Trump's 100 days: Consistent militarism under a chaotic veneer

Trump's 100 days: Consistent militarism under a chaotic veneer
Comment: As Arab leaders have sought to cosy up to Trump in his first 100 days, citizens of the region have significantly less reason to be positive, writes Rami Khouri.
6 min read
25 Apr, 2017
On many of the region's main issues, discerning a clear policy has been impossible [AFP]

United States President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office will have been a roller-coaster ride for many Americans trying to decipher his unusual behaviour on various domestic and international issues. His approval ratings have already hit a record low for a new president, currently registering at just 40 percent.

To many Americans who are not sure what he might do next, Trump is a constantly evolving enigma on domestic issues. In the Middle East, however, his erratic foreign policy statements and actions actually disguise a deep-rooted continuity in key policies, including a heavy focus on military power.

Most leaders and many elites in the Middle East welcome his record so far, but public opinion mostly fears it. This is because the long-standing American policies he perpetuates portend more trouble, warfare, and suffering for most Arabs, given the legacy of four core US policies in the region:

1) a heavy reliance on militarism, now more dramatic and boastful than ever, 2) strong and continuous support for autocratic regimes, regardless of their human rights abuses, national mismanagement, or reckless regional war-making in Yemen and Syria, 3) consistently bending to Israeli positions rather than being even-handed in mediating a just Arab-Israeli peace, and 4) ignoring all of the underlying Arab domestic dysfunctions that have caused sustained misery for several hundred million Arabs and fragmented the region in recent decades.

These include corruption-linked ravages in education, labour, social protection, environment, transport and health care sectors.

Above and beyond this, some of his domestic and foreign policies have come together to generate new concerns in the Arab-Islamic world. These include his temporary travel ban on visitors from some Muslim-majority countries, a policy that condones or even promotes Islamophobic behaviour, allowing his generals to bomb more targets that often result in dozens of civilians killed.

Noteworthy to date has been the lack of substantive progress on practical political goals beyond the realm of executive decrees

His Iran policy also elicits confusion, as he affirms Tehran's compliance with the nuclear agreement, while constantly pressuring or threatening the country for its regional policies that Washington sees as dangerous and promoting "terrorism".

Many in the region view his designation of his inexperienced son-in-law Jared Kushner to oversee Arab-Israeli peace-making as both an insult and a sign of lack of seriousness.  

Any assessment of Trump's performance on Middle East issues must account for two other important realities.

First, on almost every major issue in the region - Iran, Syria, Palestine-Israel, Jerusalem, Yemen and others - his policy decisions, actions on the ground, official statements, and frequent tweets have often changed or contradicted themselves, making it impossible to discern a single, clear Trump approach to the region.

  Read more: Sisi and Trump: Brotherhood on the agenda

Yet his consistent actions on the ground - mostly applying assorted military power - suggest a uniform approach that polarises the Middle East as it does his own country.    

Second, people in the Middle East react very differently to Trump than American citizens. Public opinion on his performance in the US is divided along ideological lines; Arab divisions lie more between ordinary citizens who stand to suffer more from the impact of US policies, and leaders and their allied power elites, who more often welcome the new American president.

While, most Arabs worry about the Trump presidency; most Arab elites work overtime to get close to it.

The past month in particular has clarified Trump's preference for close ties with autocratic Middle Eastern governments, with an emphasis on military relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others.

The policies of these governments are one of the main reasons the Arab world has sunk into deep divisions at home during the past 40 years, following an initial half-century of rapid national development across the region.

Trump will support Arab leaders who share his views, regardless of their troubled corruption-riddled and closed political systems

Trump's message seems to be that his tough-guy projection of American military power to fight Islamic State (IS) is his top priority. He will support Arab leaders who share his views, regardless of their troubled economic performances, corruption-riddled and closed political systems, cruel use of violence, and dilapidated labour and education sectors.

The problem with this approach for the majority of today's 400 million Arabs, is that it gets the cause-and-effect relationship between "terrorism" and governance completely wrong.

Trump in this respect continues the American modern legacy of supporting Arab and other autocrats in the expectation that this will defeat IS and achieve stability.

Yet the history of the past 30 years of fighting Al-Qaeda - the organisation that spawned IS - suggests that American and Arab governments live in a make-believe world. Intense and sustained military attacks against Al-Qaeda since 1988 have only seen it grow and achieve its greatest global reach this year; and the same certainly applies to military action as the preferred strategy to defeating IS.

One more Egyptian general-turned-president, like President Abdel Fattah Sisi, will only exacerbate this debilitating cycle

The deeper, more awkward, reality is that the combination of American militarism and Arab autocracy has resulted in economic, political, and emotional conditions across the Arab-Asian region that create new fertile grounds for Al-Qaeda, IS and others like them to grow.

So today, ordinary Arab citizens worry when they assess what appears to emerge as Trump's actual policy on the ground: Disregard for the well-being of hundreds of millions of ordinary Arab men and women, and instead intensified military action by ex-generals he has appointed to senior political positions.

Trump and Arab-Asian leaders seem to ignore that these same generals failed miserably for over a quarter of a century to deal with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, IS, and other such dangerous groups.

  Read more: Trump 'driving force' behind patch up of Saudi-Egypt rift

Similarly, Trump seems to ignore the fact that non-stop military rule in Egypt since 1952 (with a one-year interlude in 2012-13) is the problem at the core of Egypt's mounting troubles; one more Egyptian general-turned-president, like President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will only exacerbate this debilitating cycle of mediocrity, inefficiency and stagnation.

At home and abroad, the Trump administration has emphasised projecting power and a strong personality, which appeal to its limited base of loyal supporters.

Noteworthy to date has been the lack of substantive progress on practical political goals beyond the realm of executive decrees - and even some of those, on immigration and science, have been met with massive public protest rallies, congressional resistance and repeated court injunctions.

Until Trump starts to chart a clear and rational policy agenda that reflects a political consensus at home or with his allies abroad, his administration will continue to elicit a sad combination of perplexity, scorn and fear.


Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and an internationally syndicated columnist.

Follow him on Twitter: @RamiKhouri

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.