Mideast Expects Big Changes Under Trump01/19 06:21
CAIRO (AP) -- Donald Trump's all-but-dismissal of human rights as a foreign
policy principle could hit like an earthquake across a Middle East landscape
beset by warring factions and beleaguered governments, with some players eyeing
the prospect of once unimaginable new alliances.
Syria is the foremost test of Trump's promise of a return to a hard-headed
realpolitik and could quickly show whether America is truly abandoning
promotion of democracy and the rule of law in a way that could reshape much of
the region's post-Cold War, post-9/11 order.
Trump has raised the possibility of a broad new U.S. partnership with
Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian Russia and has even hinted at
aligning with Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would amount to a dramatic
reversal from years of the Obama administration calls for Assad's ouster. Trump
seems to calculate that their shared enemy in the Islamic State is more
important than shared values.
"When it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I
think it's very hard for us to get involved in other countries," Trump
explained last July as Turkey was punishing tens of thousands of people
seemingly unconnected to a failed coup attempt. "We need allies," Trump said in
a New York Times interview. "I don't know that we have a right to lecture."
When Barack Obama declared a new beginning with the Muslim world in a
landmark speech eight years ago, he mentioned democracy six times and broached
the subject of human rights on a dozen occasions. Trump has barely mentioned
these as foreign policy principles, extolling instead deal-making, diplomatic
and economic, and championing the fight against IS.
"Human rights will not be his top priority," concluded Mustafa Alani, the
director of the security and defense department at the Geneva-based Gulf
Some believe the change will in the end be largely a matter of style, noting
that Obama has fought jihadism all over the region as well. Aaron David Miller,
a Mideast adviser under five American presidents, expects Trump to prove "risk-
averse" and remain consistent with Obama's own reluctance to interfere in other
countries' affairs, use military force, remain engaged in Iraq or get truly
involved in Syria's civil war.
But it's clear that several long-standing allies in the Middle East are
relishing an end to what they saw as moralizing rhetoric, confused signals and
unfulfilled red lines, and favoring a Trump pivot to counterterrorism and
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is still waiting for a White House
invitation, having been shunned by Obama for his bloody crackdown on the Muslim
Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is expecting a renewed push from Washington on its
arch-rival Iran, instead of Obama's more neutral stance and its accompanying
criticism of the kingdom's treatment of women and killing of civilians in
Yemen. And Israel's nationalist leadership has made almost a public celebration
of Trump's imminent arrival, confident that its grief for how it treats the
Palestinians is over.
Here's a look at how Trump's policies could shake up the Middle East:
SYRIA AND ISLAMIC STATE
The U.S.-led campaign against IS, more than 60 nations strong, has lacked in
Syria the one thing it needs most: a partner on the ground capable of
reclaiming and holding territory, as the Iraqi government is doing in its
areas. Widespread evidence of torture, chemical weapons attacks and even war
crimes by Assad's forces had made a partnership infeasible to Obama and most of
America's foreign policy establishment.
Meanwhile, Russia's intervention since September 2015 has dramatically
shored up Assad's position. If Assad and Putin now take on IS in its
strongholds in northeastern Syria, it is less difficult to imagine Trump
accepting perhaps a tacit partnership.
Trump has said Assad may be "bad" but the rebels fighting to topple him
"could be worse." He has said the U.S. has no idea who its allies in the
country are and has appeared most concerned about containing the exodus of
Syrian refugees, fearing they'll spread terrorism.
Assad recently suggested the U.S. and Syria could be "natural allies."
Such a shift would have consequences. America's Sunni allies in the Persian
Gulf will chafe at any outcome they see as strengthening the hand of Assad's
other main partner, Shiite Iran.
ISRAEL AND PALESTINE
Years of contentious relations between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu culminated last month in a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring
illegal the Jewish state's construction of settlements on occupied land the
Palestinians seek for a future state. Obama's decision to not veto the
resolution followed bitterness in Israel over the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Trump has vowed to heal the wound, apparently by embracing parts of
Netanyahu's nationalist agenda. He has appointed a pro-settlements ambassador,
vowed to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to more controversial Jerusalem
and spoken of renegotiating and even dismantling the Iran deal.
Whereas much of Obama's disapproval of Netanyahu was expressed in moral
terms, Trump has steered wide of any such thing.
"He is against this kind of moralism and political correctness," said Eytan
Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. "He
is a businessman. If there is a potential for a deal between Israel and the
Palestinians, he will do it. If there is no potential for a deal, he will not
Many fear overreach by Israel that could trigger a new Palestinian uprising.
And some note the situation could turn if the confident Netanyahu ever provoked
the mercurial Trump as he has did Obama. "Within a year, they'll be annoying
the hell out of each other," predicted Miller.
THE GULF AND IRAN
If there is one authoritarian country unlikely to enjoy the fruits of
Trump's human rights-free foreign policy, it's Iran. The president-elect
regularly chastised Obama for agreements that provided new funds to a
U.S.-designated terror sponsor and left it only several years away from
potentially returning to nuclear weapons capacity.
Beyond the talk of a nuclear renegotiation, Trump also has promised to get
American prisoners released and threatened to shoot Iranian boats out of the
water if they provoke U.S. Navy vessels in and around the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has said if the U.S. tears up
the nuclear accord, "we will light it on fire." But Iranian President Hassan
Rouhani on Tuesday dismissed the possibility that Trump could undo the nuclear
deal, likening it to turning a finished shirt back into cotton. The
president-elect's tough talk on the deal was is "mainly slogans," he said.
Officials in Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival, are nonetheless pleased
with a president who might focus more on Iran than its own human rights
violations. Although its rights record routinely ranks among the world's worst,
Rex Tillerson, Trump's choice for secretary of state, wouldn't call the key
U.S. ally a rights violator.
El-Sissi, Egypt's general-turned-president, isn't hiding his hopes in Trump:
"There is appreciation (by Trump) for Egypt's regional role and there will (be)
more coordination with the United States going forward," he said this week.
Government circles in Cairo widely see Obama as naive about the true
intentions of political Islam and excessively idealistic about liberal
democracy. Championing the popular protests of the 2011 Arab Spring, Obama
urged the stalwart U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak to step down and welcomed the
ascendancy of the country's first elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
After el-Sissi led a 2013 military overthrow replacing Morsi, Obama's
administration struggled for months over whether to call it a coup and later
suspended some arms sales to Egypt. It has routinely criticized the
government's police brutality, mass trials of Islamists and the crackdown on
liberal dissent, drawing charges from el-Sissi that the U.S. supports Morsi and
other religious hard-liners.
Under Trump, "there will be a lot of capacity for less friction and more
engagement," said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert at the New York-based
But given Egypt's dire economic condition and internal instability, el-Sissi
may have little to offer a deal-oriented U.S. president in return. How
important that turns out to be will help show whether the new American compass
will truly be about the quid pro quo.