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Arab violence, volatility, and vulnerability in the era of Trump

Jan 11,2018 - Last updated at Jan 11,2018

Of the many fascinating reports in Michael Wolff’s "Fire and Fury" book on the Donald Trump White House, perhaps most troubling for Americans and for the world were the new insights into how the United States today shapes its Middle East policies. After spending the last three months in the US and interacting with numerous people and organisations that deal with Mideast issues, I see several problem categories in Trump’s Mideast actions.

The key ones are: the adolescent and personalised nature of how pivotal officials engage with Middle Eastern leaders, based on personal chemistry more than studied national strategic realities; Washington’s working to change Arab leaderships like trading Monopoly properties; the massive sway that extremist, pro-ultranationalist Zionist American donors have in the White House; the disdain that Trump and his associates seem to feel for Arab leaders and countries; the exaggerated and dominant fears of Iran that shape US policies; and, the presumptuous, mostly ignorance-based and unilateral decisions on critical issues such as the status of Jerusalem.

The quotes in the book are not a comprehensive overview of US policy making in the region or the world, to be sure, but the consistency and tone of the sentiments expressed by White House officials — especially former chief strategist and American White-ultranationalist Steve Bannon — reflect a manner of decision making in the most powerful office in the world that should frighten us all. 

The bottom line for me is that major decisions on existential issues that impact the lives of 600 million people in the wider Middle East are being made largely on the basis of policy preferences among the Israeli and Saudi Arabian leaderships, and intermediated by mostly ignorant, and often very young and inexperienced American officials like Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The revelation that President Trump’s White House last year managed Middle Eastern issues mainly through the Israeli, Saudi Arabian and Egyptian leaderships, with an overarching desire to push back Iranian influence in the region, helps explain why the United States finds itself in confusing situations across the Middle East. It has mainly crisis-managed relations through the lens of security and militarism, and often with mixed successes.

The main problem with the Israeli-Saudi-Egyptian combine as Washington’s preferred entry point into the Middle East is that these four countries’ leaders appear to be totally blind to the conditions, rights, sentiments, and aspirations of the 400 million people in Arab countries, and the other 200 million Middle Easterners in surrounding states. These four states’ steadfast attempts to maintain “security and stability” by using massive military and police force — alongside stringent limits on citizen political, social, and economic rights — has achieved exactly the opposite of what was desired.

Never before has the Arab region been so fractured, violent, volatile, and vulnerable to the whims of desperate citizens, powerful autocrats, renegade militants, durable terrorists, and predatory foreign militaries. And for good measure, Iran’s influence in the region continues to expand in places, as does that of Turkey and Russia, making a mockery of the American approach to Middle Eastern issues. US-backed Israeli, Saudi Arabian and Egyptian policies in the region are among the leading causes of the tensions and conflicts that plague us all, but they are not solely to blame, due to many other problematic policies by Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Russian, British, and other countries.

Last month’s decision by Washington to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital captures in one fell swoop everything that is wrong and destructive about the Trump approach. It ignores existing international law and UN resolutions that reflect a powerful global consensus; it totally dismisses the sentiments of the hundreds of millions of Muslims and Christians in the Middle East who see Arab East Jerusalem as the rightful capital of a future Palestinian state living alongside Israel; and, it makes this decision unilaterally, and mainly on the basis of domestic political commitments to right-wing pro-Zionist lobbies and political donors like Sheldon Adelson, who has pushed hard for this move.

I thought the most striking revelation in the book was the quote by Steve Bannon that Jordan should take control of the West Bank and Egypt of the Gaza Strip, saying the US should “let them deal with it — or sink trying”.

Such disdain towards two long-standing Arab allies of the US like Jordan and Egypt should be a red flag to all leaders in the region who might want to rely on the US as a consistent partner. It is more apparent now that the Trump governance system in the US is likely to please pro-Israeli American political donors more than it would consider the interests of its other friends and allies, or the dictates of international law and UN resolutions. This is a sure recipe for greater strife and suffering in the Middle East, which can only spread dangerously to other parts of the world.


It should also be a warning sign to Arab leaders that they should wake up and figure out how to regain and exercise their own sovereignty, in order to ensure the well-being of their own citizens. Otherwise, they will wake up one day and realise that they have become little more than properties on a Monopoly board that adolescent airheads in the White House buy, sell, and discard at the whim of wild men in the US waving campaign donation checks.

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