What Will The Trump Presidency Bring To The Middle East?

We can make some intuitive guesses about what Trump will do, considering the company he has kept in the course of his presidential campaign.

It is unusual for analysts to be perplexed about the future policies of the U.S. President Elect, but this is not a typical election. Past presidential candidates provided many indicators that helped us predict how their future policies would be. Most of them were experienced politicians with a track record as far as the eyes could see. And even the ones who were less experienced were party loyalists whose worldview is not very different from the political traditions of their parties.

But the next U.S. president Donald J. Trump, is completely different. He never held political office to give us a course of action to consider, and he is not a party loyalist. He is new to the Republican Party, and he essentially ran against most of its tradition and won against the will of many pillars in the party. Therefore, all we have to go with now are his campaign statements and promises and his occasional political views that were made in passing over the years, mostly without calculation or any attention to consistency. This is unfortunately not enough to form a coherent prediction of the policies of the Trump administration.

We can make some intuitive guesses about what Trump will do, considering the company he has kept in the course of his presidential campaign. After all, many of the prominent supporters of his candidacy will be awarded with political appointments and we will see them influencing and shaping the overall structure of the next administration. Unlike Mr. Trump, his top supporters are well-known national politicians with a long political track record and better-structured political ideologies – although these also come from different political and ideological backgrounds. Seasoned politicians, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New York Governor Rudy Giuliani, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Jeff Sessions, will add a wealth of political expertise to the new administration. But, on the other hand, their wildly diverse spectrum of world views may present a great challenge to their boss, if he is not in a position to discern whose view is best to adopt. As Machiavelli correctly wrote, “a prince who is not prudent himself cannot be well-advised.” The president must be in a position – or possess prudence – to discern the best advice and have the courage to follow it. President Elect Donald Trump will be vulnerable to the influence of these well-experienced politicians and the question will be: is his strong personality and past business executive experience going to mitigate this vulnerability?

On the Middle East, the Trump administration will have to reconcile his campaign statements, the practical necessities of governance, and the overarching U.S. national interests. Many criticisms of Trump focused on his statements about Islam and Muslims. It is true that the new administration may place restrictions on the admission of Muslims to the U.S., as immigrants and non-immigrants, but this is a far cry from what it has been depicted, as possibly opening the door to restricting the rights of American-Muslims. As I explained before the elections:

“The fears about ‘Donald Trump’s America’ are exaggerated. We are going to elect a president, not an emperor. There are institutions and the constitution of the United States of America guarantee the rights of Muslim Americans no matter who the president will be, whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Both candidates have merits and shortcomings in all political, social and economic fields. The election should focus on these and balance them on all aspects, not just the issue of their views on Muslims and Islam.”

The next administration must adopt a terrorism policy different form the current one of chasing terrorists while leaving the ideological hatcheries and incubators of terrorism intact. For a comprehensive counter-terrorism policy to succeed, it must go after the root causes of the problem, namely the Wahhabi and Takfiri mosques, schools, and media institutions which are associated with, and financed by, despotic countries like Saudi Arabia. The law that Congress passed recently, Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA or S.2040), is a good start but it must be followed on by other deterrent measures that can help curb the support of terrorist for political leverage, or simply to promote hate.

The same can be said about the Iran Deal. Trump’s campaign statements cannot be followed literally because the alternative is going to be costly for the efforts to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. It is simply incorrect to state that the Obama administration could have made a better deal but chose something less than what it could accomplish. Furthermore, the Iran Deal is not a bilateral agreement to be unilaterally annulled by the Trump administration. The Iran Deal was agreed to by America’s most important European allies, the United Nations, and Russia. They will not go along with a unilateral act by the U.S. president and let all the past progress go to waste, and risk their newly established business opportunities in Iran, without a significant Iranian violation of the deal, which is not likely to happen.

On Iraq, it seems that the Trump administration will have an easier security situation to handle, but it will have a full plate of political issues to deal with. By the time Trump’s people will be firm in the saddle, Mosul will be fully liberated and Iraq is on its way to having a very manageable security condition. But all the heavy lifting of the post-ISIS will have to be done by the new administration. Questions about the new form of governance in Iraq, Iraq’s territorial integrity, the size and potency of Iraqi security forces, Iraqi national reconstruction and reconciliation, and Iraq’s regional relations will have to be sorted out by, or with, great involvement of the Trump administration. Having the right people with fresh ideas about Iraq will be the best course to ensure success. But recycling the same tired and simplistic views of the “usual suspects” from the Bush or Obama administrations will guarantee failure.

On Syria, which is the greatest U.S. foreign policy failure, the Trump administration needs to adhere to Trump’s view of the necessity to cooperate with Russia. This is a view we presented in Foreign Affairs in October 2015, but our advice was ignored. The next administration must also curb the foreign influence in Syria, be it that of Iran, which supports the Assad Regime, or Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf Arab States that support, finance, and arm an assortment of terrorist groups in Syria. The U.S. must not succumb to the calls of warmongers and pseudo-analysts who call for more intervention in Syria, which is going to replace the regime of Bashar Assad with an a much worse alternative, or possibly chaos and more civil war.

The U.S. also needs to correct its wrongheaded foreign policy in Yemen, whose civilians are being brutally slaughtered by the air raids of Saudi Arabia and its coalition, which is made by an assortment of despots and criminal regimes. The current war has not accomplished any goals, other than helping terrorist groups control large swaths of the country, while innocent people and civilian infrastructure are targeted in what the UN has called “possible war crimes” more than once. Yemen is a very important country with a high strategic value and it is imprudent to alienate its people by supporting and arming the blind Saudi war machine that is targeting its population indiscriminately.

What is said about Yemen can also be said about Bahrain, a country whose Shia majority is brutalized by the sectarian despotic Al Khalifa regime, also with the help and meddling of Saudi Arabia, whose forces are essentially occupying the country and terrorizing its people. The U.S. policy in Bahrain, mainly concerned with the fate of the Fifth Fleet, has tolerated the Al Khalifa regime’s complete denial of basic political and human rights of Bahrain’s majority population. This policy is going to fail in the long term, because sooner or later Bahrainis will gain their freedom, and it better be with our support and not despite what they see as our help for their oppressors. It goes without saying that the idea of securing the place for the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain is dependent on Al Khalifa regime is a wrong one. As Al Khalifa welcome the Fifth Fleet to protect them against Iran’s expansionism, a free Bahrain will also need the Fifth Fleet to protect it against Saudi aggression. But if future Bahraini government does not trust us, or associates us with the Al Khalifa and Saudi, the lessons of Iraq will be repeated and, like the Iraqis did in 2011, they will ask us to leave and seek new partners.

In conclusion, those who have said that the sky would fall if Trump was elected have exaggerated in their fears and ignored the long tradition of U.S. governance which always ensured a measure of continuity and institutional stability that allows individual politicians a limited role in the overall mechanisms of government. A role that can help or hurt, but never to cause irreparable damage.

Abbas Kadhim is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University and President of the Institute of Shia Studies in Washington. Twitter: @DrAbbasKadhim