Middle East a big headache for next US president

Middle East a big headache for next US president
Regardless of who wins the US presidential race, the new president will face a hard task in the Middle East, writes Stasa Salacanin.
6 min read
29 Jul, 2016
The new US president will face a hard task in the Middle east [Getty]

The Middle East has too often carried the burden of US blunders and missteps, causing chaos and destruction in the region.

In many parts of the Arab world there is widely-felt disappointment about the performance of the current US president Barack Obama.

This is especially true for the GCC states led - by Saudi Arabia - whose relations with the US have been on the rocks for some time. It is no exaggeration to say this relationship is at its lowest point for four decades.

Regardless of who wins the presidential race, the new US president will immediately face a hard task in one of the most explosive parts of the world.

The two leading candidates in the US presidential race share several perceptions when it comes to the Middle East in general and the GCC countries in particular. "Hillary Clinton is far more focused and, should she win, will be a hands-on chief executive," said Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

The future president will have to find winning solutions to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and a new balance of power with other global players in the region - Russia and perhaps China - who look set to stay. Moreover, the new president will have to tread carefully between GCC States and Iran as well as Sunni-Shia rivalry. Finally, there is always the burning issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Experienced Clinton

Unlike Barack Obama, who, according to Kechichian, found the topic of Israeli-Palestinian issues either boring or beyond his capabilities, Hillary Clinton will have no difficulties in fully immersing herself in the process.

"As far as the GCC States are concerned, she will also be at ease, as she knows all of the leading actors and, Hillary Clinton knows that GCC States (the governments and people alike) - led by Saudi Arabia - are America's allies, not foes, as is often and mistakenly portrayed in various media outlets," he told The New Arab.

In a similar manner, Charles Dunne, a former diplomat with the US foreign service and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, thinks that if Clinton wins she will stick to the traditional US foreign policy approach toward the Middle East.

"[This includes] a measured approach to regional elections, bolstering support for longstanding relationships, strengthening Gulf relations, a hands-off approach toward human rights, and taking an activist approach toward Arab-Israeli peacemaking," he told The New Arab.

In many parts of the Arab world there is widely-felt disappointment about the performance of the current US president Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton is often described as hawkish in her approach to foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs and she has been seen by many as an interventionist who backed the ill-conceived US invasion of Iraq, which led to the establishment of al-Qaeda in the country and as a high-up who refused to acknowledge the disastrous consequences of US military intervention in Libya.

This is why some analysts of the region - outside the GCC - think that Trump is a lesser evil for the region than Clinton.

Although Trump has made strong anti-Muslim statements, they fear that Clinton's more hand's on approach to diplomacy in the region may lead to further instability and chaos.

But such a perception is quite the opposite from the one shared by regional elites and rulers, especially those from GCC who have close, personal relations with her.

In addition, Kechichian is convinced that no one else will be able to improve US ties with Gulf states.

"Unlike Trump, Clinton perceives GCC governments as partners in the fight against extremism, and is far less cynical than the New York mogul who looks at GCC investors as little more than cash-cows."

Unrealistic Trump

On the other hand, Trump is a great unknown and proving to be an unpredictable candidate with no foreign policy record. He has been a political outsider, whose direct and raw - but often vulgar and racist - rhetoric has brought him support from those dissatisfied with the political establishment, Kechichian says.

He believes that Trump will find Middle East issues overwhelming and might have little choice between placing them on the backburner or delegating various files to others.

"His interests seem limited to closing America's doors to Muslims, which is a solid recipe for disastrous ties, not to mention constitutionally questionable."

But beside this, Trump has also expressed disagreement with "traditional" US foreign policy approach towards the Middle East, although it is highly debatable what his stance on these issues would be once he ascended to the presidency.

[Trump's] interests seem limited to closing America's doors to Muslims, which is a solid recipe for disastrous ties, not to mention constitutionally questionable.
- Joseph A. Kechichian

Among the issues raised, Trump said he would stay neutral in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. But this was precisely what Washington did for decades - stay neutral during negotiations - even if Americans supported Israel on account of sympathies toward Jews which, and this is worth clarifying, were a twin-front phenomenon: the consequence of the Holocaust along with carefully nurtured social empathies.

Trump cannot erase such sympathies and since he seems to be openly anti-Muslim, the chances are that his administration might be neutral are pure fiction," Kechichian explained.

And in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, which he loudly criticised saying that it is a "bad deal," Dunne seriously doubts any other possibility in practice, especially if Trump is faced with a Democratic Congress.

"Trump, after all, is about the 'Art of the Deal', and may see moneymaking opportunities in moving forward with Iran. Does this sound cynical? Yes. For good reason," he said.

According to him, Trump will most likely declare solidarity with the region's authoritarians, as his recent remarks on Saddam Hussein, who he praised at being "good" at killing terrorists, indicated.

Certainly, Trump would seek closer relations with the Gulf Arabs, relations which President Obama has jeopardised through, among other things, indecision on Syria, which has helped a bad problem get much worse.

Syrian conundrum and sectarian divisions 

Indeed, war in Syria and facing the IS threat will be the hardest challenges and any future president will have to incorporate the growing importance of China and Russia in the region in reaching a solution for Syria.

According to Kechichian it is too soon to determine whether Clinton's policies will be different from those followed by the Obama Administration. Dunne would expect President Clinton to take a harder approach to military involvement, at least temperamentally.

And according to Kechichian , greater challenges will come from Turkey and Iran, two countries that aspire for leadership in the respective Sunni and Shia worlds, though at the end of the day, she might find it easier to deal with reliable GCC governments to defeat extremists and allow Syrians to end their civil war.

Finally, Western powers in general and the US in particular cannot and must not encourage Sunni-Shia clashes, which isolation and perpetual renegotiations will do, but ought to limit regional tensions to show their leadership mantles.

However, Dunne thinks that the Sunni-Shia sectarian clashes are not a major factor in US policymaking, which is still based on the nation state ideal of diplomacy and that it seems a lesser factor in foreign policy thinking.

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.