How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Leaders in the Middle East wasted no time in congratulating Donald Trump on his surprise election victory. Given Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, that might seem surprising. But it should not be, since few in the region were particularly thrilled at the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton perpetuating the Barack Obama administration's policies toward Iran and Syria. At the same time, the region’s leaders remain uncertain about Trump’s intended Middle East policies, giving rise to endless speculation about whether he will stay in or back out.
Conservative Arabs and Israelis alike hope that the incoming Trump government will reverse the Obama-era policy of leading from behind. In particular, they want clear signals of U.S. commitment to its traditional allies. Yet U.S. conservatives—as opposed to more hawkish neocons—have traditionally sought to avoid entangling alliances, including in the Middle East. If Trump follows suit and makes good on his pledge to Make America Great Again, beginning at home, the United States’ regional friends could be compelled to renew their search for other partners to protect their interests.
It is hard to get a read on Trump’s policy preferences for the Middle East, given that he spoke so little about foreign policy during the campaign other than to categorically disparage the Obama-Clinton team for perceived errors of omission and commission in Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Given a choice between re-engagement or further disengagement, Arab leaders fear the Trump policy team might opt to further decrease U.S. diplomatic and military involvement in the region. In their insecurity, many of these heads of state may well encourage non-Arab outside players, such as China, India, Russia, or Turkey, to take on a larger role—thus further destabilizing the balance of power in the region and around the world.
Ever since the late 1940s, conservative and pro-Western Middle Eastern regimes—Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for example—have regarded the United States as a firm and reliable pillar of defense. During the Obama years, however, their confidence began to waver. Relations between Washington and its traditional Arab allies reached a new low after Obama failed to follow through on his so-called “red lines” pledge warning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2012 against using chemical weapons against Syrian dissidents. Matters worsened further in 2015 with negotiation and signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran. Questioning the United States’ judgment and commitment, Arab rulers began to seek alternative sources of political and diplomatic support, foremost in Moscow.
Over the past year, Russian President Vladimir Putin, seizing on the civil war in Syria, has embarked on a major offensive in the Middle East. The Kremlin apparently aims at boosting its own military and diplomatic presence in the strategic Eastern Mediterranean while simultaneously weakening the United States’ bloc of supporters. Thanks to its presence and the United States’ absence, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states have all opened lines of communication to Moscow. A proactive Trump administration would have to labor hard to regain their confidence through such measures as closer consultation and coordination, formal security pacts, arms supplies, offshore force deployment, and more pressure on Iran.
At the same time, Trump’s desire to improve ties with Russia is part of the public record. In an imperfect world, Middle Eastern countries still prefer working with Washington and would doubtless prefer U.S.-Russian cooperation to a U.S. retreat. Trump is, of course, on record encouraging Russia to intensify its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), which is for him the root cause of instability in the Middle East. Left unclear is what steps the United States might feel compelled to take if Russia defiantly refuses to play the role assigned to it.
Mild hope about a Trump administration aside, Arab leaders are still nervous thanks to his campaign’s blatant anti-Muslim rhetoric and calls for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. (A Royal Jordanian airline advertisement encouraged passengers to “Travel to the US while you’re still allowed to!”) To be sure, once in office, winning candidates do tend to adopt policies that differ markedly from their heated campaign rhetoric. Prospects are therefore good that President Trump will speak differently than candidate Trump. Even so, he will have to work hard to ease Arab and Muslim sensitivities.
Already, Trump has sought to distance himself from some of his earlier remarks regarding Muslims and terrorism. For example, the call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” has been quietly deleted from the Trump campaign website. On the Arab side, too, there is every reason to assume a willingness to open a new page in relations. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an outspoken critic of Trump who once called him a “disgrace,” now says that it is time to put aside differences.
