The next U.S. president will have to take on the Middle East. But do contenders know their Baghdad from their Basra?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when it comes to the Middle East, pragmatism trumps idealism for U.S. presidents. The 2016 U.S. contenders make no bones about operating from the same playbook. “I really don’t have much of a view on the current candidates, except that they make Saturday Night Live look like a drama,” Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed K.A. Al Faisal told Newsweek Middle East. It’s a view shared by many in the region.
Last week while speaking in Alabama, U.S. Republican presidential contender Ben Carson drew a startling analogy, comparing Syrian refugees to “rabid” dogs. The Michigan native had earlier asserted that the Pyramids were used as grain silos, to the consternation of Egyptian experts. That approach won’t wash in the Middle East, and come November 2016, when the next president is elected, contenders will have a tough audience to crack.
Can the current crop of U.S. presidential candidates, offer the Middle East anything different? After years of watching an American finger hover over the reset button, it is fair to say that the Middle East is bone-tired. There’s no Eisenhower doctrine, bombastic Bush agenda or cautious Jeffersonian approach over which to wrangle.
Cynicism with U.S. President Barack Obama’s realist “leading from behind” doctrine abounds, and has meant that Israeli intractability has continued, unabated. Iran might have a deal in the balance—snapback notwithstanding—but the state has dominated Arab territories from the shores of Bahrain to the enclaves of Taiz. Syria, once the homeland of Arab nationalism and pride, is fractured—Iraq no better; a Sykes-Picot map redrawn by crazed militants. A resurgent Russia rears its head, winning over feckless hearts and minds, few of whom remember the politburo’s forays into Saddam’s Iraq.
Obama’s realist doctrine has won no favors in the Middle East. As sclerotic U.S. contenders drop hints on their future plans for the region, Arab statesmen are worried.
Divining differences among candidates is a little like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. But the stakes may have changed, as, to cite one example U.S. Presidential candidate, Donald Trump’s remarks calling for Muslims to carry special identification cards have sparked a global backlash demonstrate. “If there is one thing that the Democrat and Republican candidates agree upon, it is their gung-ho approach to the Middle East,” Fadumo Dayib, 2016 Somali presidential contender told Newsweek Middle East. Indeed, the U.S. elections don’t, at first glance, portend sweeping changes for the Middle East. For the most part, both Democrats and Republicans are constrained by the current set of circumstances governing the conflicts in the Middle East, as well as the American public’s unwillingness to engage in another ground invasion.
Razaq Al Haidari, a member of Iraq’s foreign relations parliamentary committee told Newsweek Middle East he believes that the next U.S. president won’t make an iota of difference to policy on the ground, designed as it is, “by specialized institutions. The president has nothing to do but implement what these institutions decide and plan. We know that no essential changes would take place [whether or not] Clinton or Trump wins.” Fatigue has set in.
“Circumstances to a large degree govern what American opportunities are,” says Ambassador James Dobbins, a veteran diplomat who has helped manage international crises under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “You could end up with two [opposing] candidates in the election that will obviously emphasize their differences in terms of the campaign, but may not in fact come to govern all that differently.”
Despite that consensus, variables are still very much at play. For Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Anis Salem “there are areas of consensus amongst the candidates, [such as] support for Israel, opposition to direct U.S. military involvement ‘on the ground’ in the Middle East, while other issues remain controversial, like relationships with Islam and Muslims inside the U.S. and the treatment of Syrian refugees. Over the next 12 months, we can expect the pressure to grow on candidates to clarify their positions beyond platitudes.”
Still, Obama’s realist legacy is not so much the elephant in the room as the dead duck floating in a tepid water trough, that no person in the region can ignore. “There is this real ambivalence (between) a desire to be tougher and a dissatisfaction with Obama’s caution and retrenchment, combined with a strong desire not to pay more, not to take greater risks, not to take greater casualties and not to engage in more open-ended commitments,” Ambassador Dobbins tells Newsweek Middle East. That dissatisfaction with Obama’s dismissive approach to the Middle East finds an echo in the region itself. But the Middle East finds itself struggling to alter the course of events stateside. As Dr. Saeb Erekat, Palestinian Liberation Organisation Secretary General and former chief negotiator, put it: “Elections are an internal U.S. issue. We are respectful of the choices of the American people, unlike others that have mobilized their power to sabotage U.S. foreign policy.”
