Donald's boys: Trump's cabinet and the Middle East

Donald's boys: Trump's cabinet and the Middle East
Comment: How will Trump's nominations for key positions in his cabinet shape the course of US foreign policy? Nick Rodrigo takes a look the politics of some of the candidates.
6 min read
17 Nov, 2016
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich introduces Donald Trump during a campaign rally [Getty]

One of the most explosive components of Trump's campaign was its position regarding Muslim American immigration from Islamic countries, and Washington's relationship to a Middle East in a state of transition.

Trump's gaping lack of understanding of the region means he is expected to delegate the task of dealing with policy related to it. Due to the toxicity of his campaign, it has been mostly outliers of the party who are predicted to pick up key positions which will shape policy concerning the Middle East, and domestic policy towards Muslims.

The shortlisted candidates for the position of Secretary of State indicate two possible routes for the Trump administration. The first is a "neo-Reaganist" shift, in which American power on the international stage is exhibited through a disregard for international institutions, coupled with reinvigorated American hubris and sense of historic purpose.

The second is a more withdrawn, measured and isolationist perspective.

John R Bolton, the former ambassador to the UN under George W. Bush, and Newt Gingrich are the candidates who represent this route for Trump. Bolton was a key figure in beating the war drums in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by the implementation of what can only be described as mafioso tactics.

As the third Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, Bolton led the charge to remove the US from the ICC in the lead up to the Iraq war, effectively granting Washington a safety net to illegally invade a sovereign country.

In an article for The New York Times, Bolton expressed support for the pre-emptive bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities and for the People's Mujahideen of Iran, the armed opposition in exile.

Newt Gingrich is a neoconservative ideologue, famous for a brief lead in the GOP primary elections in 2011. Gingrich rose to infamy for shutting down congress in the 1990s and is well known for his belligerent style and adoration for big ideas over small policy detail – a cornerstone of post-Reagan Republican politics.

Bolton was key figure in beating the war drums in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq

His combative style, and belief that Israel can survive without a lasting peace deal would make him an uncouth and combative envoy to the Middle East.

The more conciliatory figures up for the position include Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to the UN and former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq.

A former real estate mogul, Corker's trajectory into politics mirrors that of Trump and they are said to be united on a desire to have a less interventionist stance towards the region. Like other Republican senators, Corker came out against the Iran deal, but avoided incendiary language when commenting, keeping his analysis succinct and focussed on the strategic shortfalls of the deal.

Born in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad began his career in working with both the Carter and Reagan administration in guiding the programme to oust the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan through the funding of the Mujahideen.

Throughout the 90s, his role in the Rand corporation allowed him to build the diplomatic skill sets to be selected as US ambassador to Afghanistan. Over the years, he displayed astute diplomatic and strategic foresight, warning the Bush administration of the "sectarianisation" of the Iraqi insurgency and succeeding Bolton as ambassador to the UN in 2007 with bipartisan support.

Even more frightening is the prospect of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a Trump surrogate and hard-line securocrat who has likened the Black Lives Matter movement to IS

In April, Trump appointed Walid Phares, a Lebanese academic as Middle East advisor. Phares has been actively supportive of Israeli policies in the past, and recently commented that a Trump administration will pass legislation that will designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a "terror group".

The move for this was instigated by the House Judiciary in February, and has since been referred to the Foreign Relations Committee. This development will please President Sisi of Egypt, a brutal opponent of the Brotherhood, and one of the Arab world's most ardent supporters of Trump.

Trump's campaign was riddled with consistent references to Muslims as an existential security threat. Senator Sessions, Trump's current security advisor mobilised the Republican senators to shut down government in order to derail President Obama's move to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, based on the alleged threat of "radical Islamists" making it through.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security contains a number of individuals with a hawkish perspective on internal security threats. Perhaps even more frightening is the prospect of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a Trump surrogate and hard-line securocrat who has likened the Black Lives Matter movement to IS.

Any security advisor is likely to aggregate any opposition to US power with terrorism, and seize on Obama-era legislation to crack down on civil liberties. Trump is also reportedly considering Clare Lopez, the president of the Centre for Security policy, as deputy national security advisor.

Lopez has stated that Bin Laden and Obama share a similar vision for the Middle East, whilst accusing the State Department of teeming with Muslim Brotherhood aficionados. Lopez has called for McCarthyist style witch hunt of Muslims within the government.

Trump's recently appointed key strategist Stephen Bannon, has been accused by rights groups of stirring up Islamophobic sentiment

Tying all of this together is Trump's recently appointed key strategist Stephen Bannon, who has been accused by rights groups of stirring up Islamophobic sentiment through his online media platform Brietbart News.

Trump's admiration for strongmen in politics may lead to increased coordination with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Sisi, as the latter has been alienated from the Obama administration for some time.

Closeness to Putin will convert into continued but mooted support for the Iran deal, and despite Trump's scathing comments on the JCPOA, there has been some backtracking in recent days.

The course of action he will take on Secretary of State will be a message not only to the world, but also international institutions such as the UN and NATO, on Washington's willingness to cooperate on pressing issues in the region, such as security, diplomacy and humanitarian assistance.

The Saudi-led Sunni bloc have been building alliances to act more unilaterally as the US looks to remove itself in the coming decades. Trump's unmapped Middle East policy may further embolden local actors to act without direct consultation with Washington. 

At home, both Bush and Obama initiated policies that infringed on the civil liberties of America's Muslim communities. Trump's cabinet will be stocked with individuals willing to utilise these policies.

Trump's presidency will undoubtedly be unpredictable for the Middle East, a region with much at stake in Washington's policy. As he picks his top cabinet positions over the coming weeks, the extent of that erraticism will become clearer.


Nick Rodrigo is a journalist and PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Centre. He has worked in policy analysis on the Middle East in South Africa, as well as in Palestinian and Iranian human rights organisations in Palestine and the UK.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.