Trump sends mixed signals about his Middle East policy
Apart from empty spaces in policy substance, Trump’s nascent Middle East team is facing other challenges as well.
A 2015 file picture shows South Carolina Governor and possible future US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaking at the National Press Club i n Washington. (Reutrs)
2016/11/27 Issue: 83 Page: 16
The Arab Weekly
Washington - US President-elect Donald Trump is sending mixed signals about the Middle East policy, picking and still considering hardliners for key posts in his administration, but leaving observers wondering whether changes to US positions regarding Iran or Syria could be more rhetorical than substantial.
One common thread connecting Trump and his candidates for foreign policy and national security posts is a rejection of the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear programme. However, it is far from certain whether, when or in what form the Trump administration will act on that issue. Trump did not mention Iran or other Middle East issues in a video address released on November 21st that outlined policy priorities for his first 100 days in office.
Foreign policy hawk Michael Flynn, a former general who has said Islam is like “cancer”, is on track to become the new president’s national security adviser, and James “Mad Dog” Mattis, a retired Marine general who once told an audience it was “fun to shoot some people”, is reportedly under consideration to be the next secretary of Defense.
Mitt Romney, a former Republican presidential candidate and long-time rival of Trump, is a leading candidate to become secretary of State. His appointment would signal an effort by Trump to include representatives of a more moderate group of Republicans. The same goes for South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, who is set to become Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. In that role she would be a high-profile representative of the United States on the world stage, even if she would not have much of a say in thrashing out policies.
“He is reaching to the very edge of the foreign policy establishment,” Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University in the US capital, said about Trump. But as the president-elect had offered “no outline of substantial policies” so far and had not been “a model of consistency” during the campaign, it was hard to calculate what kind of course Trump would steer after his inauguration on January 20th, Brown said.
Even though Trump left no doubt on the campaign trail that he rejects the Iran nuclear deal, a view shared by Romney and other potential administration members, his actions were hard to predict, Brown said. “Will there be a change of tone or of policy on Iran? It’s not yet clear,” he said.
A Washington-based diplomat of a major power, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the future of the Iran deal was at least uncertain after Trump’s election victory. “We have to be prepared for a lot of things,” the diplomat said. Still, the new president was not an ideologue but a pragmatist acting on “where he sees the best solution under the circumstances”, the diplomat said. There were a lot of “empty spaces” in Trump’s foreign policy agenda, the diplomat added.
Trump’s future stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is equally opaque. The president-elect has invited Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Washington without extending a similar invitation to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He has also sent other strongly pro-Israeli signals, among them a promise to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a step would be a recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital despite Palestinian claims to parts of the city.
But in a meeting with editors and reporters of the New York Times on November 22nd, Trump said one of his aims was to find a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a stance that suggests at least a minimum of willingness to put pressure on Israel to reach a deal that is acceptable for the Palestinian side.
“I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said. “I have reason to believe I can do it,” he added, without providing details. Trump also said his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an observant Jew, could be employed as a Middle East mediator. Kushner “would be very good at it” and “he knows the region”, Trump said.
There is even more confusion about the future US position on Syria. Romney has been much more critical of Syria’s ally Russia than Trump, who says he wants to cooperate closely with Moscow. Trump has said the United States should concentrate on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, while the new vice-president, Mike Pence, has suggested Washington could target Syrian government troops as well.
In his meeting with the New York Times, Trump said he had “strong ideas” about how to deal with the situation in Syria but did not provide details. “We have to end that craziness that is going on in Syria,” he said.
Apart from the empty spaces in policy substance, Trump’s nascent Middle East team is facing other challenges as well. Candidates for cabinet posts such as secretary of State or Defense have to be confirmed by the US Senate, where Trump cannot count on automatic consent by his fellow Republicans, who will hold 51 or 52 seats in the 100 member chamber, depending on the outcome of a run-off vote in Louisiana on December 10th.
“Not all of them are little Trumps,” Kemal Kirisci, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said about Senate members. Some have their own strong convictions and positions and could not be expected to agree with all of Trump’s candidates just because the president-elect wanted them to, Kirisci said. The situation was not comparable to parliamentary systems in Europe, “where you have a whip, and everybody falls in line”, he said.