The American mood is difficult in a time rife with worrying about the future and concern about “the other”, amid resentment against the political establishment, fear of terror, and a sense of escapism regarding the definition and purpose of the US superpower and its responsibilities on the international arena. The general mood reflects the lack of confidence in the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
This week, the Democratic National Convention focused its efforts on marketing Hillary the approachable woman, in the hope this win over the hearts of the Americans who have not been comfortable with her “robot-like” demeanor. Indeed, Hillary had worked hard to enter history with cold calculations, giving little care to her lack of charisma, compared to her husband former president Bill Clinton. Hillary is an experienced candidate who has assumed public office, climbing up the ladders of power gradually and with tact, forging close ties to the poles of the ruling US establishment in the military and the civilian institutions, inside and outside government.
She is the antithesis of the Republican nominee Donald Trump, who snatched the nomination against the will of most traditional Republicans and jumped on the White House-bound train amid dismissal by the political class and intellectuals. But the media grew fond of covering Trump’s entertaining and sensational news, or so they thought until the joke stopped being funny. A mysterious class of Americans have turned against the elitist class, proving that solidarity with the establishment is a failed bet. I say mysterious because the followers of Donald Trump are a combination of angry and scared voters, as well as xenophobes, isolationists, and those who are eager to teach the politicians in Washington a lesson. Many are also blue-collar workers, who accuse Washington of exploiting them, and are in awe of Trump’s wealth, success, and lifestyle as though he was of the working class like them despite having received a one-million-dollar check from his father at the start of his life. Yet a segment of white-collar educated Americans will vote Trump because they cannot stand Hillary, and see her as an extension of Barack Obama and her husband Bill Clinton. There are also Americans who are categorically opposed to turning the Clintons into a ruling dynasty in America, especially after Bush’s dreams of becoming one were shattered.
The calculus behind the election of the 45th president of the United States is then related to the personality, ambitions, and domestic concerns of the American people, rather than foreign policy, at least so far. Interestingly, it is Donald Trump who has brought in national security, terrorism, and immigration into the calculations of American voters, manipulating their fears and concerns. This week, Trump set a new precedent by inviting Russia to hack his opponent’s email and expose her scandals. Donald Trump wants the Russian president Vladimir Putin to be an honorary voter in the US elections, and has praised him repeatedly and hinted they would agree on many issues. Trump wants to stoke fear of groups like ISIS to present himself as the president who will shut down immigration and protect America from foreigners, taking isolationism to a new terrifying level.
Isolationism and exclusionism
The isolationism of Barack Obama and the exclusionism of Donald Trump benefit Putin, because both approaches put him in a stronger position to lead in more than one region of the world. Putin has been lucky ever since Obama decided that Iran is a priority for him, to the point of forging an implicit partnership with Tehran in Syria to fight ISIS and similar groups.
In Syria, Putin is now the master player, having intervened there militarily to settle the civil war and settle the political outcome. In Syria too, there is a silent partnership between the US and some in the coalition it leads, and the Damascus Axis comprising Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, the Kurds, and other militias. While Saudi Arabia cries foul, US and Iranian intelligence collaborate secretly in European capitals, to determine Syria’s fate. However, Putin is not comfortable about this; he does not trust the US in principle, and has differences with Tehran regarding the future of the Syrian army and the regime backed by Iran, as the latter seems to prefer the militias to take over in order to retain control of Syria.
Perhaps Donald Trump wants to assign Putin to represent him in Syria, because he is not interested in the fate of Syria and in the cost Russia would pay in its war on ISIS, Nusra Front, and similar groups. Trump’s recipe to protect the US homeland and national security from terror is to banish Muslims from the country and prevent immigration. At the same time, he has hinted that he welcomes others’ wars on others’ territories, or at least, does not mind it in the least. And if the strategic Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria turns into rivalry, this would be good news for Trump, who has claimed he has the opposite position on Iran of that of Barack Obama, who is almost in love with the Islamic Republic.
A mysterious class of Americans have turned against the elitist class, proving that solidarity with the establishment is a failed bet.Raghida Dergham
This does not mean that the CIA would stop cooperating secretly with Tehran. But in truth, this is where one can find convergence or divergence between the administrations that rule and the establishment that remain long term, and that includes vital departments such as defense, national security, and intelligence.
In other words, the United States is not susceptible to becoming a fully-fledged dictatorship. There is no comparison between the powers of the US president and those the Russian or Turkish presidents have gifted themselves. In the United States, there are checks and balances, and the system does not give absolute powers to the executive branch represented by the elected administration or the legislature represented by Congress. The president may veto Congress, but the Supreme Court remains the highest constitutional authority in the country.