Here, Obama’s Middle East policies may actually have had a beneficial effect. Sunni Arabs in Egypt, the Emirates, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia continue to be deeply apprehensive of the 2015 Iran deal. They hope for resolute American leadership against Iran under Trump, who has repeatedly expressed his disapproval of the Iran deal, labeling the nuclear pact as a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated.” (Clinton, by contrast, was a proponent of the deal, which made Arabs nervous about a broader U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.) If Trump insists on greater transparency and moderation from Tehran, Tehran could defect from the deal. Immediately upon Trump’s election, spokesmen in Iran warned that, if the new president walked away from the deal, they, too, had any number of possible responses, including resuming their march to the bomb.
In fact, although commentators predict that the Iran deal might become Trump’s first foreign policy victim, he will find it difficult to simply walk away from a binding multilateral agreement. And doing so could bring further instability to the Middle East and complicate U.S. relations with its European allies. Trump’s task, then, will be finding other ways to reassure traditional allies. That might be hard, though, considering that Trump has made clear that he wants them to share more of the burden of fighting terrorism. Trump threatened that he would even consider halting oil purchases from Saudi Arabia unless the Saudi government consented to provide troops to the fight against ISIS, adding somewhat undiplomatically that, without the United States, the Saudi monarchy would not exist for long. Further, Arab League members, to the extent they are truly dedicated to Palestinian statehood under the two-state peace formula, could be compelled to de-emphasize the issue. Throughout the campaign, Trump delivered contradictory messages, saying that he would be “neutral” in his attempt to promote the peace process and then later declaring that he would not exert any pressure on Israel.
This leaves Israel to make its own plans for what might happen after January 20. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers apparently anticipate reduced direct involvement by the U.S. in the Middle East in general and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. If Trump is determined to distance himself from his predecessor’s Middle East policies, it is reasonable to assume that resuming the stalled diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians will not be high on his agenda. Inside Israel’s right-wing government there are those who see an undisguised blessing in the election results, seeing Trump as likely to grant Israel greater maneuverability in dealing with the Palestinians. In other government circles, however, there is veiled skepticism about his real intentions and his ability to override the Washington policy establishment, especially with respect to his campaign promise to move America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The contours of a Trump foreign policy remain undefined. Some of the United States’ partners in the Middle East are waiting out the suspense. Others are already preparing for continued U.S. retrenchment away from the Middle East, by acting unilaterally, like Turkey along its southern border with Syria, Iraq and Iran, and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Still others, including Egypt, have quietly sought to enhance their security by improving ties with China and Russia, at times in open defiance of the United States and its expressed interests.
That will likely continue. For most countries and leaders, however, hedging is not the preferred option. They would still rather solidify relations with the United States, provided it shows confident leadership and greater sensitivity to their interests and needs. They see Trump as a strong-willed figure entirely capable of making and honoring deals struck with strongmen like themselves. Cairo would like to believe that Trump will be someone it can do business with, and who will not rail against human rights infringements. Not surprisingly, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi issued a statement congratulating Trump, saying he was confident the latter’s presidency would inject “new life” into Egyptian-American ties. For him, “new life” means sweeping away the legacy of Obama and Clinton, who are widely perceived as having supported the Muslim Brotherhood.
There are also those who believe that the desire of Trump (and, indeed, the American public) to distance himself from the Middle East will prove too strong to ignore. Yet the Middle East has a proven ability to impose itself on them. Global challenges such as preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and fighting terrorism will still center on the Middle East. Trouble that originates from the region can realistically be expected to spill over into the rest of the world at some point in the coming four to eight years. It will force the president’s hand into responding in some way—possibly even against his own better instincts and pledge of “America First.”
The Middle East is among the least stable regions in the world. Reducing the U.S. presence will not add to its stability, and any dramatic change in Washington’s alliance commitments is liable to have longer-term negative consequences—for regional allies, for the United States, and for the international system. With a disintegrating Arab world, Russia and Iran more assertive and four wars raging simultaneously in the region, the United States' 45th president already faces a daunting set of fateful decisions in confronting a dysfunctional Middle East.