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Monitoring Report: New US Foreign Policy Directions In The Middle East?

Trump in the Middle East: Realpolitik?

“If I become president, the era of nation building will be brought to a very swift and decisive end.”

-President Elect Donald Trump.

"I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war."

—George W. Bush, October 11, 2000

Will Trump put an end to American democratic expeditions in the Middle East, as the Bush team once seemed to promise? While some of Trump’s nominations face tough opposition in the Senate and potential legal obstacles, it is possible to evaluate his potential policies in the Middle East by looking at the public statements and track records of those he has tapped for security and diplomatic positions.

Many reside somewhere between tough minded realism and hawkish policy on terrorism, but are generally united by a very strong dislike of the Iranian regime, a rejection of democracy promotion through force and perhaps surprisingly, a strong dislike of Putin, despite Trump’s much touted ambition to build relations with Moscow.

To date, Trump’s controversial campaign statements have raised concerns of an erosion of the nearly 80 year US-Saudi relationship. Others may be concerned for U.S. aid to Jordan (since 1949), since Trump has pledged to cut the overall U.S. foreign aid budget or are worried that he will “rip up” the Iran deal.

Last year, the Obama Administration and the Jordanian government signed a nonbinding, three-year memorandum of understanding (MOU), in which the United States pledged to provide the kingdom with $1 billion annually in total U.S. foreign assistance, subject to the approval of Congress. This aid won’t be cancelled, but considering Jordan’s ongoing struggle with refugees and shaky economic recovery, a reduction in this aid could have serious implications.

Given public statements of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn that Jordan is a key ally against terror however, aid cuts are more likely to affect programs targeting extreme poverty, such as the $10 billion a year the U.S. spends on global health programs. Speaking on terrorism, Trump himself has remarked in August,

“We will partner with King Abdullah of Jordan and President Sisi of Egypt, and all others who recognize [that] this ideology of death… must be extinguished.”

The view on Jordan is likely not Trump’s own. The politicians and public figures that Trump respects are people who will “have his ear” regardless of whether they make their appointments. A brief analysis of their positions over the years suggests that there is some similarity to long standing U.S. policy approaches, including variations of the Carter Doctrine which endures today in the form of CENTCOM (formerly Carter’s Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force).

Regarding autocracy for example, Michael Flynn and possible Secretary of State Rudy Giuliani appear to echo Roosevelt's infamous remarks on the Somoza family in Nicaragua. In other words, a strongman who jails--and possibly tortures, tens of thousands of political opposition members is acceptable if he supports U.S. policy. This could represent another significant break with E.U policy, which is increasingly disturbed by crackdowns in Turkey and Egypt, and may even end Turkish EU accession if Erdogan does not walk away first. At the moment, U.S. and EU policy on Turkey will be highly divergent in 2017.

Likewise, Jane Kinninmont has noted Trump’s stated respect (perhaps not fully fledged admiration) for “bad guys” such as Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein who “killed terrorists,” as well as positive statements about Tiananmen, and his well-documented relationship with Putin. This resonates strongly with Michael Flynn’s support for leaders in the region he viewed as confronting radical Islam, even though Flynn has at times seemed uncertain of what this means. Here Trump’s worldview contrasts with the Obama administration’s inconsistent approach on democracy in the region, and even the Bush administration admonished Mubarak on a number of occasions over human rights.

With Trump we may see something else entirely.

For example, the Bush and Obama administrations were characterized by difficult relations with Gulf States despite frequent public displays of unity, record arms deals topping $115 billion to Saudi Arabia under Obama and personal friendship between Bush and the Saudi Royal Family. While the Obama administration suffered strained relations from the “9/11 bill,” and Bush tackled tension in Riyadh before the Iraq invasion, no U.S. President has so assertively suggested a fundamental transformation of Washington--Riyadh relations.

For example, Trump has gone further than Bush or Obama on energy independence. The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act was heavily focused on reducing U.S. energy intensity, in large part through investment in green technology and biofuels. By contrast, Trump has made shale the centrepiece of U.S. energy independence and phrased the approach in almost threatening language, noting that energy independence would be at the expense of “our foes, the oil cartels.”