Such ambivalence will shape the constraints under which the next president—whether Republican or Democrat—will operate. When it comes to the Middle East, analysts and veteran diplomats tell Newsweek Middle East that U.S. policy is unlikely to differ much in substance from one administration to the next.
Daesh matters to the U.S, and to the region’s lawmen. “The result of the U.S. presidential elections is very important for Iraqis, as the U.S. plays a key role in the region and in Iraq in particular. They lead the international military coalition to fight Daesh,” Haidari said.
It matters so much so, in fact, that it could be a game-changer. “So far, foreign policy has not been a big issue in the debates, although that may be changing now after the Daesh attacks in Paris,” Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Anis Salem told Newsweek Middle East.
But should Daesh dictate the stakes? When it comes to this security issue, the U.S. administration has shifted from a policy of containment to eradication. Obama last week announced minor changes to current U.S. strategy, including the provision of arms to Kurdish and Iraqi security forces, as well as enhanced intelligence cooperation with France and other European allies in order to defeat the spread of Daesh cells beyond Iraq and Syria. Washington has already sent more than 3,000 combat advisers to assist Iraqi security forces. Most notably, Washington has also stepped up its bombing campaign against Daesh, targeting hundreds of Daesh tanker trucks last week that were transporting oil and oil products in an effort to weaken and ultimately eradicate a vital source of income for the organization.
But these policies virtually mirror those espoused by Republican contender Donald Trump, who openly supports Russia’s direct involvement in Syria and has lauded Moscow’s bombing campaign in that country. Trump has also advocated attacking Daesh oil sales and sources of financing in order to defeat it, and like Russian President Vladimir Putin, says he is skeptical about arming Syrian rebels fighting the Assad government.
With Russia now attacking Daesh as part of a coalition with France, a close U.S. ally, some candidates will see their previous hawkish stances towards the country relax.
Both Florida junior Senator Marco Rubio and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina have espoused a greater regulation of Russia’s incursions into foreign matters, with Rubio even calling for sanctioning Russia and arming Ukraine. But with France and Russia formally aligned in their bombing campaign against Daesh in Syria, the geopolitical realities in the wake of the escalating terrorist threat may compel such candidates to soften their stance, at least publicly.
Perceptions, Take Two
“To appear to be a bystander in one of the hottest areas of the world… is devastating to a president, ” said John Hudak, a fellow in Governance Studies at the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution.
What is likely to change after the 2016 presidential election, whether a Democrat or Republic wins, will be the measures the next president takes to enhance perceptions of American activity and leadership abroad.
Both will have to be mindful of rebuilding relationships in order to strengthen frayed alliances, as Obama did early on in his presidency.
“The next president is going to have to be more politically interested in recognizing that what it looks like you are doing is maybe as important as what you’re doing,” Hudak continued.
So what is likely to change, depending on who is elected, will be the tone and degree to which the new president forms coalitions, spearheads international summits and publicly advocates the strengthening of global alliances.
War: The Pedestal On Which Hawks Always Seem to Land
The United States is increasingly concerned with its own security—as well as that of its Arab allies. But this is still up for debate in an increasingly polarized Congress, where hawkish Republicans look to leverage the current security threats to carve out a niche in the run-up to the election. And yet—the threat of terrorism has opened up one window of political leverage for Republican candidates seeking to carve out a new foreign policy niche for themselves.
The restoration of ties with Cuba, the achievement of a nuclear deal with Iran, and aggressive efforts to secure a global accord on climate change have all left Republicans in largely reactionary positions following Democratic policy wins.
