In less than two months, President Trump will be inaugurated and a new American administration will begin directing Washington’s policies in the Middle East. A lot of uncertainty comes with these changes, and the entire region wonders what U.S. policy will look like.
President Trump’s campaign statements provide some, but not much, indication (he seems more than ready to deviate from these promises if necessary). His overall philosophy and the kind of people he has been choosing for his cabinet so far probably offer better clues than his campaign rhetoric.
In terms of philosophy, Mr. Trump does not appear overly concerned about broad principles regarding human rights and democracy in foreign countries. He focuses more on a kind of transactional, business foreign policy that should appear very familiar to the Chinese and the Russians. In this approach, “if you want something from me then tell me what’s in it for me.” Mr. Trump’s future cabinet also seems likely to be filled with relative hawks, keen on protecting American interests and punishing its enemies by whatever means.
Dictators, strongmen and militarized states in the Middle East should thus have no problem working with Mr. Trump’s Washington if they can convince him that there is a quid-pro-quo for America. This is probably very good news for the likes of President Sisi of Egypt, for example. As long as Egypt’s government remains focused on squashing Islamists and keeping the peace with Israel, they will have warm relations with Washington.
Likewise for a militarized Israel – the new administration will be unlikely to concern itself greatly with settlements or whatever Israel deems necessary to keep the militants in Gaza or elsewhere in check. As American General and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig once said, “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.”
The picture seems less clear for Riyadh, Tehran, Baghdad, and Ankara. Starting with Riyadh, the Saudi monarchy’s relationship with radical Salafis and the Jihadi children they spawn remains complex. The pact that successfully created the Saudi state and hegemony in Arabia involved a partnership between the House of Saud and the Salafi Wahabis. The former gets exclusive control of foreign policy, internal security and the economy, while the Wahabis get to propagate their version of Islam via the Ministry of Education, Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Saudi relief aid abroad. As part of the deal, the Wahabi preachers endorse whatever the monarchy does, giving it legitimacy. At the same time, these Salafists enjoyed the freedom to export a fair amount of Jihadi nonsense to other parts of the world – especially Saudi enemies such as Nasser’s Egypt. After 9/11, the Saudi monarchy tried to reign them in a bit, but could only go so far without abrogating the deal that forms the very basis of their regime. A Trump administration may demand more action against the Wahabi Salafis and their Jihadi spawn, posing a real dilemma for Riyadh.
As for Tehran, it is no secret that the Iranians have been opposing American interests and influence all over the Middle East for some time. For example, with proxy militias in several countries, the Iranians managed to kill over 200 American Marines in Beirut in 1983. Iranian support to insurgents in Iraq (both Shiite and Sunni) probably accounted for the majority of the 4,424 American soldiers killed there between 2003 and 2011. Iranian boats play cat and mouse with U.S. naval forces in the Persian/Arab Gulf today. Iranian discourse still casts America as the “Great Satan”. A Trump administration may react badly to all this, especially compared to an Obama administration eager to mend fences with Iran and willing to believe the soothing words of moderates who do not wield the real power there.
If Baghdad appears under the thrall of Iran, especially now that it has incorporated Iranian-funded and virulently anti-American militias into its military, then U.S.-Iraqi relations may sour very quickly as well.
And then we come to Turkey. While Mr. Trump and one of his advisors may be more than willing to do great business with Turkey, this could hit the very hard wall of President Erdogan’s Islamist regional ambitions, his penchant for saying nasty things about the Americans, and a Turkish policy that appears to have armed and financed more than a few Jihadi groups in the region (mostly Hamas and a plethora of groups in Syria). This combined with Mr. Trump’s disdain for NATO commitments and the costs of maintaining U.S. bases on the territory of “ungrateful and unreliable allies” could spell trouble for Turkey.
What could all of this mean for the Kurds? Since there have never been any significant instances of the Kurds acting or speaking against America, it could mean a great deal. The Kurds will just have to know to cast their appeals towards America’s self-interest rather than human rights, democracy and self-determination. Except for in 1991, those latter principles never seemed to attract much help anyhow.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.