Middle East under Trump
The Atlantic Council released its Middle East Strategy report during an event attended by a large number of foreign policy experts from almost every think-tank in Washington. The council would like its report to be “a road map that the new administration will look at” — something every think-tank in Washington aspires to with an incoming new administration.
The report is bipartisan and is one of the most comprehensive and representative of the views of the region that Washington has seen. The Task Force making the report was headed by Stephen Hadley, a Republican and former National Security Adviser to President George Bush, and Madeline Albright, a Democrat and former secretary of state in the Clinton administration. It gives a voice to the region, its leaders and people. It has good ideas and offers a positive and hopeful outlook despite the current turmoil and conflict.
The report talks about partnership and not dictates and, unlike the recent approaches to the region, it does not focus on security alone. It focuses on the broad issues and challenges that the region faces, from governance and state-society relations, to economic recovery, religion and identity, countering violent extremism, rebuilding societies, reconciliation and refugees. All these issues were tackled through separate working groups and multiple trips to the region as well as hundreds of interviews with officials, intellectuals, activists, and ordinary people.
Stephen Hadley, who has been rumored as a possible Trump administration appointee, said this strategic approach that emphasizes partnership with the region, calls for winding down the civil wars in the region with focus on Syria, and expanding the US led military operation against Daesh and Al-Qaeda. In doing so, though, Hadley said it is “a mistake to make a common cause with the Syrian government.” He said: “We have to increase the humanitarian protection for civilians and to help the moderate opposition.”
Hadley pointed to important prerequisites to “winding” the wars, saying a “just resolution to the Syrian conflict will contain Iran’s efforts to disturb its neighbors.” While helping Saudi Arabia to reach a political solution to the conflict in Yemen requires that the “Houthi military operations around the Saudi border stop,” and “the counterterrorism efforts against Al-Qaeda in Yemen continue.”
The report calls on countries in the region to release their most valuable resource, their people, through education and reform and an “updated social contract.” It also talks about a “regional development fund,” in which the region takes the primary responsibility, and a “new compact between the region and the outside powers.”
Albright said the region needed outside help but it is a different kind of help because “the days of an outside power’s dictates to the Middle East are over.”
There was so much emphasis that things should be in the hands of the region and people have to step up and take their future in their hands. The crowd that attended the release of the report looked like a Who’s Who in the Washington foreign policy establishment.
But it was a Who’s Who outside the new administration that will take over on Jan. 20 next year. It is a “parallel universe” to the one that is descending on Washington with President-elect Donald Trump. The foreign policy establishment was not cordial to Trump during his campaign and a large number of foreign policy experts denounced him or called for stopping him. There was the famous letter by 50 Republican foreign policy experts that called candidate Trump “dishonest” and vowed not to vote for him or serve in his administration. This is now coloring the relationship between the two groups.
The feeling in the think-tank world and in foreign policy circles is one of disconnect and of being left out by the new administration. People here joke that the foreign policy establishment is in exile. Ask any foreign policy expert or analyst in Washington about what President-elect Trump will do about the Middle East, Russia, China or any other part of the world and the answer is “Nobody knows,” or “Only Trump knows.”
But Trump, to his credit, has been considering very moderate, thoughtful and experienced hands on the Middle East like Gen. David Petraeus, former CIA director, and Gen. James Mattis, former head of Central Command, as well as his most prominent critic during the campaign, Mitt Romney, for the position of secretary of state which signals openness to different ideas and to a moderate approach on foreign policy. Until he announces his secretary of state and makes the views of his administration on the Middle East known, things will remain very much a guessing game.
That is why the question that was on everybody’s mind in the audience at the Atlantic was whether President Trump would be open to this report.
Hadley said: “We don’t know. We have to give him time to put his feet on the ground and to put his team in place and decide what his initiatives are. But there are points in the report that coincide with his views,” like making fighting Daesh a priority, and no massive military intervention. But there are many more things in the report that are at odds with the president-elect’s, or his national security team’s, thinking on the region.
Hadley held the hope that presidents could change their views; he said: “Presidents have preconceptions but events matter. Events drive them in certain directions.”
But when someone asked if they would reach out to the Trump team to present the report, Albright said: “I am not the one to walk in there!” to the laughter of those present who remember her saying to women during the campaign “There is a special place in hell” for women who don’t help each other, meaning if they do not vote for Hillary Clinton. That endorsement of Clinton is hardly a winning ticket if you want to convince the Trump team to read your report. The president-elect is, however, surprising people every day with something new and different from his campaign rhetoric. Maybe the foreign policy establishment will be surprised as well.
• Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.