Before talking about the immediate future of US foreign policy in the Middle East, let us spare a kind thought for the last days of the underrated, if embattled, Obama administration. In his quiet, deliberative, realist manner, the President has accomplished two big things in the Middle East (which is two more than the administration of George W. Bush ever managed).
First, the President, through mighty efforts, has kept America from being embroiled in yet another counter-productive war in the Middle East. Following the absolute debacle in Iraq (and the relative one in Afghanistan), this is what the American people elected him to do, that is, (to paraphrase President Obama) not to do stupid stuff. Despite great temptations and pressures to get embroiled in a major way in the unwinnable hell that is Syria, the White House has just about managed to avoid the quicksand of further military combat in the region.
Second, for all its continuing virulence as a terrorist organization, ISIS as a geopolitical force – as a state controlling territory in the region – is on its way out. As of the beginning of July 2016, ISIS was thought to have lost half the land it seized in Iraq, and 20% of its territory in Syria, along with its dangerous toe hold in Libya. In many ways, ISIS is morphing into just another conventional, stateless terrorist organization, which is surely a major step in the right direction.
But for all this the Middle East remains a confusing mess. At present, we have the mortifying specter of Turkey and the Kurds, two American allies openly fighting each other. The Syrian and Yemen calamities continue to burn unabated, and long-time Sunni American allies – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt – are increasingly estranged from Washington and on the defensive, in the face of more coherent Shia Iran and its allies. Surely all this muddle and chaos demands a major and immediate shift in America’s policy toward the Middle East?
The above paragraph is exactly how newspaper columnists, foreign policy experts (including myself) and the chattering classes more generally see the world. But it is simply not the way the planet actually works. To get a better read on what future American policy in the region is likely to amount to, it is far more analytically useful to look at the schools of thought orientation of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as they are the ideological glasses through which these murky events will be perceived, and then acted upon.
In other words, the objective events in the Middle East matter less in determining future American policy than does the way they will be ideologically interpreted by the next president of the United States.
Hillary’s garden variety Wilsonianism
Former Secretary of State and Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton’s well-established Wilsonian school of thought orientation -quite different from Obama’s guarded, cautious, realist approach – bears examination, as it is the prism through which she views the present scenario in the Middle East.
Over foreign policy, Clinton can be seen as a garden variety Wilsonian. Wilsonians can be characterized as being inclined to use force when an international coalition can be assembled, often for humanitarian purposes and to support global governance and international law, and when the international community generally backs the use of such force. While Wilsonians have a strong predisposition to act only in concert with a broad coalition of powers representing what they see as the collective will of the planet, they are not generally shy about doing so.
Regarding specific foreign policy issues, Secretary Clinton proved herself predictably more interventionist than her former realist boss. As America’s top diplomat, she favored Western efforts to topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, even as the White House worried about what would come after him. Likewise, Secretary Clinton has long been for leaving a significant residual American military force in Afghanistan (she also favored doing the same in Iraq), a point of view the Obama administration only reluctantly agreed to (in October 2015), following Taliban gains in Kunduz.
Clinton has also advocated a greater American role in Syria – stressing that the US should establish no-fly zones near the Turkish-Syrian border and more seriously training Syrian rebels – while President Obama has tried mightily hard to keep America out of the bloody and intractable Syrian civil war. In a rare direct criticism of the President, Secretary Clinton said in 2014 that the failure to help non-Islamist Syrian rebels fight the Assad government had left a “big vacuum” for ISIS and other jihadists to fill there.
So the good news for America’s allies is that the United States would be far more focused on the Middle East than is the present administration. The bad news for those of us who worry about America becoming the world’s ineffectual and counter-productive social worker, is that interventionism in the Middle East has a terrible historical pedigree.
Trump’s very different foreign policy
Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions, which put him at odds with the traditionally hawkish Republican Party establishment as well as the Democrats, are fathoms away from Clinton’s.
Criticizing Secretary Clinton as well as the formerly dominant neo-conservative thinking in his own party, Trump, in late April 2016, called for an “America-first” foreign policy, saying every decision needs to be taken “through the clear lens of American interests.” Trump has said, “Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really true signs of strength.” While Secretary Clinton supported the Iraq war, the conflict against Gaddafi in Libya, and favors establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, Trump points out he was against the war in Iraq, and is against nation-building abroad.
While Trump’s foreign policy is non-interventionist in general, it is also surely unilateralist. He refuses to countenance sending American forces into battle unless doing so is absolutely necessary to American interests and will lead to a decisive US military victory. While not an isolationist, Trump has argued for a much more limited commitment to the world, not wishing to serve as the global policeman.
In essence, Trump is offering the party a protectionist, nativist, anti-immigration, anti-free trade, unilateralist foreign policy, usually the preserve of merely a minority of the Republican Party. However, given his shocking success since declaring for the presidency, these historically minority views within the party must be taken very seriously. They would mean a Middle East where American well-intentioned – if often ignorant – meddling was not its usual problem. But it would also mean the region would be left to largely fend for itself. Given the Syrian historical template, this is also not an appetizing prospect.
Policy lies in the eye of the beholder
It is clear to see from the present mess in the Middle East that American policy is largely made in the eye of the beholder. Chaos in the region just confirms committed Wilsonian Hillary Clinton in her activism, just as it confirms for Donald Trump the wisdom of giving the region a wide berth.
It is not events that will drive America’s near-term policy in the region, rather the schools of thought orientation of the next president; how they view these events. As such, ironically, the most important near-term event for the Middle East is America’s November election, as it will determine the ideological predisposition of the region’s still-greatest power for years to come.