Rather than merely reacting to Democratic policy outcomes, the top 10 presidential contenders have begun to shift their focus to terrorism and national security and proposing fresh foreign policies in order to jockey for political advantage. Dayib, told Newsweek Middle East: “I am not convinced by the campaigns of these candidates because they come across as hawkish [on] foreign policy towards the Middle East and interventionistic in nature.”
One possibility is establishing a no-fly zone in Syria —a policy the Obama administration has refused to implement. Republican contenders such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, junior Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham have all proposed this policy. A formal no-fly zone would target Syrian air defense systems and prohibit Syrian government aircraft from engaging in bombing runs, allowing a safe haven for thousands of displaced Syrians.
This solution (one which Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton coincidentally also supports) is likely to pull the U.S. Air Force into a larger-scale military commitment, hearkening back to a more “aggressive” military stance that the Republican party is known for. “It seems even Clinton, who has an atrocious foreign policy track record in the Middle East, has not learned from her mistakes and is ready to commit [to] even more in the name of fighting terrorism,” said Dayib.
Indeed, with the exception of Fiorina, who says Washington should organize a summit with Arab and European allies to decide how to combat and defeat Daesh, and libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the rest of the Republican candidates have called for immediate and aggressive military action in the region.
Most distinctly, a number of contenders for the Republican nomination, including Bush, Graham, Ohio governor John Kasich, and Carson have all called for American troops to be sent to the Middle East for a larger scale combat mobilization.
Such hawkish stances are not new for Republican candidates, who have historically taken a hardline approach to foreign policy matters. “Republicans are more likely to seek military solutions and unilateral American solutions, and Democrats are more likely to seek diplomatic solutions and cooperative international arrangements,” says renowned political historian Allan Lichtman of American University.
Salem believes that the key challenges for the next U.S. president are varied: “The next U.S. president will need to make some choices on U.S.-Egyptian relations,” he told Newsweek Middle East. “One option would be to continue with the current modalities of the relationship—focus on key areas of convergence, do not allow differences to disrupt core objectives [and] maintain military cooperation. This is often called the ‘Pakistani model’; it is minimalist, opportunistic and riddled with distrust. More importantly, it does not meet the full potential of the relationship. Alternatively, the next U.S. president could engage in a deeper dialogue with Cairo, with a futuristic vision of the major challenges facing Egypt and the region: terrorism, education, and employment. A third scenario could see the relationship deteriorating due to conflicting views on issues like human rights and regional security.”
To temper anxiety among Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members, the U.S. has pledged billions of dollars in military equipment and arms deals to its Arab allies. In a deal widely expected to be cleared by Congress by mid-December, the U.S. State Department most recently approved the sale of more than $1 billion in advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia.
This follows two multi-billion dollar deals for air defense missiles and combat ships respectively approved by the U.S. government in September and October. The United States is certainly hard at work on plying its munitions trade.
In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading an aerial campaign against Houthi forces, U.S. personnel are reportedly providing logistical support and intelligence for airstrikes, with the U.S. Navy at times searching incoming ships and vessels for weapons during patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea around Yemen. In this light, U.S. military aid, arms agreements and security cooperation will continue regardless.
“As a Yemeni, living in war and under a blockade in Yemen my options are very limited,” Ali Saif Hassan, Director of the Political Development Forum in Sanaa was far from sanguine in comments to Newsweek Middle East. “All I need from the incoming American president is to stop the logistical support to the coalition war on Yemen. If Clinton wins, I can expect that she will continue [to talk] about peace and political solution[s] in Yemen, but at the same time continue to give logistical support to the Saudi coalition in their war on Yemen, and [to sell] them weapons and ammunition.
“With another Democratic president, [the] war and blockade on Yemen will last longer. I expect a new American policy in the Middle East in general [from Republican candidates], including Yemen. However, I expect that any Republican president will have a firm policy with the Saudi government and other governments in the Middle East, which will enforce a kind of political consonance in the region,” he said.
