Trump and the Middle East: ‘Ignore the campaign rhetoric’
According to Arab diplomatic sources, Trump the candidate might not be Trump the President
Donald Trump’s earth-shattering victory as the 45th President of the United States has sent shockwaves across the Middle East. Questions about the real estate mogul’s outlandish campaign promises such as taking Iraq’s oil or restricting immigration from the “terrorist nations”, and whether those would be implemented into actual policies, are being debated in Arab policy circles.
According to Arab diplomatic sources, who have communicated directly with high level officials in the Trump campaign, Trump the candidate might not be Trump the President. Unpredictability and lack of coherent foreign policy define his policies in the Middle East, clouded by differences with Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, on the major issues.
This could be a prelude to an internal debate within the Trump-Pence team and within the Republican establishment before any strategies on the Middle East are outlined.
‘Ignore the campaign rhetoric’
Three months after Trump declared his infamous Muslim ban last December, his campaign according to Arab diplomatic sources, reached out to different Middle East embassies in Washington, DC. The message from the Trump campaign to key Arab diplomats last Spring was a plea to “ignore Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail.”
The outreach which was done by his staff mostly to key states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), had Trump relay assurances to those governments and capitals where he has business partnerships, that “what is being said on the campaign trail is different from how he would govern”, and that he “looks forward to do business together and explore opportunities were he to win the Presidency.”
Such messaging from Trump reflects a more calculated approach in reaching different audiences and a readiness to abandon his campaign promises for doing real time politics and business with foreign governments. His scorched-earth tactics on the campaign were meant to rally anxious voters with anti-immigration and populist economic slogans, while behind closed doors he would focus on a more well-crafted message to use with foreign leaders. This double-tongue narrative will likely continue in a Trump administration with him firing up his base publicly, while being engaged in outreach efforts -with the same people he is bashing- privately.
The message from the Trump campaign to key Arab diplomats last Spring was a plea to “ignore Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail”Joyce Karam
What does a Trump policy look like?
Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience and fiery rhetoric has left an impression of unpredictability and vagueness about his policies in the region. Added to that are his major differences with the second man in charge at the White House, Mike Pence who is closer the Republican establishment.
While Trump has embraced a populist and semi-isolationist message that appeases Russia, distances itself from NATO, rejects trade deals, proposes a wall with Mexico, wants to keep the Iran deal and condemns the Iraq war, his Vice President is against all of the above. Pence has criticized Russia, defended NATO, was a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, advocated trade deals, criticized the Muslim ban, called for a safe zone in Syria and rejects the Iran deal.
Pence, for example, supports a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic to counter Russia and sees in NATO as an arch of global stability. He said on a trip to Berlin in 2014, “With continued instability in the Middle East, and Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, I believe we must take immediate steps to strengthen our mutual security by deploying a robust missile defense in all of Europe – including Poland and the Czech Republic – to protect the interests of our NATO allies and the United States in the region.”
It was telling yesterday that Trump’s first phone call as President-elect was to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In contrast, in 2008, US President Barack Obama made his first phone call to the head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. The new Republican President has signaled a pro-Israel shift by moving the US embassy to and recognizing Jerusalem as the Jewish State’s capital. This would be an unprecedented departure from US on one of the core final issues since 1960s.
On Syria, Trump and Pence will have to consolidate their differences on a safe zone that the Vice President supports while the President doesn’t. Trump also has to determine how on the one hand he wants to forge a closer alliance with Russia in Syria while at the same time pledging to counter Iran who is fighting alongside Moscow in that conflict.
A more isolationist tone will likely accompany a Trump Presidency in abandoning trade deals and withdrawing from global markets. Trump is also expected to shelve issues of reform and democracy in the Middle East, and focus more on counterterrorism in dealing with Egypt, improving relations with Turkey’s Erdogan and assuring the GCC on Yemen.
Trump’s rise that was built on a charged populist and Islamophobic rhetoric will attempt to shift gears into deal-making as President. But with major changes expected to come from Trump’s policies on the status of Jerusalem and aligning with Russia, the newly elected President will be treading in the Middle East’s muddy waters and running the risk of getting caught again in a wave of Anti-Americanism and fueling terror recruits.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam