With President-elect Donald Trump taking office two months from now, he and his administration have ample opportunity to take a new, unique role in MENA by creating a Vision 2020 strategic plan with teeth.
Under President Barack Obama, the US lacked any strategic vision with an end-game in sight. The Obama administration embraced the Muslim Brotherhood as a tool to achieve political reform in the MENA region. That catastrophic policy is now over.
Looking forward, the pivotal year of 2020 is approaching rapidly. 2020 is a marker used by futurists and by policymakers and stakeholders found in other international capitals except for America where policy and practice slog along. 2020 is engrained in the human psyche as a key year to achieve goals and greatness. The Trump administration is going to shake up America’s approach to MENA that requires a robust roadmap from 2017 to 2020.
We all know the mistakes and errors well from the Sahel to the Levant by the Obama administration: The next four years will be critical up until 2020, based on reversing the blunders of the past eight years. The Trump administration’s 2020 plan is going to affect several key areas.
Now is the time to bring balance to MENA relationships using sticks and carrots, but more heavily on the sticksDr. Theodore Karasik
First is Arab transformation. Transformation plans are now all the rage in the MENA region because of the low price of oil, but also structural in both economic sectors and social relations by region, religion, tribe, and secularism. MENA countries are extra serious about their transformation plans because if there is no social evolution accompanied by the Fourth Industrial Revolution in these states, these countries will suffer consequences.
The incoming Trump administration knows these MENA weaknesses and may seek to exploit these local and regional problems as a stick to get MENA states to be more proactive on their own accord to hand out carrots to fellow Arabs. Here, the idea of a Marshall Plan II comes into play where Arab states will need to pay one hundred percent for their regional restructuring efforts especially in rebuilding destroyed urban areas of the MENA region. Post-conflict stabilization programs will be left up to local forces and the Arabs themselves.
Second, Trump’s collaborating with Russia against ISIS and Al-Qaeda is a critical 2020 goal. The Trump administration’s 2020 plan is not only going to partner with the Kremlin against extremism but also collaborate on opportunities in the MENA region. This dramatic and necessary turnaround from the previous administration sets the stage for not only targeting extremists and crushing not only Daesh (ISIS) but also Al-Qaeda in a variety of jurisdictions. Some Arab states will be happy with this approach while others are going to be put in the spotlight. A GCC official stated “Trump’s presidency will create new divides in the Arab world that may be favorable to us on this front by going after extremist groups.”
Third, a Trump administration is going to shake up America’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) approach as the prognosis for the evolution of extremists groups is not positive. A Trump administration seeks to be more aggressive in the MENA with Arab partners to give more teeth to interrupting terrorist recruitment and financing.
Unfortunately, the Obama approach created a community that “talks only”” and conducts no meaningful implementation that halts these extremists in their tracks and shuts down their ability to function. Rebooting CVE is key as ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates continue their deadly recruitment and operations despite operations to tear down their caliphate.
Iranian treasure chest
Fourth, President (Elect) Trump’s potential embrace of Iran sets the stage for the opening of Washington-Tehran business deals. The next President of the United States had been dead set against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) process and its aftermath since last year. In July 2015, Trump stated: “We were dealing with desperation. We look so desperate, and it’s a disgrace. I think the deal is absolutely something. I love the idea of a deal. But it’s not a well negotiated deal. We should have doubled up the sanctions and made a much better deal.” The republican front runner is still advocating scrapping the deal. But now the Trump administration has business in mind through 2020.
It is quite likely that President-Elect Trump doesn’t like it that the Europeans and the Asians are beating him to the Iranian treasure chest based on American economic patriotism. Perchance for President Trump, Iran is the biggest piece of “real estate” ever with immense wealth and opportunity for American companies. The billions of dollars’ worth of business is too good for the next American president to pass up.
This aspect - America as a business partner to Tehran - is going to upset the Arabs very much. The Trump administration’s plan for 2020 is going to create friction between America and the Gulf states. It’s important for Arab strategic thought to encapsulate the ramifications of the Trump presidency regarding Washington’s Iran policy. Key Arab states must continue to act as mediators on the Arab-Iran divide. Oman comes to mind.
Stuck in a quagmire
Finally, the Trump administration will need to have contingency plans for any potential implosion of a MENA state thus creating areas of un governability. MENA states are being tugged in multiple directions by both state and non-state actors where by the turn of the decade, the MENA map may be changed significantly. Numerous GCC officials are worried about North Africa, the Levant, and even the Arabian Peninsula in terms of these upcoming challenges. The Trump administration’s preparation for this potential outcome of MENA state fracture is going to not only challenge America but also major regional and international players to fill security voids. An America that lacks a strategic vision for 2020 in the MENA region is going to be behind the curve-again-on the outcome of any change in boundaries or trans-regional influence.
Overall, the US is stuck in a quagmire of its own making and piecing together a coherent Middle East foreign policy with a vision towards 2020 is imperative while ongoing air and urban operations are ongoing in the MENA region (Levant, Yemen, and Libya). Clearly, the Trump administration needs to layout a comprehensive strategic plan for the next four years with a timeline and key goals.
Now is the time to bring balance to MENA relationships using sticks and carrots, but more heavily on the sticks. For some observers, the Trump administration will be very uncomfortable but the 45th President of the United States and his advisors are basing their approach on a new reality instead of the banana peel slipping and sliding of the Obama Administration’s negligent foreign policy.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik