By Rami G. Khouri
When Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were competing over the American vote, intense speculation over how either candidate’s foreign policy would impact the many tensions and wars in Middle East dominated the news. But in the end, it is just that — speculation that is likely to be overtaken by events the moment the new president takes office in 2017. Far more significant is the vexing and concrete reality of the four active principles that the newly elected American president has inherited in the Middle East:
a) The prevalent American foreign policy of the past 35 years has been anchored in military action and supporting autocratic regimes;
b) These two policies have not changed appreciably, despite the Obama administration’s rhetoric seeking less direct U.S. military action and more promotion of dynamic economies and democratic transitions;
c) Warfare and supporting autocrats have only exacerbated the turmoil in the region, leading to a much more dangerous situation today defined by fractured states, civil wars, numerous foreign military interventions, the rise of Daesh, the growth of Al Qaeda, the shift of the center of gravity of the global jihad from Afghanistan-Pakistan to Syria-Iraq, and flows of refugees and terrorists from the region to the world; and,
d) Responding to these conditions simply by using new forms of militarism while propping up autocratic Arab governments, which will likely only hasten the collapse of more states and regimes.
The new president has projected tough foreign policy images that seek to reassure the Americans that the U.S. will not be pushed around or threatened by terrorists in the Middle East. The problem with this approach — which values imagery more than substantive policy analysis grounded in reality — is that it has failed miserably in the recent past, with only one exception: it has prevented another major terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
The U.S. has been involved militarily non-stop across the Middle East and South Asia since it supported Islamists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the early 1980s.
The U.S. has failed in its other core goals of defeating or containing terror movements like Al Qaeda and Daesh, breaking up Taliban, strengthening its main Arab allies, stabilizing and rebuilding states where it went to war (Iraq, Afghanistan), and disengaging from warfare in the region.
So far, the new president has spoken only broadly about what the U.S. might do in the region. The U.S. policy prescriptions are totally hypothetical, and may or may not actually work. They also seem to continue the current legacy of policies that have spawned the tragic conditions in Syria and Iraq today. The consequences of war-based policies by the U.S. and many other states will present the new president with a range of pressing problems that cannot be solved by more military action — because they largely result from the non-stop warfare of the past 35 years.
These problems include the birth and spread of Daesh, Al Qaeda’s expansion and shift into Syria-Iraq, Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, expanding terror attacks around the world, full or partial collapse of several Arab states, millions of refugees and displaced and starving people, virulent new strands of sectarian violence, and a massive brain drain, among other issues.
These and other dynamics have changed the face of the region. Russia has re-emerged as a major direct actor in Syria, and is enhancing its links with Iran, Egypt and other countries. Numerous military interventions in Arab states by regional powers like Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and some Kurdish groups show that these powers now shape strategic conditions to a much greater degree than they did in the past. More tough-guy warfare by the U.S. would only expand this destructive circle of militarism that is slowly breaking states like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and causing serious internal stresses in others, like Lebanon and Egypt.
The American people seem to be more sensible than their leaders, for they clearly do not want their country to be involved in more wars in the Middle East, as confirmed again by a survey released early November by the Charles Koch Institute and the Center for the National Interest. It showed only 25 percent of Americans want the new president to expand the global role of the U.S. military. Only 14 percent said that the U.S. foreign policy had made the country more secure since 9/11, and 51 percent said the world was less safe than it was 15 years ago.
Such public sentiment is one reason why President Obama has tried to disengage from warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another may be the realization of the total cost of war in both blood and money.
A new study by Brown University shows that the total financial cost of the global war on terror in the past 15 years may reach $13 trillion. Over 600,000 military personnel and civilians have died in these wars, which also generated more than seven million refugees and displaced people.
Yet, the U.S. cannot seem to disengage fully from those wars; it is now also fighting in Syria, and indirectly in Yemen, by providing technical assistance to Saudi Arabia.
American war-making has transformed in the past decade from direct battlefield action by tens of thousands of troops to more covert and special operations, attacks by drones, supporting proxy fighters in Syria, and other indirect war ops.
Arab public opinion for its part is also reacting to the continuing trend of foreign armies fighting at will in Arab lands. A new survey of Arab public opinion conducted in nine countries in late October by the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. confirmed that 66 percent of the polled Arabs had negative or somewhat negative views of American policies.
The negative consequences of recent American policies in the region, combined with new polling evidence from the U.S. and the Arab world, suggests that the new U.S. president will face significant domestic and foreign pressures to re-evaluate, rather than perpetuate, the current drift of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Rami G. Khouri is a senior public policy fellow and professor of media studies at the American University of Beirut, and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.