deal, the Palestinians’ future hangs in the balance, with the historic goal of an independent and sovereign Palestinian territory increasingly becoming elusive.
The emergent normalisation between Arab states and Israel comes at a time when Iran is seen as a greater threat, and the Palestinian cause isn’t considered as much of a prerequisite for peace as it was in the past. Moreover, the same has been indicative of a sense of Arab realpolitik coming to the fore, much like the case of Egypt — an erstwhile rival of Israel that chose to normalise relations with Israel out of common security interests in the Sinai Peninsula and bright economic perspectives amidst gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean. Similarly, the Sunni Arab states have found a realpolitik balance on dealing with Israel, with their common threat perception of Iran at its core.
Finally, even if this turns out to be beneficial for the future of the region — as such diplomatic outcomes are always better than resolution via violent means, initiatives for peace cannot be politicised. For instance, although the deal was seemingly aimed for the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel to fulfil their respective security objectives, Donald Trump has not shied from using the deal to arrest his declining popularity in the run up to the 2020 election.
The Middle East and the election
Although the situation in the Middle East may not be the main focus of the upcoming election, recent developments could be used to further accentuate current divides and tensions in American politics. For instance, recent domestic upheavals in the United States have brought race, identity and the treatment of minorities at the centre of the national debate. Hence, as in 2016, the question of Muslim immigrants or nascent US actions in the Middle East could act as a magnifier of those pre-existing tensions. As for Middle Eastern geopolitics, Donald Trump is already using his record with Israel to attract the Christian right, a historic ally and strong supporter of Israeli claims over Palestinian territories.
Moreover, Israel’s emerging alignment with Sunni countries is reshaping the political landscape in terms of the Trump campaign construing their candidate as the ‘peace candidate’ vis-à-vis the establishment Democratic candidate Joe Biden. In contrast however, questions over Donald Trump’s reelection, could spur debates on his open determination to confront Iran and raising the risk of an armed confrontation. At the same time, conversations around the US’ role in the region could dominate the election cycle, as Trump’s approach in the region has led to greater tensions with Turkey for instance.
Lastly, Trump’s confrontational strategy in the Middle East has led to other actors intervening in the region and exploiting fissures. For instance, in Syria and Libya, Russia is playing a major role and its resurgence in the region has partly been due to Moscow capitalising on the US’ change in policy towards the region. Moreover, the hastiness of American actions in the Middle East towards Trump’s extrication aims has also undermined the influence of the US in the region and put other actors at the centre of discussions.
Hence, the uncertainty and impulsiveness of American decisions in the Middle East would only bring more doubt and divide in the foreign policy aspects of the election.