Trump Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Obama's Muddle Plus Torture and a Gitmo Renaissance

by Michael Dorf

President-elect Trump's selection of Michael Flynn for National Security Director and his plan to nominate Jeff Sessions for Attorney General and Mike Pompeo for CIA Director make it likely that, so far as domestic security policy is concerned, the Trump administration will be every bit as anti-Muslim, anti-civil rights, and anti-undocumented immigrant as his campaign was. Yet the actual conduct of foreign policy overseas might not change much, even with these hardliners in place.

For one thing, it remains possible that Trump might name more pragmatic characters to other key positions, such as Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State. Moreover, even if Trump finds a few more likeminded hardliners for the top spots, the important under-secretary and deputy positions could go to more traditional Republicans. Trump campaigned in the primaries and in the general by running against the policies pursued by (the second) President Bush, but there may not be enough people who share Trump's views and also have the relevant foreign policy and military skills to fully staff a minimally competent administration.

To be sure, some of the differences probably won't matter. VP-elect Pence and the vast majority of Republicans available for a Trump administration favored the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Trump claimed during the campaign that despite his support for the war in a January 2003 appearance on the Howard Stern show, he actually opposed the war. The claim is unverifiable but also at this point largely irrelevant. A president has some powerful tools at his disposal, but a time machine is not among them. Many people who favored the Iraq invasion or who at least favored authorizing President Bush to invade because they thought he would use that authorization as leverage now recognize that the war was a colossal blunder. The relevant question is how to move forward. The fact that some people working in an administration took one view on a past policy question and others took a different view does not in itself preclude them from working together on new questions.

However, past support for the Iraq war is not the only division likely to surface. Policy towards Russia is an important current area of disagreement between Trump and much of the Republican Party. With the exception of the small Rand Paul wing of the GOP, most Republicans are probably closer to the position staked out by Hillary Clinton during the campaign, which basically goes like this: Vladimir Putin is an autocrat at home who perpetrates gross human rights violations abroad (most prominently in Ukraine and Syria); there can be some limited cooperation with the Putin government on areas of common interest, but overall the U.S. and its allies should pursue a policy of containment.

Trump's view seems to be something more like what has traditionally been called "realist" foreign policy, viewing Putin as someone whose war crimes are simply not our concern, so long as they do not directly impinge on our national interests, narrowly defined. I put "realist" in scare quotes to reflect the fact that the alternative in this context is not exactly "idealist" in the sense in which that term is usually opposed to foreign policy realism. The bipartisan consensus that Trump opposes is not exactly rooted in a concern for human rights or spreading democracy per se (in the way that, respectively, Jimmy Carter's and George W. Bush's foreign policy idealism were); the bipartisan consensus is also a kind of realism, albeit taking a different view of Putin's goals and intentions, as well as how best to respond to them.

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that all of the people Trump appoints to carry out foreign policy share or at least try to pursue his views about Russia. There will still be contradictions because of the complexity of the world situation, especially in the Middle East. And that's not even counting the complexity introduced by the potential for conflict between Trump's business empire and the national interest.

Consider soon-to-be National Security Advisor Flynn's view that the overriding concern of U.S. policy ought to be winning what he regards as the ongoing "world war" with Islamist militants. What does that mean in practice? Partly it leads to rapprochement with Russia, which shares an interest in combating ISIS, especially in Syria but elsewhere as well. Greater cooperation--indeed, even greater efforts to avoid confrontation--with Russia probably means softening or even eliminating support for the Free Syrian Army and other non-ISIS forces now battling the Assad regime.

However, there's still an important tension: A tilt away from opposition to Assad is in practice a tilt towards Assad, which means aiding, even if unintentionally, Assad's Iranian benefactors. Yet Trump and Flynn have also made implacable opposition to Iran another plank in their Middle East policy. As a practical matter, warming relations with Russia with respect to Syria mean aiding Iran. Rapprochement with Russia and isolation of Iran are contradictory goals.

