Obama and Trump – Middle East Fatigue TwinsPosted: March 18, 2016
No two men could be more different than President Obama and GOP candidate Donald Trump. “Superego” and “Id” seem to have been invented to describe the two men. One is given to cerebral reflections and restrained behavior, the other to verbal emissions and tantrums. Yet remarkably when it comes to the Middle East, they seem to converge. The reader who doubts this should answer the following questions. Which of the two men complained about erstwhile Gulf allies as “free riders” or “they don’t pay their share”? Which of the two men called the Libyan engagement a “shit show” or “a disaster”? Which of the two men felt that Putin’s Russian adventure is Syria will “exhaust them” or “let them do the fighting”? Which of the two men confesses support for Israel but would like “to consider the legitimate concerns of the Palestinians” or “be even handed”?
As far as Middle East policy, the current US field of aspiring Presidents divides neatly into two camps. Those who echo the conventional wisdom of the “foreign policy establishment” and those who view its recommendations with deep suspicion and unease. Obama and Trump belong to the latter camp. To the mind of this observer this is an overdue correction. As a matter of empirical evidence, the US attempted a variety of policies in the region, and all came to bitter ends. It supported authoritarian leaders and revolutions and is left with the theoretical argument as which of these two groups are responsible for state collapse. It placed a massive army in Iraq to remove a hated dictator and democratize it. It did no such thing in Syria. It split the difference in Libya. It let allies handle the situation in Yemen. None of the above are examples of success. What is a super power to do with region that abhors both its involvement and indifference?
There is fatigue in the land with the intractable problems of the Middle East, and perhaps a desire to forget or ignore such problems. The Republic has been intimately involved with the region since its very founding. The involvement was always dual-natured and at times contradictory. The elite force of the US military, the Marines, was created in part to deal with the North African piracy. American missionaries, armed with the Protestant zeal and affection for the “Holy Land”, came to the region in the 1850s and built schools and universities that educated generations of intellectuals, journalists, and political leaders. Most exhibited a baffling combination of admiration, attraction, resentment, anger and hostility to America. The theorists of both Arabism and post-colonialism are closer to their American object of derision than to their own people. American soldiers and spies have been even less successful than teachers and preachers in building anything of lasting value. Most Americans are not well versed in the details of Middle East history and policy, but they do recognize a bad deal when they see one. Few are as upset by Obama’s distant shrug and are unlikely to be moved by arguments from the usual Middle East experts. Trump’s policy of a slammed door is harsh, yet more than a few are willing to give it a try. Middle East governments spend handsomely to affect American policy, and are likely to have a return as impressive as that of Jeb Bush’s donors. Whether good or bad, fair or unfair does not matter. While Obama and Trump advise these governments to take up the mantle and clean up the mess in their backyards, one suspects that they are unable and unwilling to do so.
There is no resolution or cure for this fatigue. Maybe it will pass, or maybe it will not. If the next President is from the “ignore them” camp then he will not pay a steep political price for that view. If the next President is from the “engaged and involved” camp, she will likely find no political rewards in that path. In that sense, Obama and Trump, in their very different ways, point to the future.
— Maged Atiya