Home / Articles / Donald Trump’s Excellent Middle East Adventure
Auguste Comte once asserted that intellectual confusion lay at the basis of every historical crisis. Whatever Comte’s own confusions may have been, most of them common to his age, he was, on balance, probably right about this. I suspect we are about to witness another example of his insight: the Middle East policies of the rapidly approaching Trump administration.
President-elect Donald Trump has rarely been shy to offer his sharp-edged assessments and strong opinions about Middle East politics, as has been the case with most other bumper-sticker-suitable issues. He has made such pronouncements on terrorism, Iran, Syria and Russian involvement in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinians, Turkey and the Kurds, and a few other related matters as well. Let’s briefly review them.
“Containing the spread of radical Islam must be a major foreign policy goal of the United States,” Trump declared. Military force may be necessary, “but it’s also a philosophical struggle, like our long struggle in the Cold War.”
Trump vowed to junk the JCPOA—a.k.a. the Iran deal—which he described as “horrible and laughable” and rebuild the architecture of economic sanctions. Otherwise, he said, sooner by cheating and later by enduring the deal’s short “in-force” period, Iran would continue to pursue a nuclear arsenal, fueling “nuclear proliferation throughout the region.” That, Trump said, would stoke Iran’s hegemonic ambitions to the detriment of American interests and allies.
He promised to cooperate with Russia to destroy ISIS, which he condemned for undermining Iraqi stability and pilfering its oil, ruining Syria, and “carrying out a genocide against Christians in the Middle East.” He apparently sees Bashar al-Assad as not such a bad fellow after all—just another strong leader in a jam. He seems to share Assad’s and his Russian lawyers’ view that all the bad guys in the Syrian civil war are terrorists. Trump seems to have a tin ear for talk of human rights, democracy, and basic decency in foreign leaders, just as long as they disdain globalist leftwing political correctness as much as he does.
He would somehow compel Saudi Arabia, and other wealthy Gulf countries whose security the United States guarantees, to contribute more to their own defense.
After an ambiguous opening set of remarks, Trump said during the campaign that he regards Israel as a “strategic ally” and a “cultural brother” bound to the United States by “unbreakable friendship.” Since “the United Nations is not a friend of democracy,” he rejects any U.N.-imposed resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather, he, due to his success in making business deals, and only he, will broker what he characterized as “the ultimate deal.”
As to Turkey and the Kurds, Trump said in July to David Sanger of the New York Times that he was a big fan of the Kurds, but also that he was happy to see Erdogan “turn the coup around.” He saw no contradiction here, expressed a hope that he could get the Turks and Kurds together, and professed himself uninterested and unwilling to comment on fraught Turkish domestic matters because the United States has civil liberty issues, too—he cited the then-recent Baltimore riots over the Freddie Gray case.
Trump’s pronouncements manifest a gut appreciation for the good sense of standing by friends and keeping adversaries aware and wary. That commends itself as an advance on an Obama administration approach that often seemed to indulge America’s adversaries and constrain or tongue lash its friends. But on every other specific point, Trump is either a little bit or a lot wrong.
We’ll come to why in a moment, but the prior question has to be, does what he said during the campaign matter?
Nine or ten months ago, many observers took Trump literally but not seriously. Then as time passed and Trump’s political star rose, many took him seriously but not literally, reasoning that politicians often say almost anything to get elected, but behave differently once they take office. Some of Trump’s transition-period appointments seem to confirm that: so he’s not going to try to put Hillary Clinton in jail after all; so his appointments to the Treasury and Commerce Departments don’t exactly reflect his “proletariat billionaire” populist campaign persona—and anyone who is surprised by this apparent volte face has only himself to blame.
During the campaign, very few people took him both seriously and literally—mainly supporters who understood as little about these things as Trump does. But the serious-literal combination is now at least a possibility in foreign and national security policy—so it is something worth thinking through, just in case. Let’s go back, then, through the list of topics to see what might happen were this to turn out to be the case.
