Looking at public sentiment in the Middle East in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s shock election victory, Westerners might be surprised to learn that many people in the region were paying little heed to Trump’s most controversial statements.
Like many in the West, many Arabs simply thought that Mr. Trump was exploiting anti-Muslim sentiment and riding a wave of populism, and that while this was highly distasteful, he would correct things and comply with the establishment, not revolt against it.
How wrong we all were. After his inauguration talk - half jokingly characterised by some as “I have a nightmare,” Trump is disturbingly following through with his pledges. This is of course much to the concern of those who believe that freedom of movement, tolerance, free trade, and freedom itself, are the pillars of democracy and stability.
Many in Iraq believe that Trump is expanding his power by treating the Presidency like a TV show. Within Mr. Trump’s first week, his attention seeking and desire to stay at the top of the headlines is already backfiring on US interests inside and out of America. Trump’s advisers, including his Vice President and cabinet members, are playing a “yes minister” role to the new ruler of DC. But history will not be kind to those who “normalise” this man.
While Trump and his closest ideological cronies such as Stephen Bannon lack political acumen and can hardly maintain five minutes of intelligible oratory, many thought this businessman could turn things around after Obama seemingly took America away from the world stage.
Many hoped against all odds that unlike his predecessors, Trump’s business background would lead to a fresh look at foreign policy, viewed through a geo-economic lens, balancing the great powers through smart negotiation skills. We now see the exact opposite, as potential trade wars and inflammatory language threaten America’s trade relationship with Mexico and China - two nations that between them do over a trillion dollars a year in trade with the US. Realists were hoping for a Trump that would show us “peace through strength,” or at least a man who would rebalance the sometimes blunt forces of globalisation. Instead, we have a man who seems economically illiterate and belligerent towards America’s enemies and astonishingly, America’s allies.
Quite frankly, anything seems possible now. Mr. Trump keeps surprising the world with ill-informed decisions, pushing not only US allies Mexico and Colombia against his policies, but also isolating Germany and France and a list of US friends that seems to grow by the day - most recently Iraq, the most effective government in the ground war against ISIS, a country working closely with Western Coalition forces, including Americans. This defies belief.
Until United Kingdom’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson intervened on behalf of dual national citizens, I was faced with the prospect of wasting booked flights and hotels for two speaking engagements in Washington DC. These talks are scheduled at think tanks which support the research efforts of US officials who are sincerely trying to implement a better informed foreign policy in the Middle East. Many other academics and professionals are less fortunate, and we are all worse of for it.
Paradoxically, Trump’s executive orders are granting ISIS and other al-Qaeda splinter groups a much needed lifeline, boosting the views of those in the Middle East who believe the US is directly opposed to Islam. This also enriches the narrative of autocrats and radical leaders who are attempting to stay relevant as their societies face mounting challenges. On every level, Trump is handing a quick win to extremists.
Furthermore, as mentioned, as an Iraqi with British citizenship I find it very disturbing to witness the way America is dealing with a strategic ally such as Iraq. Today, the people of Iraq hold the frontline against ISIS, while their security forces are giving their lives every day to defend humanity. The United States should strengthen its “Special Relationship” with countries like Iraq if it is to find reliable partners to defeat terror. Trump himself has said that America alone must not shoulder this burden, but now he seems determined to follow a lonely path.
Mr. Trump’s decision is now risking US interests everywhere and Iraq is no exception. For example, how will US businesses such as ExxonMobil and Chevron respond to these measures, and how will Iraqis look at US military advisors and diplomats after this humiliating executive order? After Bush’s naive mishandling of the aftermath of invasion and Obama’s careless dismissal of ISIS “the JV team,” Iraqis perhaps hoped that with Trump, a new POTUS could not be worse. Worryingly, I fear something more chaotic and unpredictable has arrived, not only for Iraq, but for all of us.
One wonders what hope is left. The American people have struggled hard for nearly three centuries to build a great country based on liberal values that many countries aspire to. It would be a terrible shame to see this rich history get hijacked and then purged, but it can’t be ruined overnight. There is hope, with the unexpected and bold decision of the US Federal Court to block Trump’s executive order, which had caused so much misery in a few short hours.
I have also been heartened by the many supporting messages I received from my American friends who categorically reject Trump’s actions. As the Mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and others stand up for American values and countless thousands of Americans spontaneously rally for diversity and inclusiveness, it is clear that Trump will be challenged at every step of his assault on freedom.
Thousands turned out at airports including hundreds of lawyers, supported by judges working effortlessly to block the order and for now, they have succeeded. We hope that Mr. Trump take notice of this to act as President for all Americans, and be a responsible leader. Otherwise Mr. Trump will find that while unilateralism makes for dramatic TV, it’s up to the people to choose a second series.