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The circus strongman: how Trump’s lift for presidency may harm the Middle East

The rise of Donald Trump to Republican presidential front-runner is fuelled by domestic xenophobia. His isolationism does not bode well for the Middle East.
Protesters demonstrate against Donald Trump in New York in December after he proposed a ban on Muslims entering the US. Kena Betancur / AFP.
Protesters demonstrate against Donald Trump in New York in December after he proposed a ban on Muslims entering the US. Kena Betancur / AFP.

Donald Trump has just won a comprehensive victory in the New York presidential primary. His remarkable transformation from wild card candidate to Republican front-runner is nearly unprecedented in American political history. Political insiders stretch for comparisons (George Wallace, Silvio Berlusconi) that never quite fit the sheer weirdness of a real estate developer and reality television star turned formidable political figure.

Trump is adept at channelling the rage of his working class followers, furious at having been left behind by an economy that has seen its manufacturing base shrink. And much of Trump’s early success with Republican voters has stemmed from his calls to tighten borders, protecting Americans from threats near and far.

For Trump, those threats come from Mexicans, characterised as rapists and criminals, and from Muslims, potential terrorists one and all.

The likely Republican presidential nominee’s views on the Middle East are mostly formed by concerns about extremist violence, and an equal but often opposing desire to force American allies to cover the costs of their own defence. The campaign’s foreign policy is merely another expression of Trump’s id, combative and dependent on the perceived advantages of a strong presidency.

In December, shortly after Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, Trump suggested a ban on all Muslims entering the US in order to “figure out what is going on”.

Trump argued that a lack of critical knowledge regarding the threat of fundamentalist Islam had led to the attacks: “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

The proposed ban on Muslims and Trump’s calls to construct a 35-foot-high wall along the US-Mexican border, was perhaps best understood as a brand of (disturbingly intolerant) political theatre, but its specifics remain dismayingly hazy.

How would officials determine which travellers were Muslim? Would the ban include American Muslims who had temporarily left the country? How long would the ban stay in place? (His Republican competitors are hardly more enlightened; Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has called for surveillance of “Muslim neighbourhoods,” without stipulating what, exactly, a Muslim neighbourhood might be.)

Trump agreed to rule out the possibility of internment camps for Muslims, but nonetheless conflated the threat of terror and the suggestion of the enemy within: “We’ve already had the problem. Check out the World Trade Center, OK, check out the Pentagon. We’ve already had the problem …. And by the way, Muslims in our country have to report bad acts, OK?”

The implication here, repeated on numerous other occasions, was that political correctness prevented Farook’s neighbours from reaching out to the authorities about the suspicious activities in their midst. This, when combined with previous claims – thoroughly debunked – of seeing thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, speaks to Trump’s Muslim-baiting demagoguery.

The remainder of Trump’s Middle East policy stems from his proposed Muslim ban, conjoining isolationist tendencies with bellicose rhetoric about ISIL. He simultaneously promises to extract the US entirely from the Middle East, in order to better concentrate on the economic ills he sees as befalling the country, and to intervene more forcefully than his predecessors.

Trump has described his plans to seize oil fields in Iraq and Libya, seemingly as a proposed reimbursement for the costs of past military interventions.

“I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil,” Trump told a Wall Street Journal reporter. “If we don’t take the oil, I’m not interested.”

Trump is sceptical of past US interventions, arguing that when arming Syrian opposition groups, the US didn’t “know who they are”. “They could be ISIS. Assad is bad. Maybe these other people are worse.”

Trump’s detachment from the political establishment gives him free rein to describe what he sees as the fallout of the Arab Spring, with Libya’s chaos coming close to rivalling Syria’s: “Frankly there is no Libya; it’s all broken up; they have no control; nobody knows what’s going on.”

The rise of ISIL demands a response, though, no matter what its repercussions may be, in Syria and elsewhere. Trump has also called for ground troops to combat ISIL in Syria and Iraq: “We really have no choice, we have to knock out ISIS,” Trump argued at a recent presidential debate. “I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000-30,000.”

Trump is performing in a role ideally suited to his strengths, that of the tough-talking, blustering strongman. Trump’s collected statements on the Middle East have implied a strongly-held belief that American missteps in the region have stemmed from a combination of strategic malfeasance and poor negotiating.

Trump, master of The Art of the Deal, as one of his books has it, sees himself as the negotiator-in-chief, whose experience playing hardball in the conference room leaves him ideally suited to handle the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iran deal negotiated by president Barack Obama and secretary of state John Kerry? “One of the worst and dumbest deals I’ve ever seen negotiated – a horrible, horrible embarrassment deal.” He proposes to tear it up on his first day as president.

Trump wants to simultaneously ignore and intimidate the Middle East, browbeating the region’s leaders into a new-found deference toward the US. His foreign policy is torn between calls for disengagement from international organisations like Nato, letting other countries shoulder more of the cost of their own defence, and calls for a more muscular assault on the perceived enemies of the US – ISIL primary among them.

The US, in Trump’s estimation, is being outmanoeuvred by savvier players, hoodwinked into spending its own money for others’ protection. Saudi Arabia, for one, has been singled out by Trump for failing to spend their own money to defend the Saudi-Yemeni border.

Treading more cautiously, Trump had originally suggested he would adopt a policy of neutrality between the Israelis and Palestinians, hoping that a reset would spark a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, before lurching toward a more notably pro-Israel line.

The details were less significant than the about-face; Trump is no more likely than Obama to convince Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to sign a peace accord. But the turnabout was indicative of Trump’s policy, such as it is; the stances are better understood as provocations, or political performance art, intended to provoke a lusty, instinctual response more than to indicate any real world policy. (Hence the ever-increasing strangeness of Trump’s campaign, which has managed to thrive in the near-complete absence of policy professionals.)

To study Trump’s Middle East policy is to perhaps lend more attention to the details than the candidate himself has. Trump has stirred up the Islamophobia long latent in the Republican Party’s base, and admirably tamped down by George W Bush, and given it free rein.

Given Trump’s seemingly unquenchable TV-star desire to give the people what they want, and his ability to serve as the walking, tweeting id of the American working class male, it is little surprise that his Middle East policy, taken as a whole, is decidedly incoherent.

As a neo-isolationist, Trump’s foreign policy keeps buying a return ticket home to the US. It is, in the end, a foreign policy intended almost exclusively for domestic consumption.

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The Review.

Updated: April 20, 2016 04:00 AM

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