By Khaled Diab
America's decision to democratically elect a dictator has Middle Eastern reformers bewildered, but the region's despots are celebrating Donald Trump's victory – a sure sign of troubling times ahead.
Wednesday 25 January 2017
In the Middle East, where millions have risked their lives and livelihoods in the cause of freedom and democracy, it is truly baffling to watch a people squander their freedom, and to do so democratically. To paraphrase a popular English adage, America electing Donald Trump is like turkeys voting for Christmas.
Many Middle Easterners have watched the unlikely rise of Donald Trump from tycoon reality TV star to leader of what remains the world's most powerful nation with a mixture of dismay, bemusement, apprehension and even fear.
The country that made it its stated mission to export democracy, in words if not in deeds, to our part of the world has, instead, imported a brand of authoritarian leader with which we are all too familiar.
Moreover, if the unconfirmed allegations of Russian meddling in the elections prove founded, then Americans will face the novel situation of experiencing the kind of regime change their country has practised in our region for decades.
Whereas many Arabs may disdain America's foreign policies, they nevertheless envied and admired the apparent freedom those on American soil enjoyed. We, of course, had no idea that the feeling was mutual, and that Americans were envious of our lack of freedom. In fact, rather like al-Qaeda, they seem to have despised America's freedoms so much that they have decided to beat radical Islam to the chase and destroy their democracy with their own hands.
Of course, we understand all about self-serving politics, crony capitalism, economic stagnation and social immobility. But, really, how exactly is a self-centred, opportunist billionaire whose proposed economic policies would serve himself and the 1% the anti-establishment qualify as an anti-establishment “outsider” who will empower the regular Joe?
In addition, many in the Middle East are extremely alarmed by Trump's anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric, not to mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States, even if he has downplayed it since being elected.
However, there are some whom, despite all these troubling signs, are actually pleased that Trump won – not out of any love for Trump or his policies, but out of disillusionment with America's destructive track record in the Middle East and the global South, as it is called.
Among some, this has created an unhealthy level of vindictiveness. “Many of us feel that if America could not choose the best option, then it deserved the worst,” claimed one Arab blogger in a widely read article. “Also, there's a harsh desire for rough truth, rather than hypocritical garnish.”
Although I never expected Barack Obama to alter radically the American empire's modus operandi, and warned against the risks of wishful thinking before Obama was even elected, the notion that Donald Trump would deliver “rough truth” free of “hypocritical garnish” is naive in the extreme, at best, willfully self-deceptive, at worst.
Not only has Trump proven on countless opportunities to be a pathological liar of the first order, his ideological (if it can be called that) opportunism – such as his far-fetched claim that he is a devout Christian and that “nobody reads the Bible more than me” – has seen him swing erratically from one populist position to the next.
More importantly, values have an important value. Obama failing to live up to his espoused liberal and progressive values is one thing, a president who takes pride in tearing up what he denigrates as the “politically correct” handbook and replacing it with a fascist moral lexicon is something altogether different. The first can be constrained and held to account to some degree by his own words and ideas; the other's words and ideas empower him to abandon ethical oversight altogether.
Beyond values, there are those who have convinced themselves that, compared with his predecessors, Donald Trump will be the “non-interventionist” president. “Trump might be good news for millions of people in the Middle East and Africa who have endured for nearly a decade the roughest edges of Hillary's and Obama's ‘decency',” an Indian friend, with whom I have argued the point endlessly, is convinced.
But this confuses economic isolationism with military non-intervention. With his stated attitudes towards NAFTA, China and bringing American jobs home, Trump talks the talk on economic isolation, but even here, there are signs he will not walk the walk.
Although he has harshly criticised Clinton and Obama's war-mongering, while being silent about the real architects of this aggressive militarism (George W Bush and his administration), Trump has done some serious sabre-rattling – towards ISIS, Iran and even China.
In his foreign policy “vision”, Trump claims he will abandon the policies of “nation-building” and regime change. But delving into the details of his blueprint, this appears disingenuous, to say the least.
Trump vows to work with Arab allies (you know, those tyrants who oppress their people) to defeat ISIS through “aggressive joint and coalition military operations”. No mention is made of Bashar al-Assad, the original author of Syria's destruction, with whom Trump has repeatedly indicated his administration could work because he is “much tougher and much smarter” than American leaders.
For a man who is supposedly non-interventionist, Trump certainly likes his toys. In his vision, the new president pledges to “rebuild our depleted military… enhance and improve intelligence and cyber capabilities”. In a country which already spends more than $1.6 trillion dollars a year on its army, Trump wants to ratchet up military spending.
With all these shiny new weapons; with his erratic, machine-gun approach; with his tough guy persona and fragile ego, all it requires is a domestic crisis or a foreign government or radical group to challenge or insult him for Trump to go off the rails and on the war path.
Even if he starts no new wars, he is likely to continue and escalate current ones, and to pursue a hostile, aggressive policy towards Tehran that could easily spin out of control. Also, as his presidency goes pear-shaped, as it almost certainly will, Trump will need a distraction – and there is nothing like a foreign war (so easy to start for American leaders) to whip dissidents into line and shut down dissent.
In addition, being a “strongman” and an authoritarian leader himself, constrained only by America's checks and balances, Trump is instinctively drawn to the region's dictators. Trumps presidency is likely to embolden the Middle East's despots and that is why, with the exception of the mullahs in Tehran, they have been in celebratory mood.
Egypt's Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi courted Candidate Trump and when Trump won, the Egyptian president, according to Egyptian media reports, was the first foreign leader to call and congratulate him. Troublingly, the two strongmen see eye-to-eye on many issues. Bashar al-Assad has said that Trump's focus on ISIS would make him a “natural ally” to Damascus.
Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has declared war on the media in his own country, has praised Trump's attitude to the press and said “we will reach a consensus with Mr Trump, particularly on regional issues”.
In Israel, despite the anti-Semitism of many in Trump's cabinet and support base, Binyamin Netanyahu and the settler movement are overjoyed that Trump supports the settlement movement and that he has vowed to move the US embassy to Jerusalem – which has set off alarm bells in Palestine and Jordan.
With a rogues' fan club like this, Trump's presidency promises to be a nightmare for the Middle East.
However, some are holding out hope that Trump's bromance with Vladimir Putin will end the destructive rivalry between the two powers in the Middle East and guide them towards forging joined solutions.
Again, I feel such hopes are likely misguided, as both men are obsessed with rebuilding their countries' perceived lost glory and to pursue their national interests robustly.
If Trump and Putin manage to co-operate and to do so consistently, this is not necessarily a good thing for the Middle East, as it could well result in the 21st-century equivalent of the Sykes-Picot carve-up, but this time between Russia and America.
If the two narcissists fall out, as they are likely to do once they actually interact, because the world, let alone the Middle East, is not big enough to contain both their egos, then that is also bad news for the Middle East. In fact, with both the Russian and American armies' involved in Syria, future disputes between Putin and Trump could have potentially dire global consequences.
Although it is ultimately impossible to foretell the future under Trump, the signs seem to point to the likelihood that the Middle East will lose a great deal with “The Donald” at the helm in Washington.
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This article first appeared on German in Die Zeit on 22 January 2017.