American Middle East Policy and the Next President

Let us start by saying this:

Congratulations to President-Elect Donald Trump and Vice President-Elect Pence. They have lawfully won the election, beating literal insurmountable odds. These two now face the unenviable tasks of governance, strategic planning, and diplomacy. They also take the helm of US policymaking at a fragile moment in Middle Eastern history. Syria and Yemen are bleeding, Turkey is culling, Egypt is atrophying, Iraq is stabilizing, Israel/Palestine are stratifying, Saudi Arabia is domineering, and Iran is meddling. Dealing with or ignoring each problem will be an amazingly complicated affair, even the more so because the US public has shown that it cannot, nor will it care to, understand the nuance of international diplomacy anymore. It has become too complex, too partisan, and too frustrating to pursue rational US policy abroad and explain it honestly at home. President Trump and Vice President Pence will have to deal with these issues in addition to numerous others in the coming years. How, then, can we expect these issues to be addressed under the Trump-Pence administration?

First, the uncertainty around who will be calling the shots in foreign policy needs to be clarified. Many believe that Mike Pence was offered the most extensive powers ever gifted to a Vice President for coming onto the ticket – virtual autonomy over foreign policy. This is especially significant because, as the vice presidential debate and presidential debates showed, Mike Pence and Donald Trump do not agree on foreign policy.

President-Elect Trump has shown that his natural instinct is to aggressively pursue those who he thinks have wronged the US, whether they be allies or competitors. He has further shown a disregard for the conventional ideas of warfare, advocating taking resources from occupied land and torturing either the people or the families of those who he believes are enemies. He has also advocated for a lessening of the US role in NATO, “renegotiating” current free trade agreements, and a confrontational approach to the People's Republic of China. The President-Elect is very much a unilateralist, believing in his singular power of negotiation and bilateral negotiations, as opposed to the multilateral rules-based order that currently is the standard model for diplomatic relations around the world.

Vice-President Elect Pence, on the other hand, is a more moderate yet still aggressive unilateralist neoconservative. He believes we are in a “Clash of Civilizations” as it has been said. This is important, because it underlies the idea that he does not nor will he soon think that democratization in the Middle East is a positive idea. He has also voted to withhold funding to the United Nations several times, unless the goals advocated by the world organization match up with US ones. The best way to encapsulate his views would be to say he believes that an 80’s era Middle East is probably the best outcome we can hope for. This means strongmen ruling over their states, who are obliged to suppress internal and external dissent as well as terrorist activities. His unilateralism will give the US both more flexibility abroad, and much more risk. This will probably manifest itself in more military interaction, and less diplomatic, as diplomacy involves too much give and take – something he has shown himself weary with in the UN.

How far either of these men’s policy ambitions will be tempered by institutional constraints is dubious, President Obama has shown clearly that executive power allows for almost unilateral action barring absolute opposition from congress.

How, then, might each of these issues be broached?

In the next few articles, some of our main contributors, including Nick Hayen, Kurt Guner, and Stephen Howard will try to understand and predict where the future of several of these states might go.