Can these goals be reconciled? One strong possibility is that Trump, Flynn, and the rest of the incoming hardline team are simply Islamophobes who have not thought through the contradictions that are seemingly inherent in their position. However, for the sake of argument, let's give them the benefit of the doubt. How one might try to rationalize the Trump/Flynn approach?

The best that might be said is that the U.S. should oppose militant Islamists, regardless of whether they are Sunni (like ISIS and al Q'aeda) or Shia (like Iran and its Assad-aligned Hezbollah proxies). Yet while that's a coherent approach in theory, it can't really be executed effectively in the current context of a Sunni-versus-Shia civil war in Syria, Yemen, parts of Iraq, and the broader region. For example, Assad and the Russians are not Islamists, but aiding their cause in Syria means aiding the Iranian Islamists.

To be fair, the internal tension in what will likely be the new administration's policy is not a problem created by Trump. It's a problem created by the fact that, with two exceptions I'll discuss shortly, none of the actors with any real power in the current Middle East are closely aligned with American interests, much less values. The main actors that either do not share US values and interests or do so only occasionally are:

Sunni Islamist non-state actors like ISIS, al Nusra, and al Q'aeda
Sunni Islamist states like Saudi Arabia
Shia Islamist non-state actors like Hezbollah
Shia Islamist states like Iran and, increasingly, Iraq
Secular dictators like al-Sisi in Egypt and Assad in Syria

In the heady days of the Arab Spring, it looked like there might also be liberal democracies with which the U.S. could find common cause, but the only success story is Tunisia, a bit player in the region. U.S. foreign policy for several decades has relied on finding areas of common interest with moderate autocracies, of which the only real examples were Jordan and the oil-rich but small states of the eastern Arabian peninsula, while turning a blind eye to the true nature of the more important regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Turkey could have been an important democratic ally, but even before its turn towards repression, Turkey (understandably) seemed more intent on avoiding involvements in conflicts in the region.

The two real exceptions, i.e., reasonably powerful entities in relatively sensible alliance with the U.S., are Iraqi Kurdistan and Israel. Kurdish fighters have played an important role in the war against ISIS. However, there are limits to what can be accomplished given the size of the Kurdish force. Moreover, both the Kurds and the Israelis have enough trouble looking out for their own interests that neither can be expected to be that much help in advancing U.S. interests in the broader region. Perhaps in a Nixon-to-China mode, under Trump there is some hope that Netanyahu will be more accommodating of the U.S. interest in avoiding deliberate provocations of Palestinians than he has ben during the Obama years, but even if so, that is a matter of avoiding further harm, not securing greater aid. In any event, too close an alliance with either Iraqi Kurdistan or Israel is likely to be counterproductive, given the hostility of other allies, e.g., Turkey's hostility to Turkish Kurds who feel themselves in solidarity with Kurds elsewhere, and Israel's tendency to unite even otherwise mutually hostile Islamist forces--such as Sunni Hamas and Shia Hezbollah--in alliance against Israel.

What should Trump do? I don't know, and even if I did there's no reason to think that Trump's foreign policy team would listen to the likes of me. Meanwhile, color me extraordinarily skeptical of the idea that any single guiding principle can be implemented successfully. That's true whether it's an emphasis on human rights, Bush's effort to spread democracy, or the Trump/Flynn idea that saying the magic words "radical Islamic terrorism" will somehow bring victory, whatever that consists in.

The fact is that in the Middle East and elsewhere the U.S. has a number of goals that will come into conflict with one another. In the end, therefore, I suspect that Trump's policy will be as much of a muddle as Obama's has been, at best reducible to trying to avoid further involvement of US troops in active combat, while focusing on counterterrorism. The Trump administration will be substantially less concerned about its own and others' human rights violations than the Obama administration has been, but that might not make a big difference on the ground. The human rights situation in Syria (and parts of the broader region) is already appalling.

Put differently, we can expect the Trump policy to be basically Obama's policy minus the criticism of Putin and Assad, plus renewed torture, civil rights violations, and a Gitmo renaissance.