If Trump is able to remove legislative barriers to U.S. shale production, including 72 pieces of legislation since 2009 and Obama’s Clean Energy Plan this could potentially re-set decades of U.S--MENA relations, as oil production soars from the Permian Basin, placing greater impetus on the Far East to secure their national interests in Libya, Iran, Iraq and the KSA.

This plan depends on whether U.S. shale producers can reduce capital costs per barrel; most shale play averages are still in the $45 region, with many higher. Failing this, Trump’s shale plans could be hoist on their own petard by re-energising the global glut, an unhappy prospect for the President elect amid concerns over his aggressive stance on trade pacts and his ramped up defence and infrastructure plans.

Scaling back U.S. consumption of MENA oil could in theory heighten regional instability, creating a foreign policy paradox: Trump’s nominees are Hawks on counter-terrorism. Most are far from being global expeditionary ideologues of democracy, but Special Operations, Forward Defense and “remote warfare” are likely here to stay. For example, incoming Director of Central Intelligence (DCIA) Mike Pompeo has remarked that defeating terrorism is a priority but “can be achieved by the will of the American people without sending 60 or 80 or 100,000 soldiers to fight in the Middle East, something I would not advocate for.”

This may (for the time being) reassure long term U.S. allies and emerging allies in Tunisia and Libya, who welcome low key, light footprint U.S. deployments such as drones to monitor border areas, even if occasionally denying such support. But it could also raise the possibility of military escalation if for example, U.S. drone bases in Western Iraq become a soft target for an antagonized Iran or if violence intensifies in Libya.

Therefore, how can we characterize Trump’s possible foreign policy approach in the MENA region? If there is one, it may lie somewhere between Bush and Obama: a deep rooted desire for foreign policy realism, defeating terrorism and wars the U.S. can “win,” which will constantly be at odds with the more difficult reality: when allies are threatened, war may never be far away. With greater funding, the continuation of U.S. Forward Defence, even if there is more local buy-in, will raise temptations about what U.S. power and new capabilities might be able to achieve.

In the same way, the Bush administration initially did not want to build a new Iraq (planning to destroy Baathism and leave within 90 days) and Obama never wanted to return to the war he wanted to “end responsibly.” In both cases, each POTUS was forced to respond to changing facts on the ground. Trump’s seeming conversion on torture after speaking with James Mattis indicates that we may see many u-turns on U.S. MENA policy, as Trump remarked on Waterboarding:

"It's not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it's so important to the American people, I would go for it. But General Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say."

Robert Fisk encapsulates the danger of Trump’s “flip flopping” style, writing “the Middle East will reach out and grab Donald Trump when he least expects it, that it will present him with a terrifying choice (war or peace) and that his administration – such as it is – will not be capable of dealing with it.”

In early September for example, the Moroccan government partnered with a German solar energy firm to ensure 600 Mosques would be running on solar power by 2019, ahead of Marrakech’s hosting of COP22 in November, the global climate summit. At the end of September, Algeria made another step (albeit small) towards its goal of installing 800 MW of solar power by 2020, with the announcement of an ENI-Sonatrach power station to come on-line by the end of this year. Experts think the country can reach 300-500 MW by 2020. On its own, this may be unimpressive, but regional developments could change that.

Aggressive Counter terrorism

A number of Trump’s nominees appear to have a vague understanding of the current war on terror, best exemplified by potential Secretary of State Rudolph Giuliani, who appears to downplay the growing Al-Qaeda threat in North Africa and Syria. Giuliani appeared to overlook the September 11th terrorist attacks when he claimed there were “no successful radical Islamic terrorist attack in the United States before Obama.” This correlates with Giuliani’s view in November that,“ISIS, short-term I believe, is the greatest danger and not because ISIS is in Iraq and in Syria, but because ISIS did something al Qaeda never did—ISIS was able to spread itself around the world.”

In the event that Giuliani becomes Secretary of State, advisors would do well to tell him about the significant and ongoing losses to I.S. territory, a year long funding crisis the group has experienced and an 80% reduction in the group’s social media broadcasting. Instead, Giuliani could investigate the concerning resurgence of the Al-Qaeda franchise that attacked New York and Washington in 2001. Of note, detractors have highlighted Giuliani’s consulting links to Qatar, a government allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria such as Jund-al-Aqsa. Some of the campaign trail rhetoric of the Trump campaign has also not been lost on radicals, as a representative of Jabhat Fateh al Sham noted,

“For years we have focused on the Palestinian occupation, America’s deceitful alliance with Iran and [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] in the slaughter of Sunnis in Syria and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that America, and Americans, are waging a war against Islam. Now all we have to do is turn to Trump’s Twitter account or turn on CNN.”

