As with everything else, Trump has spared nothing when it comes to detailing his approach to the Middle East. He has promised much. At the press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he went beyond a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord to predict “…a much bigger deal, a much more important deal, in a sense. It would take many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory.” He has promised to lead the fight with the support of the GCC to eradicate ISIL and all those he has labeled ‘Islamists.’ After a telephone conversation with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, a White House press release stated that the two leaders “discussed an invitation from the King for President Trump to lead a Middle East effort to defeat terrorism and to help build a new future.” President Trump has stated that he will create safe zones in Syria and Yemen and he will get the Persian Gulf countries of the GCC to pay for it. He then went on to insult them by adding “because they have nothing but money.” He has promised to defend Saudi Arabia against Iran if the Saudis pay for it. “Well, I would want to help Saudi Arabia. I would want to protect Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is going to have to help us economically. They were making, before the oil went down, now they’re making half, but they were making a billion dollars a day.” He added that such action against Iran would depend “on what the deal is.” He has put Iran on notice and told Iranian leaders that they are playing with fire. And he has gone out of his way to demonize Islam and applaud al-Sisi, the most oppressive dictator in the Middle East. Is this a coherent strategy? Will it succeed?
His contradictory rants about the region assumes that Middle Easterners and Muslims are all stupid, have no day-to-day memories of what has been said, have no pride or dignity and that they are only looking to the White House for orders for what to do next! To make the point, let’s focus on just a few connected pronouncements.
President Trump has business interests in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which include real estate projects in Saudi Arabia and a licensing and management contract for a golf course and luxury villas in the UAE (Dubai). If Trump is true to his past, we assume that he wants to grow these interests while President and even more so when he is out of office. So what has he been saying about these relations? He apparently likes Saudis: “Saudi Arabia—and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me.” “They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.” He is prepared to defend them (and we assume defend his business interests especially in the future if he ‘saves’ them while he is president). “They [Iran] are looking to go into Saudi Arabia…They want the oil, they want the money …they want a lot of other things…That’s phase one—to go into Saudi Arabia and, frankly, the Saudis don’t survive without us. And the question is, at what point do we get involved and how much will Saudi Arabia pay us to save them? That’s ultimately what’s going to happen.” In fact, President Trump has offered to defend Saudi Arabia in any regional conflict. “Well, I would want to help Saudi Arabia…I would want to protect Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is going to have to help us economically. They were making, before the oil went down ... they were making $1 billion a day.” President Trump’s position is crystal clear. Saudi Arabia cannot defend itself but can pay the US for its defense. America will defend you as long as you pay. It all depends on the “deal.” Don’t worry, Saudi friends; we won’t even gently mention your shortcomings that confront many American values. No human rights issues. No religious freedom issues. No matter what crimes you support in Bahrain, crimes that most classify as crimes against humanity. No matter how many civilians you kill in Yemen. No matter how much you support extremists and terrorists who pose an existential threat to many societies and countries, including ours. Just pay and we will be there. Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia will further encourage Saudi branding of America as mercenary, a country with no principles but always available to the oppressor as long as they pay. It is precisely such an image that attracts terrorist recruits.
President Trump’s love for Persian Gulf Arabs goes beyond Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He loves Kuwait too. In 2011, “If you look at these nations, they wouldn’t be there except for us, you take a look at Kuwait. I mean, we handed Kuwait back to the people that right now essentially own Kuwait, because it’s really ownership more than anything else…We handed it back… They never paid us [for ousting Saddam Hussein].” We should at least correct President Trump’s inaccuracy here—the Kuwaitis and the Saudis in fact overpaid the US for this operation! And we should add that after the liberation of Kuwait US companies received a number of lucrative contracts (in some cases, contracts that were signed even before the start of the war).
Yes, some [Persian] Gulf Arabs already looked at the US as a mercenary, but now the President is actually broadcasting that America has guns for hire. He has handed all those opposed to America many sound bites they can use for recruiting terrorists and he has eroded America’s appeal and credibility to the millions who live under oppression in the Middle East.
The President has also embraced other Arab dictators outside the Persian Gulf. He has a special affection for the most oppressive dictator in the Middle East—President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt. Republican Presidential Nominee Trump met him in September at the time of the UN General Assembly. Trump advertised their ‘chemistry,’ and said, “I thought it was very productive. He’s a fantastic guy… I thought it was a great meeting. We met for a long time, actually. There was a good chemistry there. You know when you have good chemistry with people. There was a good feeling between us.” Trump has gone on to even applaud how al-Sisi executed the military coup that removed Egypt’s first civilian president from power, a bloody coup where more than a thousand protestors were killed. “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.” Trump has expressed confidence and “strong support for Egypt’s war on terrorism, and how under a Trump administration, the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally that Egypt can count on in the days and years ahead.” What’s more, the Trump administration is apparently considering a request made by President al-Sisi and King Salman of Saudi Arabia to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization simply because the Brotherhood wants the installation of democratic Muslim governments, something that al-Sisi and his Persian Gulf supporters fear. Most Muslims would not agree with this initiative and would interpret it as yet another indication of Islamophobiac policies. What does all this convey to the Middle East and to the broader Muslim World about US values and policies?
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is believed to have said that “Somoza [the Nicaraguan dictator] may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Well, it would appear that nothing much has changed! US talk about freedom, democratic values and human rights are just that—talk. The negative fallouts of supporting America’s dictators mattered less 80 years ago. There was no ISIS, Al-Qaeda or similar terrorist organizations hell bent on kicking the US out of the Middle East and other Muslim countries. There was no internet and 24-hour instant news in the world. We live in a different world!
These terrorist organizations have been born and nurtured because of oppressive and corrupt rule and economic and social stagnation in the Muslim countries of the Middle East. Terrorists have filled a vacuum to oppose Muslim dictators by promising a return to the past, a time when Muslim societies flourished. Unfortunately, most Muslims have not studied and discussed the meaning of the Quran to see how Islamic teachings apply in today’s world and don’t realize that extremists are opportunist charlatans who are using religion to replace one set of dictators with themselves, something that will drive Muslim communities further down the abyss.
The US and its allies have been caught in the Middle of this struggle simply because of their past and continuing selfish support of oppressive dictators while espousing freedom and human rights. Recently, this support has even turned into in-your-face praise for the likes of General al-Sisi. Victories on the battlefield in Mosul and elsewhere will not extinguish extremism and terrorism. Terrorists will continue their murderous rampage in other places and will get even more recruits with the passage of time.
To defeat terrorism and extremism, the Muslim World needs peaceful reform. Peaceful reform begins with a timetable for Muslim dictators to relinquish power in favor of representative governance. In Islam, God’s greatest gift to humanity is freedom, something that no one can take away. Muslims countries must then establish the institutions that are the foundations of flourishing societies—institutions that are similar to those recommended by Adam Smith but with an even higher dose of justice and morality. This will take much time. The US can help and support such a peaceful reformation and transformation in the Muslim World in the context of Islam, or it can continue to selfishly support oppressors, denigrate Islam and face increasing terrorism and eventually be a partner to unimaginable violence.
The article was first published here.