Wars of Words and Worlds?

While any viable reflections on the U.S. 2016 elections are necessarily provisional, observers of American foreign policy should weigh in on the potential longer term implications of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory. Will presumably crucial regions like the Middle East where so much U.S. blood and treasure has been spent in recent decades still matter? Well beyond the concerns about how to “cover” the endless tweets or the spectacle of daily parades through the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan as job applicants and other personnel come and go, how will the conflicting demands of business and government operate in the circumstances of unpredictability that no form of 2016 spectacle will conceal for very long in 2017?

Essentially the questions to ask are traditional. Are the existing constraints on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East still relevant in terms of the balance between goals and means?

The balance between change and continuity remains the essential dynamic in judging the success or failure of U.S. Middle East policy, especially against the polarized background of the 2016 election cycle. At first glance, continuity looks more important than change in recent years. Local regional leaders in the Middle East, in Turkey and Syria, for example, still seek to titrate their own domestic and international obligations while still manipulating Congress and the Executive branches in Washington.

Devising better ways to pursue or exploit a wide range of American ideals will remain a sometime enterprise, as local and regional players in the Middle East scramble to implement their own goals with their often diminished means.

The once desired Obama “pivot’ to Asia, particularly the salvaging (as opposed to the possible anticipated savaging) of trade deals like NAFTA continues as part of the  complex legacy for the next occupant of the White House, particularly Donald Trump, who proudly proclaims he declines official security briefings in the transition while appointing generals and billionaires to his cabinet.  

Yet a closer look alerts us to change, too. A scaling down of U.S. goals, particularly in the failure to take more public action beyond rhetoric in the Syrian conflict after the Russian entry into that fray militarily, is one indicator. A shift in means, too, is apparent as the U.S. has elevated drones to a higher stature and resorted to other less transparent techniques to deal with ISIS/ISIL as a way of redefining success or failure in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, new data is put into old categories. Policymakers wedded to diplomacy, like Secretary of State John Kerry, still meet with their Russian counterparts and hope the compromises that made the Iranian nuclear deal possible might be replicated in stalemates like the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Others, more convinced that military means are still more appropriate, argue for more forceful U.S. efforts, like no-fly zones in Syria, to achieve more tolerable outcomes.

The mixed range of American diplomacy, sanctions and force, will continue to constrain the U.S. in the Middle East whoever occupies the White House or the two houses of Congress, regardless of political party.

Matthew Hill