Compared to Giuliani, Mattis takes a more pragmatic and long term view, and would likely face difficulties working with such strident rhetoric. The “straight talking” General would have an easier time with candidate David Petraeus, his former colleague. If Petraeus passes his Senate Confirmation Hearing, the retired General and former DCIA will face opposition following the FBI call to indict him over the Paula Broadwell classified information scandal. Trump may have the legal power to overturn this, having said he was “very impressed” with Petraeus.

If the famously stoic, academic and open-minded Petraeus becomes Secretary of State, he will likely bring a degree of Clausewitzian strategy that would complement and moderate Michael Flynn’s aggressive rhetoric on Islam and terror. Combined with Mattis, the three former colleagues could be a strong moderating force on Trump’s outburst style of rhetoric, perhaps bringing Flynn back to his former style of tempered and thoughtful public statements, condemning torture.

For example, James Mattis initially resisted the US imposition of a no fly zone in Libya in 2011, and has also taken a more pragmatic view of the Iran deal. Likewise, Petraeus has not been quick to suggest a U.S. course of action in Syria, noting how,

"It's gotten more and more and more difficult, obviously, as the opposition forces have fragmented, have atomized, as the Islamic State has stood up, as the al Qaeda affiliate has been established, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Forces advisers began helping [Syrian dictator] Bashar al-Assad -- and then Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, then some Iranian forces and Shia militias, then Russian air support and special forces. This has just gotten diabolically more difficult."

Restraint vs. existential war

The restraint of Mattis and Petraeus and the counter-terror tactical approach favored by Flynn point to an end to adventurism but also many more years of America’s war on terror. This correlates with Pompeo’s similar distaste for exporting democracy and argument for aggressive counter terrorism, favoring lethal drone strikes and “enhanced interrogation.” Like Pompeo, Flynn sees an existential struggle with radical Islam, noting, “ISIS’s intent is to network islands of extremism into a radical Islamic archipelago, with global ambitions for conquest.’’

This view fits well with the opinion of Newt Gingrich, who is looking at a senior advisory role in the Trump administration. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Gingrich proclaimed that “sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and the world as we know it, the pre-eminent totalitarian threat of our time.” Gingrich co-authored a similarly pessimistic report on the topic with former CIA director James R. Woolsey and Joseph E. Schmitz, who are both taking security advisory roles on Trump’s team.

Tough talk hiding nuance?

On closer examination, many of the proclamations about Islam made by Flynn, Pompeo and co. appear as blusterous attempts to echo the Trump campaign. For example, Woolsey has stressed that “the fight against radical Islamic terrorism is in no way an indictment of the majority of peaceful Muslims worldwide.” This is similar to the view of Secretary of State candidate Mitt Romney, who advocates a more aggressive counter-terrorism approach but has noted, “Islam is not the enemy, but the enemy lives within Islam. Accordingly, the broader Islamic world will play a critical role in this war.” Romney is one of a number of staunchly anti-Putin candidates who last year also suggested he favoured a multilateral fight against I.S. rather than a “with us or against us” stance.

Romney has said that Obama, “must call in the best military minds from the United States and NATO, actually listen to what they have to say and finally construct a comprehensive strategy that integrates our effort with the Kurds, Turks, Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians.”

Likewise, Flynn has remarked on torture, “I think history will look back on it, and it won't be a pretty picture. Regionally, his approach may support stronger security cooperation, as he said, “our message must be that we want to help and that we will leave once the problems have been solved. The Arab nations must be on our side. And if we catch them financing, if they funnel money to IS, that’s when sanctions and other actions have to kick in.”

Despite the dire warnings against radicalism posing the greatest global threat, Pompeo has also struck a conciliatory tone with America’s allies against terror, saying “the line needs to be drawn between those who are on the side of extremism and those who are fighting against them, of whatever faith we may find them. There are many Muslims of good will and despise this extremism as much as anyone of any other faith.”

