Trump’s team faces hard choices as it tackles Middle East

Trump’s efforts to translate populist campaign promises into policy are running into difficulties.

Semantics. US Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly (R), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions prepare to give remarks in Washington, on March 6th. (AFP)


2017/03/12 Issue: 97 Page: 16


The Arab Weekly
Thomas Seibert



Washington - Seven weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, steps by the US administration in Middle East matters are starting to expose ideologi­cal tensions within a White House still trying to find its footing.

In a retreat from an earlier hard­line position, Trump on March 6th signed a revised 90-day travel ban for people from several Muslim countries. The new executive or­der superseded a version that was struck down by the courts. The new order dropped Iraq from the group of blacklisted countries, leaving Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen under the ban. It said people from those countries with valid travel documents or a second passport would be not covered by the embargo, which is to take effect March 16th.

While the first version of the ban, which caused widespread protests and chaos at airports, was drawn up by a small group of right-wing Trump aides, the new executive order was prepared in cooperation with key departments. Reports said the US State Department, seen as a more moderate player in the administration, had pressed for the decision to drop Iraq from the travel ban list.

Before the roll-out of the new ban, US Defense Secretary James Mattis presented a plan on how to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) to White House officials, with the Pentagon saying the strategy re­view ordered by Trump proposed military as well as non-military ef­forts to cripple the jihadist group. US Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pen­tagon spokesman, called the plan “global” and a “framework for a broader discussion” about how to defeat ISIS.

There has been no official state­ment about details of the plan but news reports quoted officials as saying that Mattis’ strategy includ­ed cutting the flow of money to ISIS and making recruitment of new fighters more difficult. The plan reportedly does not call for a major deployment of US combat troops in Iraq or Syria, meaning that Wash­ington would continue to rely on allies such as the Kurds to do most of the fighting on the ground.

Addressing a joint session of Congress on February 28th, Trump reiterated his aim to “demolish and destroy” ISIS and added that task would be accomplished with the help of the United States’ partners in the region. “We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet,” the US president said.

US Marine General Joseph Dun­ford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an earlier event at the Brookings Institution in Wash­ington, said the plan would target al-Qaeda and other terror groups in Syria and Iraq. He said the White House would be briefed on the complex aspects of fighting ISIS there, given the multitude of play­ers, including Iran, Russia, Turkey and Kurdish groups. “What we don’t want to do is bring him op­tions that solve one problem only to create a second problem,” Dun­ford said about Trump.

The nuanced approach suggest­ed by military experts stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s sweep­ing campaign promise to “oblit­erate” ISIS and other rhetoric that suggested a swift military battle against the extremists, not a care­ful and multilayered method that could take time before progress be­comes visible.

As the administration weighs its options, ideological battle lines are becoming apparent. US Army Lieutenant-General H.R. McMas­ter, Trump’s new national security adviser, has first-hand experience in the Middle East and is reluctant to use the term “radical Islamic ter­rorism”, favoured by Trump and hard-line, populist-pitching advis­ers such as Steve Bannon and Se­bastian Gorka.

The semantic difference points to a deeper rift between advisers such as Bannon, in whose world view Is­lam is a force of evil, and national security officials like McMaster who argue that blanket accusations do not reflect more complicated realities. McMaster reportedly told the staff of the National Security Council that ISIS and other terrorist groups were “un-Islamic”. Trump, however, used “radical Islamic ter­rorism” in his speech to Congress.

By insisting on that description, the administration put the spot­light on Islam, said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. “The for­eign policy establishment is very suspicious about that,” Brown said.

The new Muslim ban was sup­posed to counter the perception of an anti-Muslim stance by the Trump administration but crit­ics say the effort failed. “It is still a concern to us how it singles out Muslims,” said Rabia Ahmed, di­rector of Media and Public Affairs at the Muslim Public Affairs Coun­cil (MPAC). She said Trump had shaped a narrative that described immigrants, refugees and Muslims as a “threat”. Rights advocates and at least three states have said they will fight the new travel ban in the courts.

Trump’s efforts to translate populist campaign promises into policy are running into difficulties elsewhere as well. Following the announcement on February 27th of a proposed large increase in de­fence spending with correspond­ing cuts in almost many other areas of the budget, more than 120 for­mer generals and admirals called on Congress to keep spending for international aid and diplomacy intact. “Now is not the time to re­treat,” the former officers wrote in a letter to Congress published by the US Global Leadership Coalition, a group campaigning for spending on development and diplomacy.

The letter highlighted problems that “do not have military solu­tions alone” and listed “violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa” as an example. A reduction in interna­tional aid could affect some Ameri­can allies in the Middle East, such as Jordan and Egypt, which receive billions of dollars of US support every year.


Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.


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