Immediate global authority
If Donald Trump becomes president, the institutions of power will not collapse. He will not become overnight a president with extraordinary powers. However, any US president has immediate global authority. If he is an arbitrary, exclusionist, and isolationist president, the foundations of the global order could be undermined, from NATO to the UN and its agencies. If he is a provocative, trigger-happy president, the instability this will cause will be of a global scale. The whole world could enter into unchartered territory, as mysterious as the rise of Trump and his proximity to the Oval Office.
Indeed, Trump’s story may not be strictly one of an anomaly of the democratic electoral process. As suggested by far, one of the key elements in Trump’s foreign policy is Vladimir Putin. There are many things in common between them: not only hatred for Islamism but also joint business projects. Intriguingly, the “brotherhood” between Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart the Democrat John Kerry, could become a feature of the relationship between Putin and Trump, especially if Putin accepts the Donald’s invitation to intervene in the US elections in his favor.
In any case, from now until the president-elect assumes office in January, Putin will have completed his project in Syria, for example, where he is poised to achieve victory in Aleppo for his axis, in silent partnership with the United States under the pretext of defeating terrorism. Lucky Putin will force the Turkish President Erdogan to meet his demands in Syria, including consenting to Assad remaining in power and cutting off supplies to the Syrian rebels. For one thing, Erdogan needs Putin now, and the Russian president is preparing a list of demands in Syria, Europe, and as concerns Islamic movements inside Russia and its vicinity.
Putin has little cause for concern these days. The Obama administration has given him the green light to draw Syria’s future as he sees fit, regardless of what is said by US defense secretary Ashton Carter, apparently contradicting the suggestions of his colleague John Kerry, desperate to appease Lavrov around the clock.
The main headline of the coming stage will be military settlement in certain areas, such as Aleppo, and the start of overt military cooperation between the US and Russia. At the same time, vague features of a transition will be drawn in which Assad remains in power for a long time, while the Syrian opposition represented by the HNC is practically dismantled and replaced with another approved by Moscow, in parallel with a partnership on the ground with the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Back to Trump, a visitor to Moscow quoted a Russian official as saying the Russians prefer Trump as president, because he would be America’s Yeltsin, in reference to the former Russian president who helped marginalize Russia and completed the dismantling of the Soviet Union.
Putin may indeed prefer Trump over Hillary, because he would well benefit from his arbitrary decision-making process. Yet he won’t fear a Clinton presidency, because by the time she enters the White House, he will have imposed the fait accompli he wants during Obama’s presidency.
Nevertheless, Clinton was once Lavrov’s counterpart, however, and she has accused him of duplicity. Their relations are different from the kind of relations between Lavrov and Kerry. Lavrov remembers well Clinton’s personal role in Libya, when the Obama administration used a UN Security Council as an excuse to intervene militarily, in a way that Moscow saw as a betrayal and an insult.
Putin may have made amends with Obama, but he probably thinks the same would be more difficult with Clinton. Putin recalls Obama and Clinton’s support for the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria. But his reluctant rapprochement with Obama began in Syria, when Obama decided to let Putin take the lead there. Clinton could prove more difficult to coax than Obama.
Donald Trump, in the Russian view, therefore, is an easier president to handle than Clinton, especially in terms with US relations with the Arab Gulf states. To be sure, Clinton may attempt to mend US-Gulf relations, while Trump could make them more tense. Russia may be willing to improve its relations with the Gulf, but it is not prepared to make concessions that Saudi Arabia wants in Syria or with regard to Russian-Iranian relations.
Russia sees Trump as a good partner who shares its hatred for radical Islam. Russia also sees Trump as someone who might be willing to continue Obama’s policy of stoking Sunni-Shiite tensions, while Clinton may seek to extinguish them. Putin, after all, is complicit in inflaming these tensions.
The absurd has become reasonable, and the unlikely has become inevitable. The temperamental acrobatic septuagenarian could enter the White House even though he has no experience in policy, let alone decision making and foreign affairs. Any attack by ISIS or a terrorist group linked to the Arab or Islamic world in the US could double Trump’s chances to win the presidency, because the popular base will become isolationist and exclusionist and press for a closure of the border – as Trump has called for.
However, it seems that Vladimir Putin is also a voter in these elections, not only because the hacking of the emails of the DNC originated in Russia, but also because Donald Trump has sought his help to prevent the election of the first woman president in US history.
The mood of the Americans could bring Donald Trump to the White House. But the temper of Donald Trump could awaken the majority of voters to the dangers of having a reckless president. Today, despite the logic choice in voting for Clinton, she faces a fierce battle and she will need all help she can get to win over Americans and restore trust in her, both among the most important elements in any US presidential election.
This article was first published in Al-Hayat on July 29, 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