ISIS and Radical Islam
Trump seems to think that radical Islam, whether in the form of ISIS or some other generic, fuzzy form, is an existential threat to the United States comparable to the nuclear-armed threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It isn’t. It isn’t even close. Look at its order of battle—in its strongest stronghold of Mosul ISIS has about less than 4,000 soldiers, with no air force or useful air defense. It’s by any measure pathetic. The LAPD could probably handle it and let the 82nd Airborne play golf instead down there near Fayetteville.
ISIS is an existential threat potentially to several weak, deinstitutionalizing, and only marginally legitimate Sunni Arab regimes, and that becomes a problem for the United States to the extent those regimes are useful allies or partners. But we need to keep this distinction straight.
So why then do so many Americans seem to have laundry problems over ISIS? By and large, the more ignorant the American observer of the Middle East and of Islam is, the more likely the emotionally propelled conflation of various events, and the more likely the vast exaggeration of the danger. For example, lots of Americans connected in their minds, despite a total lack of evidence, the San Bernardino and Orlando shootings with ISIS direction and complicity. This is what willfully uninformed, emotionally volatile people tend to do. My own view, as expressed before, is that many Americans are anxious about a lot of things inside the country that they struggle to put their fingers on, and ISIS proved at the time to be an irresistible surrogate upon which to focus and exfoliate, so to speak, these anxieties. Consult any psychology text for details.
ISIS brutality has been very telegenic, and deliberately so, since it poured into our consciousness by seizing Mosul in June 2014. The beheading of two American journalists who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time seemed to amount to many American observers to a galactic danger to the homeland. Note that at the time ISIS leaders had made no threats against the United States, but the U.S. Government, in September 2014, decided to bomb them anyway. These people think in terms of tribes, which is natural to their history and social structure. So when our “tribe” bombed their tribe for (in their view) no reason, they felt compelled to retaliate so as to deter further attacks. To do nothing, in their cultural context, would signal weakness and invite more aggression. And since they believe as if by second nature in collective social guilt and responsibility—and project that unwittingly onto others—they naturally assumed that Steve Sotloff and James Foley were acting as members of their tribe or could be so construed. Besides, those were the only two Americans they could get their hands on—and we all know what happened next.
As for Trump’s claim that we are engaged in a philosophical struggle with radical Islam comparable to the struggle with Communism during the Cold War, this is a common trope and not only among conservatives. It’s true to the extent that Sunni Islam is a form of universalism, like Enlightenment liberalism, so it stands to reason that Donald Trump, as a nationalist, doesn’t like it regardless of its content. But of course as a universalism, radical Islam is very illiberal by our measures, all the way to fascist in some respects.
That said, our problems with Sunni Islamism are not mainly philosophical. Our problems are not with the philosophy (really mainly a theology anyway, and that’s different, but never mind for now….) but with the violence against us it is deemed to generate. So the question then becomes, to what extent is the philosophy (or theology) responsible for generating the violence? Trump has been clear on this too: He believes that Islam itself is a violent religion, and that the problem inheres in Islam. That goes way beyond the view of George W. Bush, for example, who erroneously believed that a lack of Arab democracy was the root of the problem—which only goes to show once again that there are more ways than one to be mistaken about something.
No serious person believes this caricature of Islam. The people responsible for violent attacks in the name of Islam are mainly ignorant of their own religious texts and traditions. Very few have madrassa educations. They are mostly mis- or uneducated males, usually with all sorts of personal problems, on the margins of their own families and social matrices. They act for highly emotional reasons, often in clusters of similarly alienated siblings or cousins. They are not very philosophical. Rather, they are prime pickings for extremist entrepreneurs to exploit, those who manipulate their simple understandings and who could care less about them or their likely deaths.
So the “war of ideas” mantra is mainly a category error. The belief that our problem would dissolve if only the people laboring away on the fifth floor of the State Department in the counter-messaging center could only find the perfect words, put them in the perfect order, and have them perfectly translated into Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashtu, and so on, and then somehow place them before the eyes of would-be perpetrators of violence, is very close to insane. It is an illustration of the rationalist fallacy to which Enlightenment naïfs are particularly vulnerable.
