Foreign Policy Blogs

Trump and Clinton: The View From Afar

AP (left) and Getty images (right)

AP (left) and Getty images (right).

By Shehab Al Makahleh

Because former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s maxim that “all politics are local” extends to the Middle East, the American elections are no mere abstraction to we “outsiders.” Many in the Middle East, including Arabs, Jews, Turks and Kurds, are curious how the next American president—whomever he or she may be—will deal with the major unresolved issues in their tumultuous, unsettled region: America as interventionist or isolationist, the still-unvanquished scourge of the Islamic State, the U.S. relationship with Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Syrian refugee crisis.

To some extent, what is past is prologue. American foreign policy toward the region has followed a similar trajectory for more than two decades of successive U.S. presidents, regardless of their party affiliations. A bipartisan spirit of liberal interventionism has meant an active U.S. presence in the Middle East and North Africa, from the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait under George H.W. Bush to the support for the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi under Barack Obama. All presidents in between have attempted to actively bridge differences between the Israelis and Palestinians and promote democracy.

The next American president will be drawn from a crop who at least superficially agree on a few key issues, like urging regional countries to step up their efforts as U.S.-led coalition partners in fighting ISIS and assisting Syrian civilians in finding safety despite the horrific conflict that has consumed their country. But at least among the presumptive nominees—Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—the similarities end there.

Mr. Trump intends to let others do the fighting, cajoling and funding needed to stabilize the region. In fact, the core of his foreign policy is a proposal to let ISIS overthrow Syria’s Bashar Assad, and only then confront the newly empowered terror group, presumably by bombing Syria into a parking lot (he used an even more indelicate phrase) and seizing their petroleum. In his remarks on counterterrorism, Mr. Trump has made no distinction between the innocent and the guilty, between terrorists and their families.

His “temporary” ban on Muslims entering America give us a sense of the type of diplomacy he intends to pursue. And not too thinly cloaked in his proclamations to “make America great again” is a foreboding sense of expanding the American empire here by military means, attacking oil refineries and other steps that smack of a hostile takeover, only this time not of a company, but a country.

Mr. Trump also demands that the wealthy Gulf states pay for safe zones in Syria. And he believes Saudi Arabia should compensate the United States financially whenever the U.S. assists in the protection of Saudi interests, and has insinuated Saudi involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. These are the statements that most worry the Saudis and the other Gulf states because they indicate a fundamental shift in the strategic order in the region, with the U.S. acting more like a paid mercenary rather than its traditional role as sheriff or guarantor of order.

Mr. Trump also claims he would renegotiate all U.S. trade agreements, promising that he can negotiate better deals. Such renegotiation could impact existing U.S. trade deals with Bahrain and Oman, and could influence fledgling efforts at trade deals with the Gulf region. He is in favor of using tariff wars against nations like China who, he argues, “don’t play by the rules.” He also maintains that the United States should only intervene in global conflicts when America is directly threatened, not simply for “humanitarian purposes.”

Mr. Trump’s likely adversary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is regarded in the region as something of a neoconservative. Mrs. Clinton defends her activism in Libya on the grounds that military intervention and regime change averted a humanitarian disaster and paved the way for democracy, neither of which have come to pass. That legacy mirrors the rationale and the result of George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraqi invasion.

Mrs. Clinton’s private connections with Gulf leaders (some gave generously to the Clinton Foundation) and relentless bashing of Iran even after the nuclear deal, raise real worries that she is warmongering, or worse, that private interests like weapons sales take precedence over regional security and cooperation. Her tough talk may be pandering to Jewish voters, worried about Iran’s rhetoric toward Israel. But as secretary of state, there was no more forceful advocate for military intervention, and as a candidate no harder critic of Iran. These portend a possible reversal of the relative stability that has followed the nuclear deal.

The candidates and their parties also differ on the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis. Mrs. Clinton is willing to accept scores of thousands of refugees into the United States, while in the region she is pushing for the creation of “safe zones” in Syria to protect refugees. A Trump win, however, will mean the rejection of Syrian refugees in the U.S., and, at best, regionally funded and backed “safe zones” in Syria.

These differences matter not only to Americans, but to the hundreds of millions of people in the region, and neither candidate provides a panacea to our ills. We are either largely on our own, or we play into an interventionist worldview marked by hostile, warlike rhetoric against perceived threats coupled with arms sales — a vicious cycle if ever there was one.

Given these alternatives after decades of war and chaos, on balance many Arabs would not find a Trump presidency to be a disaster, despite his anti-Muslim rhetoric. We don’t need to be “liked” or welcomed. We want the conflict with Iran to de-escalate. We want development, not more weapons, and on this point China and Russia have shown an increased willingness to step into the breach. Mr. Trump is right to suggest others can play a constructive role here.

Alas, we in the region have no vote. But make no mistake, we have as much interest in the results of the American elections as the millions who will cast a ballot.

Shehab Al Makahleh is a journalist and co-founder of Geo-strategic and Political Studies of the Middle East Media.