These statements correlate with Vice President Elect Mike Pence’s remarks in July, who said Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the US was, “offensive and unconstitutional.” Taken together, the more strident approach of Pompeo, Gingrich and others may well be balanced by Mattis, and certainly Petraeus if he is nominated. In terms of a convergence of opinion, Egypt may stand to gain the most in the short term.


Sisi in the limelight

Trump’s admiration for Sisi is now well known, as he recently remarked, “He’s gotten the terrorists out — wiped them out. He took a very tough approach, much different than our approach.They were having a tremendous problem before, tremendous problem.” This dovetails with Pompeo’s views after he co-sponsored anti-Muslim Brotherhood legislation.

Time will tell however, how effective Sisi’s aggressive anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance has been, with a hydra-headed terror threat emerging from a multiplicity of groups in the country even as I.S fall back in Sinai. If Egypt’s security situation deteriorates, the first to suffer in the country may be the Christian minority.

Persecution of Christian minorities in the region is a lightning rod for controversy among Trump strategists such as Stephen Bannon, who has remarked, “If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places. It bequeathed to use the great institution that is the Church of the West.”

In late September, a law was passed regulating the construction of Churches in Egypt, intended to provide a positive legal framework for their construction, aiding Egypt’s approximately 10 million Coptic Christians. This has not assuaged concerns of Christians, who have reported a wave of radicalism as the country’s economy has continued to deteriorate. Unless Sisi can pressure the judiciary to prosecute those convicted of attacking Christians--something that has not been consistent-- Washington-Cairo relations could come under increasing strain within months of Trump’s inauguration. Sisi meanwhile, may have no qualms about extending relations with Russia in the event of relations with Washington breaking down.

Closer Cairo-Moscow ties may not be an issue for Trump, but would cause concern for virtually every major defense and foreign policy nomination in his potential team; much has been made of Trump’s intention to build relations with Putin, but many overlook that those around him do not see Russia as a friend.


A powerful friend for Haftar?

For now, Sisi is not the only MENA strongman to be encouraged by Trump’s win. In Libya, officials close to General Khalifa Haftar have been encouraged by his victory, since much of their support against Islamist groups in western Libya comes from Egypt. An official close to Haftar noted,

"I strongly support Trump because of his and the Republicans' resolute and decisive attitudes. The Republican Party, which understands the truth about Daesh (Islamic State) and the positions and the victories of the Libyan army, will support us."

Haftar’s forces will be hoping for a surge in support, in particular the lifting of an arms embargo to finish off the Islamist Libya Dawn and cement control over the Sirte basin in the Benghazi area. If this happened, it would put Trump’s policy directly at odds with that of Turkey and Qatar, who have supported Islamist groups in what could amount to a new Libyan civil war. Haftar has also developed ties with Russia, so Trump’s team would also be playing a balancing act in the North African country.


Flynn’s infamous article

U.S. relations with Ankara may not be as certain as some imagine, given strong admiration in Republican circles for the Kurdish cause, or at least their ability to fight I.S. Much has been said about an article Flynn wrote in The Hill praising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who came to Trump's defense over claims that Trump is an autocrat.But Flynn, who has shifted position on a number of issues in the last few years, has previously described Erdogan’s rule as Islamist. Flynn noted in a talk during the coup attempt over the Summer,

“Probably most of you don’t know, but there’s an ongoing coup going on in Turkey right now. This is Turkey under Erdogan ― who is actually very close to President [Barack] Obama. One of the things that the military immediately said is, ‘We recognize our responsibilities with NATO, we recognize our responsibilities with the United Nations, we want to make sure that the world knows, we are, we want to be seen as a secular nation. That is worth clapping for.”

Another major stumbling block could be widespread dislike and suspicion of Putin among many of those who could fill positions in a Trump administration-- even Flynn himself has said that Moscow has supported Iran and is not an ideal partner to fight terror with, despite much reporting on his respect for Russia.

