US Mideast ‘umbrella’ may remain under Clinton, says top politics professor

Dr. Thomas Schaller speaks in an Al Arabiya English Global Discussions session titled “US Elections 2016: Facts, Forecasts and Foreign Policy”

Eman El-Shenawi

Published: Updated:

America’s security “umbrella” over the Middle East may hold strong if Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes office next year, political science expert Dr. Thomas Schaller told Al Arabiya English on Tuesday.

“If it’s Hillary Clinton, then I do believe we will have a continuation of more of the Obama-era policies,” said Schaller, a professor at the University of Maryland, speaking in an Al Arabiya English Global Discussions session titled “US Elections 2016: Facts, Forecasts and Foreign Policy.”

In recent years, Arab officials and commentators have frequently voiced concerns over the US’s pivot away from the Middle East despite America’s long-standing connections – including military aid, training, intelligence-sharing and diplomatic support – with many Arab states.

Commenting on this, Schaller said “the lessons of the Iraq war have resulted in Americans having a much slower tolerance to place American troops abroad.

“It’s possible [that the US may retreat from the Middle East], but the defense and industrial complex will never let that happen – there’s a lot of money to be made. The cottage industry for the national security state wouldn’t allow that and Clinton, for the most part, comes from that tradition.”

“Maybe the umbrella will have a few holes in it, but it’ll mostly be there with Hillary Clinton [in office],” Schaller added.

But what about the metaphorical umbrella if the Arab world has to deal with a President Donald Trump?

“I don’t know. I don’t know whether he really believes in isolationism,” said Schaller, adding that the Republican candidate is tapping into the notion of voter concerns over America “being a policeman to the world.”

Clinton, who has all but clinched the Democratic nomination over rival Bernie Sanders, has mostly led Trump in the head-to-head polls this year.

Trump the ‘Chairman of the Board’

Schaller described Trump’s surge in popularity as a “complete puzzle.”

Asked by Al Arabiya English’s Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas, who was moderating the discussion, about Trump’s foreign policy plans should he take office, Schaller said: “When it comes to Trump, I honestly don’t know.”

“He’s not clear on military spending, on drone surveillance, he’s gone back and forth on Palestine and Israel.”

Schaller said the average observer may think Trump is focusing on foreign policy, with his candid statements on the banning of Muslims, building a wall along the Mexican border and threatening to rip up China trade deals, but in actual fact he is appealing to voters with domestic interests.

“Does foreign policy matter to average voter? Not so much. Americans vote on kitchen table issues that affect them. When it comes to Mexico, Muslims or China – these are all domestic issues actually that affect security and trade."

Schaller later said he believes that Trump “is creating anger among pockets of white America and it's unclear how broad or deep white voter anxiety is.”

But if he were to become president, could he actually put such radical campaign statements into practice? Perhaps, Schaller said.

“I’m certainly not a constitutional lawyer ... But the expectation here among many voters is that Trump will be running for presidency on a notion of independence; less CEO, more Chairman of the Board ... He's running more for head of state, than head of government.”

Schaller added that he will likely have a vice president or a series of cabinet members who would do the "dirty business work that Donald Trump can't be bothered with - maybe a Dick Cheney-style chief executive to be his vice presidential running mate."

He later said: “Trump has spent less money in his campaign than other candidates but has ridden on the back of free media … He says what he wants to say; it’s unpolished and unfiltered – I don’t know whether there’s a quality to that.”

Asked about Trump’s scandalous statements, including one in which he said he would date his daughter if he wasn’t her father, Schaller said that three months ago, he never would have believed that Trump would still be in the running.

“He has said so many beyond-the-pale statements and had so many cringe-worthy moments … you always thought that’s it for Trump … but he has flouted every expectation of political scientists and analysts,” with his continued surges in popularity.

Clinton the ‘wildcard’

When it comes to Clinton’s foreign policy prospects as president, Schaller believes she is positioning herself as a national security candidate.

“Her sale is based on foreign policy and defense – that it’s safe to have her fingers on the nuclear launch codes.

“Clinton’s policy is moving closer to the president she served under – Obama – rather than the president she served alongside – Bill Clinton,” Schaller said, in reference to her previous position as foreign secretary in the Obama administration.

“Back when she ran against Obama, she suffered due to her vote for the invasion of the Iraq war … Now, she may be suffering reputational and image issues due to Benghazi and the email scandal.”

The Hillary Clinton email controversy began in March 2015, when it became publicly known that Hillary Clinton, during her tenure as Secretary of State, had exclusively used her family's private email server for official communications.

The controversy continued against the backdrop hearings held by the US House Select Committee on Benghazi, investigating the attack on a US diplomatic mission in Libya that resulted in the death of the US ambassador Christopher Stevens.

“These have ultimately become PR problems,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure if they will result in legal ramifications following the several hearings and investigations into her emails that have already taken place.

Ultimately, Schaller believes Clinton is a “wildcard.”

“She’s the first female candidate – that’s a wildcard – it’s a precedent; there’s no data to indicate how a woman may do in the elections,” he said, questioning whether she will encourage female voters to draw in even more female voters, or, on the other hand, draw negative attention from misogynists in the country.

‘Fight to the death’

Schaller forecasted that America will witness one of the most negative, contentious and “fight to the death” elections in its modern history.

Schaller noted a remarkable “rise in disgust” among social and political institutions in the US that has led to increasing polarization between the Democrats and the Republicans.

“It’s us vs. them and Americans will have to decide who the ‘us’ and ‘them’ are,” Schaller said, adding that the country is experiencing a period of “unprecedented polarization.”

Dr. Thomas F. Schaller is author of “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South” and co-author of “Devolution and Black State Legislators: Challenges and Choices in the Twenty-First Century.” He writes a twice-monthly column on national politics for the Baltimore Sun, and has published commentaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The New York Daily News, The New Republic, Salon, and The American Prospect, and has been a guest on MSNBC, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Talk of the Nation” programs, and C-SPAN television’s “Washington Journal.”

Click here to watch the full session with Dr. Thomas Schaller.