It is still early to draw the features of the foreign policy of any of the presumed candidates for the US presidency. However, it is possible to define some broad outlines, especially since both the presumed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and presumed Republican candidate Donald Trump are set to diverge from the policies of the incumbent President Barack Obama, particularly in the Middle East and the Gulf region.
The isolationism of Donald Trump, for one thing, will be different from Barack Obama’s version, although both men agree on leaving Russian President Vladimir Putin in the driver’s seat when it comes to our region. Both men are not fond of the Arab Gulf states, though Obama is quite fond of Iran while Trump’s hatred for Muslims covers both Sunnis and Shiites, and he could well repeal the nuclear deal with Iran. For her part, Clinton’s positions suggest she intends to restore traditional relations with the traditional allies of the US, without necessarily undoing the nuclear deal.
However, Clinton must realize Gulf confidence in her policies is shaky. She had shown enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. She rushed to help overthrow Gaddafi, dragging Libya into a spiral of chaos, violence, and terrorism. She turned her back on Syria when she could have pressured Obama to rectify his misguided policies. In truth, this is exactly what Hillary Clinton did in Iraq when Obama withdrew too early, leaving the country open to sectarian war and dominance by Iran, to which his predecessor Bush had given Iraq on a golden platter.
The wiser choice
Despite everything, Clinton will be the wiser and more rational choice compared to Trump, when it comes to forging responsible and realistic relations with Gulf leaders. One of the most important challenges for President Clinton would be turning a new page in Arab-Iranian relations, given that continuing the policies pursued by Obama and his administration would fuel Islamic sectarian extremism, which could expand beyond the Arab and Islamic region to the United States itself, having now reached European capitals.
The approach to fighting ISIS and similar groups under Clinton could change from those seen under Obama, who has deliberately played the sectarian card to fuel Sunni-Shiite hostility, helping unleash the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iraq while claiming they are a necessary partner needed to defeat ISIS.
Hillary Clinton could choose to suppress the sectarian fires, if that will be the strategic choice of the US establishment. In truth, this will be the key question for the next US president, one that will radically affect the future of the Arab region and elsewhere.
National security has calculations that go beyond the person of the president, and it is usually drafted and defined for decades rather than 4 or 8 yearsRaghida Dergham
Intentionally or inadvertently, the Obama administration fundamentally encouraged Iran to create militias such as the Popular Mobilization in Iraq and Syria, to support the government of Haider al-Abadi and before him Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, under the pretext of fighting ISIS, or to defend the Bashar al-Assad regime remaining in power in Damascus.
The Obama administration effectively allowed Iranian-backed militias to weaken and marginalize traditional armies, thus helping undermine the institutions of Iraq and Syria in one of the most fragile and brittle phases in the two countries’ history. This is how ISIS’s objective of destroying the Arab countries converged with Iran’s plans with support from Washington.
This is a very dangerous equation, because it leads to a vicious cycle of vendetta between Sunni and Shiite extremists – both of whom are no friends to the United States or Western values.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama converged in their desire to confine the war on terror in Arab cities away from US cities. And perhaps they succeeded through Bush’s war in Iraq and Obama’s non-war in Syria. But this is a temporary recipe and a sedative with destructive effects in the end, not only for the Islamic world, but also for the European and US homelands.
Donald Trump, based on what we know about his character, will be indifferent unless the threat materializes on US soil. He will not be drawn into sympathy with NATO allies and will barely blink if the killing machines in the Arab region carry on, regardless of who kills or of who is being killed. He will not care even if Tehran mobilizes militias as an alternative to national armies, and if Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Qods Force, becomes a hero for Shia Muslims everywhere and not just Iran.
But, once again, the strategic decision concerning what is best for the US interest will not be in the hands of the new president. National security has calculations that go beyond the person of the president, and it is usually drafted and defined for decades rather than 4 or 8 years. Accordingly, even Donald Trump will have to abide by the dictates of the ruling military and civilian establishment. The United States is not the Russian federation, where Vladimir Putin’s powers go further than those of the institutions.
Donald Trump will not be able to become a strongman like Putin, no matter how arrogant he may be, or good at negotiations and deal-making as he claims. His fickle, arbitrary, and superficial positions and his arrogance vis-à-vis the US constitution and the Republican Party are already affecting him.
The top leaders of the Republican Party are angry and determined to teach Trump an important lesson: Adjust course and learn humility, or you will not get our support. In other words, Trump is being threatened by his own camp today: don’t force us to hurt you like you’ve hurt us. Don’t force us to secretly support Hillary for president. Enough is enough.
From now until mid-July, Donald Trump might change and deliver speeches that are carefully written, instead of his narcissistic improvisations that have marked his conduct throughout the primaries. He might learn to listen and be humble. He might choose a team of qualified advisers including on foreign policy. He might tone down his racism against Muslims, Mexicans, and people of color. He might finally come to understand the complexity of international relations.
On the other hand, he might instead bet on his popularity with those voters who have supported him as he is, and determine that changing his discourse could damage him. He may stick to Vladimir Putin as a possible partner, and might declare publicly that he agrees with him that Bashar al-Assad should remain in power. Both men are loath to radical Islam. Vladimir Putin decided to seek a strategic relationship with Iran to suppress Sunnis by means of Shiites, playing the sectarian card just like the Obama administration has done.
The difference, however, is that Obama backed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, believing Turkey’s was the ideal model for moderate Islamism. On the other hand, Putin saw the rise of Islamists an existential threat, and sought to challenge Obama in Syria. Donald Trump, for his part, is loath to Sunni radicalism because of 9/11, but does not seem prepared to adopt Iran as a partner as Putin and Obama have done.
Clearly, either Clinton or Trump – or others in the event of surprises – will inherit tense relations with the Gulf and Saudi Arabia from Obama, who abandoned traditional alliances with the Gulf states while appeasing Iran. The new president will inherit Obama’s isolationism, and an American global drone war. The wars raging in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq will spawn more Sunni and Shiite radicalism, and ISIS will not be the only terror group that must be dealt with. The faraway wars will remain far from US, Russian, and European cities.
If no major terror attack occurs on US soil, then yes, Obama could say his and Bush’s policy has succeeded. But if terror strikes again, this will abort Obama’s legacy, and Trump will benefit from the raging emotions that will follow. Clinton will pay the price.
Otherwise, the US will most likely not elect Donald Trump as its next president. His temperament is costly, and he has proven time and again how vulnerable he is to his overwhelming arrogance. Trump has also made too many promises on the campaign trail, including fantastical and silly promises, putting himself in a difficult position.
Hillary Clinton has a popularity and trust problem. Her mistakes in Libya and her email scandal are also damaging. If the FBI issues a warrant against her for breaking the law, this could lead her to lose the Democratic nomination. This outcome is something the followers of her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders are betting on.
The other challenge she faces would be if Obama decides to go on the campaign trail to support her. This could damage her, and she is keen to avoid the image that her presidency would be a third Obama term.
Perhaps Clinton is thanking her lucky stars for Trump, the man who came out of nowhere to destroy the Republican Party and set himself up as her buffoonish rival, making her appear that much serious. Perhaps Trump, who has shocked everyone, will once again bring a shock on November, as it is unwise to fully discount him from the race.
All indications today suggest Hillary Clinton will return to the White House as the first woman in US history to become president. She is very familiar with that White House, where she lived once as the first lady alongside her husband Bill Clinton for 8 years. But the race has not been decided yet, and the whole world is watching.
This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Jun. 10, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham