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Donald Trump's Middle East challenges
03:06 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was a Middle East negotiator in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Richard Sokolsky is a senior associate in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program. The opinions in this article belong to the authors.

Story highlights

Trump's vision of America's role in the Middle East does not appear to include spreading democracy and human rights

Borrowing a page from the Nixon playbook, Trump seems to be edging toward a less interventionist approach

CNN  — 

All presidents, Jonathan Alter has written, are blind dates. And since there’s no school for training chief executives, you never know exactly what you’re going to get.

In Donald Trump’s case, the problem is particularly acute on foreign policy. And nowhere are the uncertainties seemingly greater than what he has said (or not) about what he plans to do in the Middle East. A collection of Mr. Trump’s views on the Middle East – really more a set of proclivities and inclinations – highlight five core elements in his approach.

Working with Vlad the Bad

Clearly, establishing better relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia appears to be central to Mr. Trump’s notions of managing the messy Middle East. Not only does he seem to admire Mr. Putin’s strength and authority, proving that he can really reset the relationship with Moscow will draw sharp contrast to the failures of his predecessor. And to hear Mr. Trump tell it, working with Moscow to destroy any number of jihadi groups in Syria is a much better strategy than either piece the Obama administration has followed: backing rebel groups or trying to get rid of the Assad regime.

In Mr. Trump’s mind, cooperating with Putin – a real leader of a real state – will obviate the need for deeper US engagement in the region. And creating safe zones (Mr. Trump has said nothing about who would protect them) would obviate, too, the press of refugees coming to Europe and America. Indeed, working with Putin essentially would allow the US to both kill terrorists and prevent their coming to America.

Reassure allies and ignore their bad behavior

During the Obama years, relations with America’s three most important Middle East partners have been badly strained. Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to mind much when it comes to Saudi Arabia and has threatened to halt oil shipments if Riyadh doesn’t contribute more to the fight against terror.

He does, however, care about Israel and has already invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to town at the “first opportunity.” And while there may be tensions down the road, relations with Netanyahu will improve. Indeed, given Mr. Trump’s aversion to interceding into a country’s internal affairs and his aversion to the Iran deal, ties with these three are likely to get better. Mr. Trump’s advisers have already indicated that Israeli settlements are not an obstacle to peace. His aversion to the Iran deal may ease some of the tensions with Saudi Arabia. And more than likely, Mr. Trump will not push human rights or political reform with Egypt.

Nation building, like charity, begins at home

During the campaign, Mr. Trump declared that he wants to do nation building at home and would bring the era of nation building abroad to a swift and decisive end. He said it failed in Iraq at a cost of trillions and destabilized the Middle East. But Mr. Trump also blamed Obama for withdrawing from Iraq too quickly, leaving a vacuum for ISIS to fill.

Mr. Trump’s allergy to nation building could get an early test with the defeat of ISIS in Mosul and the companion operation: what happens after ISIS is pushed out of Raqqa? Preventing it from re-booting elsewhere in Iraq will require three huge enterprises: post-conflict reconstruction, establishing greater security, and providing better governance. Only the Iraqis can do this job. But they will need a big hand from us. As he searches for an appropriate role for the US, he would be wise to remember that it should not try to do too much, because this is Iraq’s peace to lose – we are there to help and not win it for them, and we suck, big league, at nation building.

The DIY approach

President-elect Donald Trump delivers his acceptance speech at his election night event in New York City on Wednesday, November 9. "Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential," the Republican said in his victory speech. "The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer."
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Like Richard Nixon in the doctrine bearing his name, Mr. Trump has said that America’s allies and friends should take greater responsibility for their own security. He shouldn’t have the same beef with our rich Arab allies as he has with our treaty allies in Europe and Asia – the wealthy Arabs spend plenty in cold hard cash to defend themselves, but they have had difficulty kicking the habit of asking Washington to fight their battles (see Syria and Yemen).

Borrowing a page from the Nixon playbook, Mr. Trump seems to be edging toward a less interventionist approach to maintaining regional stability; and reminiscent of Nixon, the foreign policy über realist, he seems to favor greater restraint in the exercise of American military power when it doesn’t serve vital US security interests. Perhaps Mr. Trump will, therefore, force our Arab friends to go cold turkey when they want us to act as their regional proxies in their blood feud with Iran. For a president who seems intent on ending America’s role as the policeman of the Middle East – of retrenching without totally disengaging, as Nixon did after Vietnam – the DIY approach should resonate in his own echo chamber.

Putting the democracy and human rights promotion complex out of business

Mr. Trump’s vision of America’s role in the Middle East does not appear to include a commitment to spreading democracy and human rights. During the campaign, he pined for the days of strongman dictators who were able to preserve stability and order. He scoffed at spending money in the Middle East unless it was directly related to US national security.

Consistent with these views, he is likely to slash US funding to improve democracy and governance in the region. This will have little practical import. Democracy and governance assistance has been ineffective in most Middle East countries, especially Egypt, where it has also provoked serious strains in US-Egyptian relations.

America’s authoritarian friends in the Persian Gulf see democracy as an existential threat; they have no use for more American sermons on the virtues of democracy. Mr. Trump has shown little regard for promoting the rights of women, minorities, or marginalized groups in the United States; it is unlikely that he would show greater support for these groups abroad. More than likely both the Egyptians and Saudi government will welcome his aversion to pushing internal reforms.

What all this seems to add up to is a muscular, nationalist, neo-isolationist view of the world that eschews foreign encumbrances and entanglements. Whether a President Trump hews to all or some of them – in the face of the realities of governing – remains to be seen.