WASHINGTON: For many in the Middle East, US President-elect Donald Trump is someone the region has gotten to know through investments and real estate deals, but who remains more of an enigma in terms of steering the US foreign policy.
As Trump today prepares to become the commander in chief of a power whose role is instrumental in matters of war and peace in the Middle East, Arab News spoke to foreign policy experts about Trump’s statements and cabinet picks — and what they could mean for a region in turmoil.
Conventional Republican team
Noah Rothman, a policy analyst and assistant online editor at Commentary Magazine, sees in Trump’s appointments a harbinger of what his policy would be like.
“Personnel is policy,” Rothman tells Arab News, painting Trump’s nominees in posts relevant to the Middle East as “relatively conventional Republicans.”
The picks for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and defense, James Mattis, were praised by conventional Republicans including their predecessors Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice. While Tillerson had a shaky hearing and his nomination could be stalled or it could go for a Senate vote, Mattis is expected to get a prompt confirmation.
Those nominees “bring strong experience and a no-nonsense approach to the region,” says Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute. He cautions, however, that one “shouldn’t underestimate Trump’s own personal views on issues,” or differences between the national security adviser Mike Flynn and the cabinet appointments.
Trump a proponent of stability
Haddad defines Trump’s approach to the Middle East as one encouraging stability, being a friend of the status-quo and regimes that would help “fight radical Islam” and defeat Daesh.
“Trump’s priority, as reflected in his speeches or works by his advisers is to confront radical Islam in the region, both on the security front against ISIS and on the ideological front, by supporting moderates and reformers against political Islam”, says Haddad.
Tillerson made a note of prioritizing the fight against “radical Islam” in his hearing, saying that “the demise of ISIS would also allow us to increase our attention on other agents of radical Islam like Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and certain elements within Iran.”
This could translate, in Haddad’s view, in “a stronger support for regimes that are seen as friendly and fighting political Islam, so probably an enhanced cooperation with Egypt, an improved relation with Israel.”
This re-orientation, however, has its contradictions if it is aimed at aligning the US with Russia in places like Syria, said Rothman. He predicted that “Trump will quickly find that his administration’s goal of rolling back Iranian destabilizing influence in the region will likely conflict soon with its goal of ceding authority to Moscow — Iran’s ally” in Syria.
According to CNN, the Trump administration is requesting from the Pentagon new proposals to fight Daesh, while keeping Obama’s coordinator for battle against the terror group, Brett McGurk, in his job.
Tougher stance on Iran
Trump appointees’ have echoed contradictory positions on issues related to relations with Russia, moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and on trade agreements. But they all seem to form consensus around a more hawkish policy in countering Iran.
There “will be a tougher line against Iran,” said Haddad, citing “at a minimum, a very strict enforcement” of the nuclear deal.
He notes that critics of the nuclear deal signed in 2015 “consider that Iran has already violated some provisions while the Barack Obama administration looked away.” Trump is also expected to approve new Congressional sanctions measures targeting Tehran over its regional behavior.
Haddad adds that the new head of the CIA Mike Pompeo “wants to reveal the side deals that were cut between the US and Iran” without necessarily nixing the deal, something that Mattis objected to.
Trump as a candidate, and later as his party’s nominee, advocated resuming peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority while taking a much more pro-Israel stance than the Obama administration. His promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and attempt to reverse UN resolution 2334 signal a closer relation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yet Rothman sees a “big question mark in Trump’s apparent interest in restarting the peace process.”
He views Trump’s apparent intention to get his son-in-law Jared Kushner involved in that portfolio “as indication that the incoming administration sees the conflict as a real estate dispute… It is not.”
Rothman adds, however, that “if Trump were to predicate negotiations on a joint Hamas/Fatah recognition of Israel, that might have some progress setting balanced terms for reinvigorating a two-state solution.”
The Trump policy, overall, blends a conventional Republican centrist view in shaping the Middle East — while restoring a more hawkish view, more akin to the George W. Bush administration especially in addressing challenges of extremism and countering Iran.