Donald Trump's Middle East con
During the campaign, President-Elect Donald Trump often vowed that the days of American adventurism in the Middle East were over (while incongruously promising to obliterate ISIS with a sophisticated strategy of More Bombs). He excoriated Hillary Clinton for her role in the NATO-led 2011 military action in Libya. And frankly, a principled skeptic of American interventionism could have squinted and discerned some good ideas — even if the intellectual framework remained To Be Tweeted.
But this posturing about a new day in the Middle East was just an elaborate con, like most everything else that came out of Trump's mouth during this campaign. Team Trump is about to make an already troubled region so much worse.
For the post of ambassador to Israel, Trump has put forward Dan Friedman, an apologist for the Israeli colonization project in the West Bank and someone who is about as neutral on that conflict as helicopter parents are at their kids' soccer games. Trump also appears ready to make Iraq War architect John Bolton — an unreconstructed neocon who was sloppily recommending a bombing campaign against Iran in April 2015 even as the P5+1 negotiations were nearing their successful completion — his deputy secretary of state. Here's one thing you can take to the bank: John Bolton does not want to be less involved militarily in the Middle East. Choosing this man to serve in your State Department is like swiping right on War Tinder.
Then there's Trump's preposterous nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, which clearly indicates that regional issues will be approached (as they almost always have been) through the lens of energy security, and that pre-Obama levels of total obeisance to the Gulf petrostates will be restored in full
But perhaps the most worrisome appointment is professional paranoiac Michael Flynn as national security adviser. Flynn co-authored a book (that was rush-published for the Republican National Convention) called Field of Fight with former Iran-Contra go-between Michael Ledeen, a man who has been lobbying relentlessly for a war with Iran since the 1990s. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, Ledeen infamously argued that "one can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please." This is the kind of person who has Flynn's ear about Middle East politics. Despite some disagreements, this crowd generally believes that Obama's Middle East policy has been a squishy disaster. The More Cauldrons Faster Please doctrine's first victims are likely to be civilians in Syria, who will continue to die in droves as Bashar al-Assad uses Russian military power to finish off the opposition and obliterate ISIS, and as Trump orders our own military to bomb more indiscriminately.
Under Trump, a renewed confrontation with Iran is more likely than not. Bolton is clearly still enthralled by the idea of "regime change" that has brought almost 14 years (and counting) of ruin to Iraq and its neighbors. Designated Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland has a long public record of hostility to the nuclear deal. Tillerson might favor engagement, but if Trump, as promised, vengefully pulls the U.S. out of the 2015 agreement, Iran may move quickly toward a nuclear breakout. The idea that the incoming crew has the nimble touch required to reconstruct the global sanctions regime is laughable. Our European partners are busy trying to stop the continent from self-destructing, and no one is going to be eager to work with us if we scrap a painstakingly negotiated agreement for no particular reason.
Have you noticed that human rights have been singularly absent from Trump's foreign policy discourse (inasmuch as you can call it discourse)? His peculiar admiration for bloodthirsty authoritarians like Saddam Hussein, Rodrigo Duterte, and Vladimir Putin suggests he will be all too willing to do the bidding of Egypt's Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and the coterie of hereditary monarchs who oversee the slave kingdoms of the Persian Gulf. Anyone willing to use lethal force to keep a lid on social tensions should feel comfortable putting their feet up and smoking a hookah while their security services run wild for the next four years. The human rights implications of an American administration that doesn't even pretend to care about multilateral diplomacy and international law are chilling.
You can expect the further entrenchment of Israeli rule over the Palestinian territories. Official D.C. has basically swallowed the Netanyahu line that both the two-state and one-state solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are dead and that the best we can hope for is indefinite "management" of the conflict — code for the continued dispossession and statelessness of most Palestinians as long as Israel itself thrives. The new Trump administration will almost certainly engage in the pointless provocation of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And it is difficult to imagine this team of policymakers doing much of anything in the face of even more extreme provocation, such as mass expulsions of Palestinians in the wake of a terrorist attack or the unilateral annexation of large swaths of the West Bank.