Only other, non-extremist Muslims can have a conversation with would-be terrorist extremists in their midst. We have an interest in helping them by networking them and supporting them in other non-counterproductive ways. But we cannot solve this problem for them, and by doing stupid things—like yelling at the top of our lungs that the problem is with Islam itself—we only make their task more difficult because we thus play right into the hands of the worst actors in the region, whose recruitment line is that the West is involved in a conspiracy to destroy Islam. Nor are Muslim Arabs stupid: If Islam is intrinsically the West’s problem, then it follows logically that the only way to really solve the problem is either to convert or kill every Muslim. Q.E.D.
As to what to do, as opposed to what not to do, that is a subject well beyond the scope of this little essay. Suffice it to say that we need to stop bad guys from harming us and our allies, and that sometimes includes having to kill them. And we need to make sure that the optic of ISIS’s trajectory is one of defeat, so that their aura of invincibility is shattered and their recruitment potential is ravaged with it. But we have to do this in a way that is also not counterproductive, and that is not a simple order. The use of massive U.S. force in the region, again, would have several long-lasting and counterproductive effects. Seizing and taking “temporary” ownership, even partially, of places like Mosul and Raqqa is also richly festooned with counterproductive potential for the United States. This can be done more deftly and intelligently, however.
Iran and the Iran Deal
Trump’s assessment of the Iran deal is not as idiosyncratic as his view of Islamist terrorism. Just about all Republican politicos, and others (myself included, for what’s that worth, even though I’m not a Republican), find serious flaws in the agreement. Before the campaign got rolling, the only disagreement among Republicans was whether the next President should scrap the deal on the day after the inauguration, or wait a while, bring pressure, and try to get the Iranians to walk away. There are even some people, including Secretary of Defense-designate Jim Mattis, who, despite being under no illusions about the threat Iran represents, think scrapping the deal or causing it to be scrapped is not now in the U.S. interest. (Henry Kissinger has recently expressed a similar view.) Due to the President-elect’s penchant for taking up and agreeing with the arguments of the last person he spoke with, it is possible that Trump’s view will change—or not.
Then again, it may not; or the deal could come undone anyway for any number of reasons owing to the frictional convergence of U.S. and Iranian behaviors. What then?
Trump thinks that rebuilding the sanctions regime is the only way to deter the Iranians from moving ahead to create a nuclear weapons arsenal. This is unlikely to work. The money has already been delivered, and all the partners we so laboriously cajoled into the sanctions regime have already tossed out their old policy clothes and are trying their best to don business suits in order to resuscitate their dealings with Iran. If a U.S. administration has very good relations with its allies, re-creating such a sanctions architecture is at least possible, though hardly easy. But with a President who sees NATO and other key alliance relationships as mere deals to be aggressively renegotiated in U.S. favor—as if all the world were made up of zero-sum games, even with friends—this becomes impossible.
Nope: If the deal goes down and the Iranian regime remains long enough in the saddle, then U.S. policy faces the same basic decision it faced during both the Clinton and Bush43 administrations with regard to North Korea: acquiesce or use force to stop (or at least delay) it. And that is the choice the Obama administration faced too as Iran raced toward threshold capability.
Now, some supporters of the agreement reason that it signifies Iran’s decision to avoid building a nuclear arsenal in perpetuity. The rationale usually proffered for this conclusion is that they know we would never let them achieve it and that they know they cannot win a war against us—and further that the regime might not survive a thrashing. I do not concur with this assessment. The same people who make this argument concede that Iran showed very powerful and consistent motivation for achieving a WMD capacity, and they generally understand the reasoning: If you are in Tehran, sitting in a swivel chair, and take a 360 degree look around the region, you’d want a nuclear weapons deterrent, too. So why signing a nuclear deal with the P5+1 would change all this I confess I do not understand.
