With the US’ raucous and divisive election season drawing to a close, it’s Hillary Clinton’s moment this Tuesday, but the recent controversies surrounding her emails give Donald Trump a slim but narrow and perilous electoral path to victory on Nov. 8.
Whoever wins, the next US president will encounter a number of strategic challenges in the Middle East, but as well, a large confidence gap between the region and the US. The wide-ranging Arab News/YouGov MENA poll, conducted in the middle of last month, noted that nearly half of the respondents said they wouldn’t support either candidate if they could cast their ballot this Tuesday.
Of the remaining half or so of the respondents, Donald Trump only received 9 percent of support in contrast to Hillary Clinton who received 44 percent of support. If Trump were to clinch the election on Tuesday, a President Trump would face a region deeply wary of the direction he would take the US and what implications his presidency would have for the Arab world.
Donald Trump has done more than any other presidential candidate in modern US political history to whip up xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments in the US. His speeches and his image abroad have been used repeatedly in Daesh recruiting videos. He has become the poster child for some far-right nationalists movements. Trump has shown repeatedly a frank disregard for human decency and civility.
While a President Trump could bring a much-needed “outside the beltway” perspective on how to reboot the US economy and bring back innovation so that the US is more competitive globally, his rhetoric combined with his temperament has often been the enemy of the good.
His questionable business practices and ethics raise deep questions about the level of public corruption, which could up swell during his term in office. His authoritarian tendencies and proclivity to speak more so than listen makes Trump a man not often suited to the responsibilities of the presidency.
Transactions not Alliances
A number of policymakers around the world have noted that Trump’s willingness to make deals could make Washington a more straightforward and better partner to work with, but they have equally noted his own unpredictability and unorthodox approach to long-standing allies of the US could be a deep liability as well. While Washington could arguably improve its own short-term position in some cases, the US’ long-term position will be greatly diminished.
In other words, the US would be increasingly seen as a transactional partner than a strategic ally. More averse to conflict but more willing to assert the US’ conventional deterrence, President Trump could both empower and deter Washington’s opponents including Russia and China. After four years, Washington could find itself strategically isolated with countries such as Russia and China increasingly setting the norms and priorities of international trade and cooperation.
A Confidence Gap
Trump’s largest challenge in the Middle East and North Africa would be to simply overcome his own rhetoric. From his comments on Islam to labeling Syrian refugees as terrorists, Trump has shown himself to be a man who has very little personal regard for the region on a person-to-person level. He has deeply and unnecessarily whipped up anti-American sentiment in the region. This confidence gap will make any deal Trump wishes to strike and to sustain with regional governments more difficult.
If Trump does get elected narrowly on Tuesday, a President Trump will need to seriously re-engage the region, through active public diplomacy, in order to even be able to effectively discuss any goals he has outlined from containing Iran’s regional aggression to defeating Daesh. A President Trump, more so than any other region, would have to work the hardest to retain and sustain regional alliances.
This isn’t to say that’s impossible. While a President Trump could make short-term gains elsewhere, with 91 percent polled last month against his presidency, short-term strategic gains in the region for the US will be quite hard to grasp in his first term in office.
• Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Global Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.