Trump's comportment on the trail — particularly his insistence that using the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" over and over again will summon a Beetlejuice of policy coherence — suggests that he has cast his lot with an Islamophobic right-wing fringe that believes that it can precipitate — and "win" — a world-historical reordering of the Islamic faith, and that it is in America's interest to conduct a generations-long campaign to transform other people's poorly understood religious practices and beliefs. Or as Flynn put it in Field of Fight, "The world badly needs an Islamic Reformation, and we should not be surprised if violence is involved. It's normal."
More cauldrons. Faster, please.
The winners from Trump's new era of open authoritarian worship should be obvious. Turkey's President Erdogan, who is in the process of incinerating his own country's civil society and throwing academics, journalists, and judges in prison, can proceed with the understanding that the United States does not care who he kills or which democratic institutions he wrecks. In Egypt, it's been clear since the military coup against the inept elected government of Mohammad Morsi that Sisi has no intention of ever relinquishing power. This should be just fine with the Trump administration as long as the Egyptians stay silent on Israel. Everyone is too terrified of Cairo and the Suez Canal falling into the hands of ISIS to do or say anything to upset the grim status quo there.
Another big loser of the Trump administration's Mideast policy: the Kurds, the world's second-largest national group without a country whose leaders make the colossal mistake of trusting the United States to deliver them from statelessness every 20 years or so. Turkey barely tolerates the existence of Iraqi Kurdistan, an entity which is an independent state in all but name. Erdogan would love to use any excuse possible, including attacks like the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, to launch military incursions into Iraq, up to and possibly including its erasure as a separate entity, all as part of a project to crush the aspirations of Turkey's own Kurdish minority. With many of Turkey's Kurdish political leaders in prison, the stage is set for an escalation that the Trump regime seems uniquely poorly positioned to manage.
Why would the U.S. ditch the Kurds — in Iraq and Syria — after 25 years of cultivating them since Desert Storm? Think about it. The president-elect has a long and sordid professional history of using people and then screwing them over once their utility has been exhausted. In Syria and Iraq, the Kurds have been serving as a bulwark against ISIS. But with Trump poised to unleash Putin and Assad on the rest of Syria, the Kurds and their military prowess may become not just redundant but rather an irritant to both our Turkish ally and our new pals in Damascus. Once ISIS loses its territorial foothold in Raqqa, it is most likely finished in Iraq too. If and when that happens, the Kurds will be back precisely where they have always been — friendless and sandwiched between larger and more powerful forces who all have their own selfish reasons for working against Kurdish statehood. Trump wouldn't blink before stiffing them like one of his contractors.
The defining feature of post-2000 Republican foreign policy has been an unrelieved hostility to the international institutions created after WWII to manage the world with enlightened American self-interest. Overall this makes the Middle East a fairly easy place to implement Trump's vision of aggressive nationalist mercantilism, since the region mostly lacks functional multilateral architectures and large swathes of it have been on fire for the better part of 25 years. The appointment of Tillerson suggests that he sees the region the way its inhabitants believe all Americans do: as a source for natural resources and little else.
This is not to say, however, that there aren't some potential contradictions, and thus policy uncertainties. Many of the characters about to assume positions of great importance in the national security apparatus, like McFarland and Tillerson, are virtually unpublished (unless you consider Fox News talking head transcripts to be "writing"), and their wildcard potential is unusually high. If his administration is filled with people, like Flynn, who see the Islamofascist poltergeist lurking in the shallow end of every oasis, how can their views be reconciled with Trump's embrace of increasingly theocratic Turkey or squared with Tillerson's worship of stable authoritarianism? If the plan is to partner with the Russians to pacify the region, where does this leave Russia's Iranian client and its forces in Iraq and Syria?
The most likely outcome resembles a junior high theatrical production of the Bush administration's first term. Like Bush, who spoke on the trail of the need to be more "humble" internationally, Trump has surrounded himself with people who believe the region's problems have U.S. military solutions but who have a wildly unrealistic sense of what can actually be achieved with force. This proved to be a toxic combination in the early years of this new millennium, and there is little reason to believe that the redux will be any better.