The Obama administration dissimulated about the negotiations and the deal, a statement for which we have Ben Rhodes’s extremely indiscreet comments to David Samuels as proof. It claimed no deal was better than a bad deal, when the truth was that any deal was, in their view, better than no deal. And while you can’t say that in the U.S. political context, the reasoning was not hard to understand. As General Mattis understood perfectly well at the time, you either make a deal that kicks the can down the road or you have to attack the program before it’s too late.
The President’s reticence about using force, particularly using it again in the Middle East, is too well known to belabor. But consider that we were at the time—and actually still are—involved in two other shooting wars nearby, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Was the political carrying capacity of the nation, let alone the Democratic Party, adequate to sustain a third? This was not a pointless question, even if you discount the partisan considerations necessarily involved. And it was even less pointless if you acknowledge that a war conceived as a punitive air strike could not necessarily be kept as limited as you wished. Most of us are well practiced in recent years mulling over the unanticipated consequences of the United States starting a war in the Middle East, and that goes for Libya as well as Iraq. I am sure that group includes General Mattis; his soon-to-be boss is another matter.
So let’s be clear here: If the Iran deal goes down, one way or another—and never mind debating points over its many flaws, please—the chances of a war between the United States and Iran during the next four years look to be something like an 80 percent probability. No rebuilt sanctions regime can change this.
Syria and Russia
Trump’s view here is both typical and atypical. It is typical in that it connects no relevant dots. The U.S. government’s view, even during the Obama administration, has been that ISIS is an independent problem that has relatively little to do with Iran or even Syria. So it postured about “Assad must go,” but never seemed to really understand that the fuel for ISIS recruitment and high morale was the minoritarian Syrian regime’s unspeakable brutality against its own people. And that regime could not have perpetrated the mass murder it has without the material support of the Iranian regime, and, laterally, the Russians. The notion that the United States can extirpate ISIS without dealing with the source of its motivations is a little like thinking you can affect the position of a shadow by doing something to the shadow.
We are so powerful, of course, that we actually might be able to reduce ISIS to a point where it cannot threaten the Assad regime (or the Iraqi regime)—so the shadow metaphor admittedly limps a bit. But if we do that, we are servicing both Iranian and Russian policy desiderata. We are also horrifying the Turks—not that their own earlier misdeeds do not deserve some punishment—who are at least nominally still treaty allies. Trump thinks Erdogan is a great guy, so what does he make of the fact that his ideas about Syria and Russia (never mind his ideas about the Kurds) constitute a nightmare for Erdogan and his palace? He probably makes nothing of it
The way to settle the catastrophe in Syria is politically, by focusing on Damascus, not Raqqa. To do that the new administration needs to be willing to do something the Obama administration never was: raise the costs to the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian supporters for their directly or complicitly murderous behavior. There is no sign whatsoever that Trump understands this. Maybe that’s for the best, because thanks to the Obama administration’s passivity, the Russians have established a blocking position in the Eastern Med, complete with air bases and a missile defense perimeter, that makes anything we might wish to do considerably more dangerous. Odds are that the Russians would not risk a nuclear exchange with us over their position in Syria, but these are the kind of odds I for one do not wish to test. You, General Mattis, sir?
So we won’t really have a lot of new options come January. But our helping the Syrians and the Russians, and indirectly the Iranians, is not a better idea. It only seems like a better idea if you think that ISIS is a major existential threat to us, and, as already explained, it isn’t. And it only seems like a good idea if you think ISIS is a greater threat to U.S. interests than Iran, and it isn’t. Trump will look pretty bad if, after criticizing Obama for helping the bad guys and dissing our friends, he turns around and does the same thing, in spades. But that’s what he seems determined to do.
Making the Gulfies Pay
Trump’s contention that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf Arab associates should pay more for their own defense is a demonstration of ignorance that even he must have strained to achieve. He lumps these states in with the defense-skinflint NATO allies and others. And here he makes two galactic-scale errors.
