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Why the Upcoming US Elections are Ominous for Middle East Relations

Robert Springborg By Robert Springborg Published on May 31, 2016
This article was updated on September 14, 2017
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Now entering the final six months of his presidency and seeking to bolster his legacy, Barack Obama is intensifying his global victory laps, such as in Cuba, Vietnam, and Japan, where he seeks to be associated with diplomatic breakthroughs, historical reconciliations or other markers of foreign policy success. Notable in its absence from his itinerary is the Middle East. With no victories to celebrate in a region that is in yet worse shape and at least as hostile to the US as in 2009 when his first term commenced, President Obama is giving the Middle East a wide berth. Many key destinations there are in any case either too dangerous for him to visit, too unwelcoming, or are ruled by regimes any association with which would tarnish, not burnish his legacy.

On the face of it then, the upcoming US election offers hope for improvement in American relations with the Middle East, if only because they have reached such a low ebb under Obama. Alas, bad as things are, the prospects are that under any likely successor to Obama they will worsen. Only the least likely successor, Bernie Sanders, seems to offer hope for the better, if indeed his campaign promises can be trusted. Key of them is for the US to be less beholden to Israel and less militaristic. Since Obama promised the same but did not deliver on either, skepticism is warranted. In any case Sanders is almost certainly not going to be put to the test, so unlike Obama, there is little if any chance that his words will be proven to have been hollow. But they can serve as benchmarks by which the more probable victors can be evaluated.

The most probable, of course, is Hillary Clinton, who unlike Sanders or Trump does have a track record on US policy toward the Middle East so both her words and actions can be evaluated. Neither, unfortunately, are encouraging. Her public utterances remain consistently strongly supportive of Israel, despite its steady drift to the right throughout the eight years of the Obama presidency, during which it received more military assistance than under any previous president. Presumably her supportive words reflect her personal commitments, although like her husband, her political personae is so Teflon-coated it is impossible to know what, if any beliefs, lie underneath.

Undoubtedly though, her consistent, ardent support for Israel reflects her political interests, grounded as they are, as for any successful US politician, in fund raising. Her key backers, as indicated by the magnitude of their contributions to her campaign, to the Clinton Foundation and, when she was Secretary of State, to the Patrons of Diplomacy endowment that financed upgrades of that Department’s facilities, including her office, are overwhelmingly Jewish supporters of Israel. Lest there be any doubts in their minds about her pro-Israel stance going forward, she has closely identified herself with two think tanks that have recently produced reports with recommendations for improving US policy toward the Middle East. The Center for a New American Security, co-founded by Michelle Flournoy and Kurt Campbell, the former thought likely to be Clinton’s choice for Secretary of Defense and the latter Secretary of State, issued a report co-authored by two committed Zionists, Robert Kagan and James Rubin, stating that any new administration must “make absolutely clear that the U.S. commitment to the security of the State of Israel is unshakeable now and in the future.” A parallel report authored by Kenneth Pollack for the Atlantic Council under the under the guidance of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy advisor Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley, the hawkish pro-Israeli closely associated with the neo-cons under President Bush, similarly called for a muscular approach to the region, implicitly anchored in the strong Israeli-U.S. military relationship. So Hillary’s pro-Israeli principal donors need have no fears that her pledges of commitment to Israel, reinforced by an assertive, militaristic approach to the region and indeed, world in general, would be abandoned were she to become president.

As for her track record regarding the Middle East, it should also provide comfort to those who favor a strong American security umbrella over Israel and other regional states that have come to terms with it and are under the tutelage of republican or monarchical dictators. When serving as Secretary of State she rejected a recommendation put forward in 2010 that the Department engage in a joint intelligence assessment of potential instability in Egypt, apparently arguing to her subordinates that she knew the Mubaraks and Egypt well and saw no need to question their capacities or the country’s stability. Within months the country was in turmoil, raising serious questions about her professionalism. By the early spring of 2011 the U.S. faced the choice of what to do in response to the military’s attempt to reassert its power under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Her ambassador in Cairo and the mission director of the United States Agency for International Development recommended doubling down on support to NGOs to better enable them to contribute more effectively to a democratic transition. The latter announced a $65 million dollar package of assistance to them in April. Within hours the SCAF objected to Washington. Clinton’s response was to recall the mission director within 48 hours, apparently buying his silence by having him awarded a professorship at the National Defense University. Clearly she preferred military rule to taking any chances with democracy in Egypt. It is worth noting that this preference is characteristic of her approach to the world more broadly, as manifested by her and the Clinton Foundation’s fulsome support for Paul Kagame, the ever-more dictatorial president of Rwanda now entering his 17th year in office.

The Benghazi debacle also reflects her strategic thinking toward the Arab world, which she apparently deems not to be ready for democracy. As Secretary of State she established a unit in her Department charged with better understanding and reaching out to moderate Islamists, apparently to bolster them as a “firewall” against their more radical ideological brethren. As in post-Mubarak Egypt, she tilted U.S. policy in post-Qadafi Libya away from secularists toward Islamists. After the secularists won the initial election no major U.S. support was forthcoming for the government they had established. Indeed, quite the contrary, as the U.S. turned a blind eye to the arms shipments Qatar was sending to Libyan Islamists, who then turned their weapons on those secularists. Clinton’s strategic blunder was paralleled by the tactical one of ordering the U.S. Ambassador to rely on Islamist militias for his security in Benghazi, which essentially condemned him to death as that very militia killed him. So as Secretary of State she contributed not just to the death of one of her country’s finest diplomats, but also to the failure of the Arab spring to develop into democratic governance.

But bad as she has been for the Middle East in the past and is likely to be were she to become president, Donald Trump would likely be still worse. Paradoxically, his pronouncements on foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular are closer to those of Sanders than to Clinton’s, especially as regards Israel. This is the chief reason why the neocon guru, William Kristol, is seeking to consolidate support of that discredited movement behind a third party candidate, thereby splitting the conservative vote and depriving Trump of victory.

Since Trump is almost wholly an ego rather than policy-driven candidate it is very difficult to predict what he might do as president. But what can be predicted with near certainty is that he will make an ideal target for jihadis. His anti-Muslim rhetoric provides them a heaven-sent opportunity to stoke the putative clash of civilizations that serves as their major motor force. So one can anticipate a variety of anti-U.S. provocations, including, of course, terrorist attacks. Since politicians from Obama to François Holland have been unable to resist militarized responses to terrorism, Trump could certainly not be expected to. And so the spiral of rhetoric and violence would accelerate, dragging the U.S. ever further into the fray and undermining the region’s already precarious economic and political status.

There is, in sum, only one possibly decent outcome for the Middle East in the U.S. election, which would be a Sanders victory. But that is nigh on to impossible, so the region is going to be served up either a neocon Democrat or what likely would be a neocon-in-the-making. Like the original neocon president, George Bush, the new one would continue the protracted downhill slide of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.


Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London; Visiting Professor, Sciences Po, Paris; and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute ... Show More

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