Turkish deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus announced on Saturday that Moscow-Ankara rapprochement, with common interests such as two way trade and the Turkstream pipeline, would not change Ankara’s stance on Assad. Speaking of the ongoing counter coup crackdowns, Kurtmulus noted, "This is a very dangerous position and we will kill them from every single position in the civil services, but that will take time." Depending on how far Erdogan wants to take his new governance approach, it is not hard to imagine that many in Trump’s inner circle will ask the President to draw red lines for Ankara.


Many have speculated that even if Trump does not “rip up” the Iran deal, he may be able to simply ignore it by refusing to re-authorize the lifting of sanctions, which the President is expected to do every 120 days. At the very least, Trump may increase uncertainty around the deal which could do immense damage to foreign investors who are still nervous about remaining constraints on many Iranian entities. For Tehran’s part, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has threatened to “retaliate” according to a report by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin for Reuters. Already, the U.S. has reauthorized the Iran Sanctions Act which targets the energy sector, a piece of legislation due to expire at the end of this year.

Despite much concern among supporters of the deal, Mattis’ public statements indicate a tough but nuanced strategy, while Petraeus has said “there are positives and negatives” about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA.) A US official close to David Petraeus also recently told NAMEA that Mattis would likely have a moderating force on Trump over Iran.

Nonetheless, Pompeo and Flynn take a much tougher line, effectively wanting to end the deal. If Mattis or Petraeus are selected, the challenge will be to reign in such powerful opposition. Nonetheless, even Mattis has expressed mixed views on Tehran, calling the regime, “the most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” His view on the JCPOA is more balanced, as he has remarked,

“I want to make clear there’s no going back. Absent a clear and present violation [by Iran], I don’t think we can take advantage of some new president—Republican or Democrat—and say, ‘well, we’re not going to live up to our word in this agreement.’ I believe we’d be alone if we did, and unilateral economic sanctions from us would not have anywhere near the impact of an allied approach to this.”

This is in sharp contrast to Pompeo, who is extremely tough on the deal, stating,

“It’s not a question whether America can prevent a nuclear Iran or stop Russian aggression; it’s a question of whether (the Obama) administration has the backbone to use the tools and solutions available. Each of these nations poses real threats to America and the West – what is needed is not ambiguity, but clarity, forcefulness and commitments that do not exceed America’s willingness to fulfill them. Ayatollah Khamenei watches America allow Iran to expand its power while our President writes him missives ensuring we will protect Iran’s interests. This is dangerous.”

Saudi Arabia

Washington-Riyadh relations in safe hands

Much has been made of Trump’s blunt rhetoric towards the largest supplier of oil to the US in the MENA region, with 11% of market share. For their part, the Saudis have responded diplomatically to Trump’s threat to obtain “complete energy independence,” speaking of the President Elect’s “50,000 ft high statements on the campaign trail.” Other Saudis have been equally sanguine. Saudi analyst Abdullah al-Shamri remarked, “Certainly, we are not expecting Mr. Trump to be worse than Mr. Obama was. We are closer to Republicans psychologically.”

More evidence of bluster from the Trump camp relates to the fact that he has eight business interests registered in the KSA, and has said himself, "They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them?” In January of this year, Trump said on Fox News he "would want to protect" Saudi Arabia.

However, in March, Trump articulated what Washington might expect from the KSA, noting, "We are not being reimbursed for our protection of many of the countries ... including Saudi Arabia.” Given Trump’s stated ambition to increase the size of the U.S. Navy and overall defence budget, it is hard to see allies like Saudi Arabia being incentivized to “reimburse” the U.S., especially considering the aforementioned $115 billion in U.S.-KSA arms deals.

Whatever happens, the KSA have a well established lobbying effort currently trying to overturn the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), more commonly known as the “9/11 bill.” At the same time, the KSA have hired former California Rep. Howard McKeon, who was formerly chair of the House Armed Services Committee, to increase their representation in Washington. These efforts will bolster the views of Romney, who pledged in 2012 to “deepen our cooperation with our partners in the Gulf."

In that sense, Romney would be a double win for the KSA, as he remarked on Iran, the regime “is led by suicidal, apocalypse-seeking, America-hating, Israel-denying theocratic fanatics. If these ayatollahs have nuclear weapons, they will use them, someday, somewhere. Iran is a major, longtime state sponsor of terrorism; its leaders are entirely bereft of restraint, decency and respect for human life.”

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