The first is that the U.S. provision of common security good lowers dramatically overall global military spending and lowers the incentives for WMD proliferation far more effectively than the Non-Proliferation Treaty ever has. Without this U.S. function, performed consistently since the end of World War II, we would have had to spend vastly more on defense, given our global-scale interests, in order to live in a significantly more dangerous world. But Trump cannot seem to understand the concept of cooperative positive-sum outcomes. It’s a confusion that’s likely to become a big problem.
When it comes to the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies, the obvious truth is that promising to defend them en extremis costs us nothing. They pay cash on the barrelhead for their weapons and services, and doing so helps keep the U.S. defense industry economically viable. The capital costs of building major defense platforms these days are so high that we often need an export market to make ends meet, and the Gulf Arabs constitute an important part of that pre-order export market. The Emiratis are even more generous in a pinch for the sake of worthy others than are the Saudis, so to label them publicly as deadbeats is really not smart.
Israel and the Palestinians
Trump’s confidence that, as the supreme dealmaker, he can solve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is, well, misplaced. Now here, ironically, he actually confronts a problem whose basic shape is zero-sum, at least as construed by the main parties. But he, Mr. Zero Sum, is going to deal his way through it?
No, he isn’t.
What Donald Trump doesn’t know about this dilemma could fill the Andromeda Galaxy. But it’s not important for practical purposes, because the contemporary impossibility of settling the conflict is so over-determined that what any American President does or does not know is pretty much beside point. The real significance of Trump’s revised views on Israel has little to do with Israel anyway; it has to do with his view of the Jews.
As best I can tell, Trump doesn’t have fixed or strong views on the subject. His son-in-law who may still end up in a White House job is an Orthodox Jew, and he’ll have an office perhaps not far from that of Steve Bannon, who in very recent memory has been an impresario of anti-Semitic blather the likes of which probably makes David Duke break out in song. You cannot make this kind of stuff up. And does Trump see any sort of problem or inconsistency here? Not that anyone has noticed.
As a New Yorker, Trump views Jews as a kind of ethnic white noise. They’re all around, and so what? So is every other ethnicity. Trump, however, is a nationalist who admires toughness, manliness, a willingness to assert one’s own interests and to fight for them if necessary. As a default social Darwinist, the kind of Jews Trump can admire these days are Revisionist Likud-type Jews in Israel and their ZOA-type blood-on-the-saddle supporters in the United States. He can also find common ground with Orthodox Jews who spurn the liberal egalitarian ethos especially when it comes to culture war issues—the kind of American Jews, in other words, who tended to vote for him. That accounts for maybe 10-15 percent of American Jewry; the rest he’s not so fond of most likely, not because they’re Jews but because, in his view, the men at least are squishy, meliorist, politically correct, highly sensitive, woosified jerks.
This is not the place to draw out the ramifications of what this may mean over the next four years. Suffice it to say that support for Israel is liable to become even more politicized than it already has been since the Boehner-Netanyahu fiasco of this past March. And American politics are likely to play a more active role in fostering destructive divisions among American Jews. Israel will be fine, under whatever government its people elect, whether it manages to make peace with the Palestinians relatively soon or not. Sentient American Jews, however, are in for an extended ulceration.
Turkey and the Kurds
As to the whole subject of Turkey and the Kurds, and what that intersection means for the region, for NATO, and for international security more broadly—to beg preemptive apology from Alex Baldwin and Meryl Streep: It’s complicated.
It’s really complicated, as already suggested in passing above. Trump likes Erdogan, or thinks he does, and Erdogan is said to look forward to a Trump presidency. Strong men types tend to like each other because they think they can sit down together and clear away all the niceties and diplomatic persiflage and get down to the proverbial brass tacks—make a deal and get on with it. But no face-to-face, down-and-dirty bout of deal making can clear away the stark differences of interests in this case.