If arms sales don’t abate, what could change in the years to come is the tone and extent to which Republican lawmakers debate military assistance and arms deals to countries beyond Israel. The party, which includes a strong contingent of Tea-Party influenced conservatives elected on a promise to overturn traditional Washington politics, is starkly divided on the role of economic and military foreign aid. So while most Democrats view arms sales as “part of a broader strategy to advance American interests,” Republican language on arms deals is likely to change in the years to come, says Hudak, who is also managing editor of the Brookings Institution’s FixGov blog, which closely monitors domestic U.S. politics.
“Republican presidents were all about balanced budgets, low taxes and cutting government spending, but never in foreign policy. The new Republican party is much more … attuned to budget implications,” Hudak told Newsweek Middle East. “So when you look forward toward what a Republican administration might look like, you’re going to see a president who, regardless of whether they continue arms deals, is certainly going to publicly criticize them.”
Iran On the Rise?
For Arab leaders worried about a potentially ascendant Iran and its regional activities in the wake of the nuclear deal, American security guarantees are expected to remain in place. Military and financial aid to Israel and Egypt in particular will certainly continue, regardless of who wins the presidency. Samuel Cutler, a policy adviser at the Washington, DC-based law firm Ferrari & Associates also told Newsweek Middle East: “There’s all this talk about the U.S. reshaping the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Iran. Congress wants to say: ‘No, that is not happening.’”
Ambassador Saleh believes that “U.S.-Egyptian relations will need to transit a period of readjustment and management of expectations. Both countries need to clarify their objectives and focus on their key national interests: maintaining the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, combating terrorism, and enhancing regional security. Beyond these parameters, a Presidential dialogue between both sides is needed to move towards solutions for the multiple Daesh outfits in the region, supporting economic growth and strengthening regional security. New, creative thinking will be needed together with an understanding of the sensitive internal and regional realities of Egypt today.”
The Perennial Problem of Israel
“The Obama Administration has deepened its security ties to Israel and its Arab partners in the region, as well as brokering a nuclear deal with Iran. The next president, Republican or Democrat, will inherit these commitments,” said Andrew Parasiliti, director of the RAND Center for Global Risk & Security in Virginia. “The talk of a U.S. withdrawal or stepping back from the Middle East — I just don’t see it.”
But these deep ties, particularly with Israel, have anchored the entire debate, on both Democratic and Republic sides. Hanan Ashrawi, member of the PLO Executive Committee told Newsweek Middle East that “in the heat of election campaigns, all candidates, regardless if they are Republicans or Democrats, are competing to exhibit greater loyalty to Israel. So the language of elections is the language of blind support for Israel, of unrealistic positions and quite often, irresponsible in relation to justification of Israeli violations and of course maintaining unwavering, total and unquestioning support for Israel and by extension for the occupation.
Change on this front doesn’t look likely, as an Israeli Mandela has yet to emerge. “The Republicans anyway have cast their lot with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and with funders like [Sheldon] Adelson and others like him, they certainly have taken a partisan ideological position in support of the most extreme hardline racist government in Israel, without exception,” Ashrawi added.
“The Democrats and their major candidate is Hillary Clinton, even in her love letters to Israel, she clearly indicated that it will be her top priority anyway.
It’s straight-talking, backed by actions and not merely pragmatism that the conflict needs. “It seems to me that they all suffer from the illusion that the road to the White House is through loyalty to Israel rather than the U.S, unfortunately, and I think we need an honest and forthright candidate who will stand up to Israeli violations, who will send a clear message to the American electorate and to Israel that the question of human rights, international law and universal values are [equally] applicable and therefore Israel has to be held accountable and the Palestinians need protection. I am sure it will be a breath of fresh air for the American public to hear such candor and honesty from their candidates.” How far these aspirations extend to the region remains to be seen.
So as Americans look to decide the presidency of 2016, they — as well as Arab leaders — can be sure that current circumstances will strongly shape a commitment to ongoing policies in the Middle East in the lead-up to elections. But whether the deteriorating security situation will further legitimize hawkish stances in the Republican camp remains to be seen, as the current Democratic administration struggles to balance a public unwilling to enter another war with its need to feel secure.