Trump, the Middle East, and Terrorism: What to Expect By Nicolas Buhler
Early into his presidency, it is likely that Donald Trump follow a policy of outsourcing middle-eastern security to various regional strongmen, smothering jihadi insurgencies in the short-term yet favouring the return of instability in the long-term (through acceptance of authoritarian practices and mismanagement of regional rivalries). However, the main threat to regional peace could lie not in Trump’s initial strategy, but rather in his hothead reaction to challenges from abroad. As jihadi groups (and potentially state actors such as Iran) rush to destabilize his strategy by seeking to provoke an overreaction, it is possible that Trump could enter a tailspin of ill-advised interventionism and repression, thus playing into the extremist agenda.
Much has been said about president-elect Donald Trump’s islamophobic discourse on the campaign trail, and its potentially counterproductive effects on counterterrorism efforts. However, the topic of the next presidential administration’s wider strategy in the Middle-East and its effect on counterterrorism has been given little attention, not the least because of lack of evidence on the topic. Nevertheless, here are a few ideas on where America’s Middle-East policy might be headed.
Unlike his predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama, seen respectively as “neoconservative” and “liberal”, Trump tends to be described as a foreign policy “realist”, meaning that he believes that power, not ideas, is the main driver of international relations. While, arguably, Bush and Obama have chosen their friends and foes according to their compliance to American values of democracy and human rights, Trump is likely to pick them according to how well they can be harnessed to serve American power. This strategy, in turn, will serve two foreign policy objectives: counterterrorism and non-proliferation.
In the Middle-East, this approach might play out in three ways. First, by remaining close to key Obama administration partners such as Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. Second, by forging new partnerships with regimes or factions the previous administration was reluctant to engage with fully due to their non-compliance to the aforementioned American values: Egypt’s Sisi, Libya’s Haftar, Turkey’s Erdogan, as well as, most controversially, Russia’s Putin and Syria’s Assad. Third, by subduing the US’ main state challenger in the Middle-East: Iran.
The logic behind this policy is that outsourcing regional security to a set of strong regional partners, regardless of their values or allegiances, would reduce anarchy in the regional system and effectively root out jihadi groups. Additionally, it would break the deadlock caused by the Obama administration’s hawkish policies towards Russia and Syria, which, according to realists, have created more instability than they solved (particularly by favouring the expansion of ISIS, and encouraging Iran to intervene militarily in the Levant.)
General Mike Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, is likely to become the administration’s top proponent of the strategy. Controversially, he has advocated strengthening ties with Russia, Turkey, and Egypt, all of which have been snubbed by the Obama administration on ideological grounds. Strongly committed to defeating Islamic terrorism, he believes that the US should cooperate with any state sharing the same interest, regardless of their compatibility with American values.
However, this “realist” framework in the Middle-East poses two main problems: first, the reinforcement of authoritarianism in the region, which through repression of religious and political dissent can fuel violent extremism on the long-term. Second, the ignorance of regional rivalries. By appearing to support one regional power, the United States risks alienating others, thus pushing them to increase their participation in the region’s deadly proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
Middle-eastern dictatorships, while efficient at crushing jihadi insurgencies on the short term, tend to build up frustration among the population in the long run, leading to Arab Spring-type upheavals that are easily hijacked by violent extremists. Additionally, secular regimes tend to repress moderate Islamist movements, incentivizing their supporters towards insurgency rather than political participation. This happened in 1960s Egypt following General Nasser’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is likely to repeat as a result of Sisi’s current repression of the group. Finally, states that represent the domination of a minority religious group over a majority, such as Assad’s regime, are likely to fuel rebellion and radicalisation along sectarian grounds.
The impact of Trump’s strategy on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry could be as harmful to counterterrorism efforts as his support of secular dictatorships. As part of his non-proliferation effort, Trump has decided to take a hawkish stance towards Iran, which could materialise into a breakdown of the Nuclear Deal. However, as part of his counterterrorism policy in Syria, he has expressed a will to cut ties with the Saudi-backed opposition and cooperate with Assad and Russia to put an end to the jihadist insurgency. The inherent contradiction between these two policies risks eroding Saudi trust in the US, pushing them to increase their covert backing of jihadi groups, while empowering hardliners in Iran.
While the Trump campaign has claimed to embody a shift from the “neoconservative” and “liberal interventionist” policies of previous administrations towards a more “realist” and “non-interventionist” strategy, it is worth pointing out that the 2000 Bush campaign pictured itself in a similar light. It promised a “humbler” foreign policy than the outgoing administration’s, whose efforts at “nation-building” around the world had irritated Washington’s realists and isolationists. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration launched two great wars, both of them forcing regime change in accordance with American principles of democracy.
This shows how easily an administration can be brought to depart from its initial strategy, let alone its campaign worldview, by an independent variable like 9/11. Today, adventurism from Russia and Iran, as well as the growing capacity of jihadi groups to hold territory in the Muslim world and operate clandestinely in the west, ensure that provocations to US leadership are commonplace. What’s more, Trump’s foreign policy inexperience, high self-confidence and impulsiveness make him a prime target for provocations from both state and non-state actors seeking to destabilise American policy.
Whenever such a challenge comes, in the form of a terrorist attack on American soil or any action threatening the credibility of American power, the way the Trump administration reacts will be determined both by Trump’s impulsive personality and the dominant ideology in his foreign policy cabinet. Following 9/11, vice-president Dick Cheney and secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld were heavily influenced by neoconservative members of their cabinets, which is why, as a response to the attack, they pushed president Bush to indulge in a great plan to reorganize the Middle-East through regime change.
While Trump has sought to portray himself as a “realist”, top candidates for leadership of the next state department tend to be linked to the neoconservative agenda. John Bolton was a Bush-era diplomat famous for his defence of American unilateralism and Iran hawkishness. Rudy Giuliani has hinted towards the desirability of regime change in Iran, arguing it is "hiding behind the principle of sovereignty to stave off the consequences of its actions". Newt Gingrich, the administration’s new “chief planner”, has in the past argued for “replacing the leadership of Iran.” All of these men unequivocally supported the war in Iraq, and are hostile to all forms of political Islamism.
In times of crisis, when a provoked Trump is looking for a way to reaffirm his credibility vis-à-vis the American population and the wider world, he’ll be susceptible to the influence of his neoconservative cabinet, which could convince him of the feasibility of regime change in the Middle East. Given the track record of regime change in the region, from the Iraq War to the Libyan intervention, it is likely that such a policy will result in an increase of both local and global terrorism. Indeed, the void of power caused by regime change favours the apparition of jihadi groups, while the resentment caused by American occupation increases their popularity.
Admittedly, this is a worst-case scenario. It is possible that various actors both inside and outside the White House serve as a moderating force on Trump and his most maverick advisors, resulting in a very mild foreign policy. Most republicans, including those to serve in the Trump administration, are opposed to a rapprochement with Russia and Assad, and Trump’s most probable choice for defence secretary, general Paul Mattis, is widely respected for his non-ideological, technocratic approach to national security. Certainly, Trump’s upcoming nomination of a secretary of state, and its validation by congress, will be telling with regards to the future direction of US policy in the Middle-East and its influence on global terrorism trends.