As already noted, Trump’s stated preference for joining in with the Russians (and Iranians) in helping the Assad regime is anathema to Erdogan. The Russian attempt, yet again, to manipulate Kurdish nationalism in ways that harm Turkey is a major problem for Turks, but Trump says he loves the Kurds—and he doesn’t distinguish between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and so on simply because he can’t. Erdogan will want Trump to extradite Fetullah Gulen from his redoubt in Pennsylvania, and Trump may want to oblige (since he has no idea who Gulen is) but find that he can’t.
Most important, Erdogan is trying to deconstruct the constitution of the Turkish Republic and replace the state with the Justice and Development Party, which is not so much a party as an Islamist social movement. Does Trump understand that Erdogan is an Islamist temporarily constrained in his ambitions by a democratic constitutional order? Isn’t Trump supposed to not like Islamists?
If Erdogan succeeds in deranging Turkey’s republican constitutional order in a referendum scheduled for 2017, Turkey will either become an authoritarian republic, as it was between 1924 and 1950, or it will become something for which we do not yet have a suitable name. His efforts could trigger a civil war, and not just between Turks and Kurds.
Turkey is a NATO ally, whether we like it and can use the fact or not. The end of the Turkish constitutional order as we have known it for more than half a century spells the end of Turkey’s meaningful participation in the alliance system, and that shock could, in tandem with other events, reduce NATO itself to a clattering, confused shell of its Cold War self. That would be dangerous.
Kurdish nationalism has proved a bulwark against ISIS. But it also portends a state-wrecking operation not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Turkey and potentially in Iran. U.S. policy has differing concerns and aspirations in these four countries, and the Kurdish factor plays differently into all four. So it’s not enough to like the Kurds, Donald.
This policy domain is so complicated that even relatively well-informed people have to strain to grasp it. It’s a day-job, in other words. But the President-elect likes Erdogan and he is a “big fan” of the Kurds, so he seems to think of their mutual relations as akin to a really good game between, say, the Cubs and the Indians—and yeah, one team is going to win the game but wow, what a great game it’ll be to watch.
Trump’s Contradictions and Beyond
Turkey and the Kurds isn’t the only complicated problem set in the U.S. foreign policy universe. So the President-elect has an impromptu telephone conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad in which he tells Sharif what an “amazing” job he’s doing—a lot of Pakistanis are in a way amazed so I guess that’s accurate—and what “amazing” people Pakistanis are. And with this, Trump turned a huge passel of usually logorrheaic diplomats into mute wooden Indians (no South Asian pun intended).
Now, Sharif, like Erdogan, is a Muslim—a Sunni Muslim, too, in a large Sunni-majority country. But Trump thinks that Islam is a big problem, that it is inherently violent and anti-Western. But Pakistanis are amazing people, all the same. The question is not whether anyone sees a problem here; it’s whether Donald Trump sees a problem here. Apparently he doesn’t. There is no evidence, yet, that Trump understands any of this. General Mattis, sir: Please help us!
So what does all this mean? Well, either Donald Trump once becomes President cedes day-to-day operational authority of U.S. foreign and national security policy to people who actually know what they’re doing—not that this alone makes the jobs easy—or he becomes, in effect, Bill and Ted on an “excellent adventure” in the Middle East.
If the former, maybe things won’t be so scary: Jim Mattis as SecDef reassures me, and we may end up with a SecState who is similarly reassuring (or not, since we don’t yet know as of this writing). But then there is Michael Flynn, the National Security Advisor-designate and hence the official closest for such matters to our President-elect. Flynn was sure that Iran was somehow behind the Benghazi fiasco and persisted in this fact-free delusion for many months until he was finally relieved of his job at the Defense Intelligence Agency on account of that and other screwball behaviors. His location that close to the White House is not so reassuring. The very idea of him sitting in one of those impossibly comfortable black leather chairs in the Situation Room fills me with gloom.
So here is my advice for all you Middle East analyst types out there, and for other concerned Americans: Take lots of naps between now and Inauguration Day. You need to stock up on your sleep.