The Trump Legacy: A View from the Middle East

October 26, 2020

This is how I started off a post four years ago. The title was “The Obama Legacy: A View from the Middle East”[i].

“It was a few months before the 2008 US Presidential election. I was talking to my American colleague at UNESCO. I said to her that since American presidents’ decisions have global implications, democratic countries should also have the opportunity vote in those elections within a reasonable quota to be shared among them. She responded, ‘interesting idea…’ We both laughed.

Then I went on to say in that post that Mr. Obama had visited Ankara on his first trip abroad and delivered remarkable speech before the Turkish parliament saying, “This morning I had the great privilege of visiting the tomb of your extraordinary founder of your republic. And I was deeply impressed by this beautiful memorial to a man who did so much to shape the course of history. But it is also clear that the greatest monument to Ataturk’s life is not something that can be cast in stone and marble. His greatest legacy is Turkey’s strong, vibrant, secular democracy, and that is the work this assembly carries on today…”

And I concluded by saying that at the end of the day, I as a Middle Easterner, would not hesitate to vote President Obama for a third term into office had it not been for the 22nd Amendment. Because, despite his half-hearted support to the Libya intervention and involvement in the regime change project in Syria he advocated multilateralism and had a better understanding of Middle East’s fundamental problems. And he was courageous enough to admit mistakes.

Looking at President Trump’s four years in office from the Middle East, one cannot but conclude that this has been a period of remarkable success for PM Netanyahu.  All US allies let alone adversaries experienced problems with the Trump White House, he was the exception.

Firstly, Mr. Trump delivered on his campaign promise to relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Secondly, he brokered a deal between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain to normalize relations and is working on other Arab countries to follow suit. Last Friday a “Joint Statement of the United States, the Republic of Sudan, and the State of Israel” said the leaders agreed to the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel. Thirdly, the “deal of the century” evaporated into thin air soon after its announcement. Fourthly, the question of Palestine has moved way down on the regional agenda. And lastly, Mr. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, an agreement Israel has strongly opposed. Thus, summarizing all that, Mr. Netanyahu called Mr. Trump “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House”.

Normalization of relations between regional countries is a positive step. It may enhance regional dialogue. Turkey also has diplomatic relations with Israel though not at ambassadorial level. However, Secretary Pompeo’s statement of September 19 on the JCPOA snapback made it clear that Washington remains determined to draw new battle lines in the Middle East. Because Washington is not only imposing more and more sanctions on Iran but also threatening those who do not follow the US example.

Last Friday with the leaders of Israel and Sudan on the phone in the Oval Office, President Trump surprisingly predicted that ultimately Iran would also become a member of “this whole thing” and get on board the peace process. “… So they can’t have nuclear weapons, but they can have what they want.  I mean, they should be a great nation.  They’re great people.  I know so many Iranians.  I have a lot of Iranian friends.  It should be a great nation.  And we want it to be a great nation, but we can’t have nuclear weapons…” he added.

As Mr. Trump often says, “we’ll see what happens”.

The ongoing controversy over the snapback clause of the JCPOA shows that Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was a rash one taken without foresight and adequate professional legal/diplomatic advice. Because, as the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the UK have stated in a joint statement, the US has ceased to be a participant to the JCPOA following its withdrawal from the deal on May 8, 2018 and consequently its decision to re-impose sanctions is incapable of having legal effect.

This is what Mr. Biden has said on Iran policy:

“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern… I will also take steps to make sure US sanctions do not hinder Iran’s fight against Covid-19… We will continue to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region.”

Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia had taken a downturn during President Obama’s second term. The Kingdom was the first country the President Trump visited. Today, despite the Khashoggi murder, Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia are as warm as ever. For European countries also the crime is now history because economic interests matter. Secretary Pompeo constantly refers to Iran’s malign activities across the region but never mentions Saudi Arabia’s “benevolent outreach”.

As for Turkey, Ankara’s relationship with the Trump administration has been a roller coaster. Disagreements extend from relations with Israel, Syria, US support to PYD/YPG, Libya, eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus, S-400s and FETO to economic cooperation.

After a White House meeting on November 13, 2019 Mr. Trump declared himself a “big fan” of President Erdogan. He said, “You’re doing a fantastic job for the people of Turkey.” A month ago, he had sent him the most undiplomatic letter ever written.

Mr. Biden as a Senator and chairman of the foreign relations committee was always at the forefront of Congressional initiatives against Turkey. When the invasion of Iraq was authorized by the US Congress in 2002, Senator Biden argued strongly in favor of the resolution. I remember how he urged the Turkish government to cooperate fully with US during a visit to Ankara.

Since President Obama started off extremely well with Turkey, Vice President Biden followed his lead. When Mr. Obama gave up on the Turkish government, Mr. Biden was the one to visit Ankara to patch the relationship. Yet, problems remained. Strangely enough, Israeli government’s relationship with President Obama also ended up being an unhappy one mainly because of his approach to the Palestinian issue, an important agenda item for the Turkish government.

Judging by his campaign statements, if elected, Mr. Biden would try to strike a balance between his days as Mr. Obama’s Vice President and his days as senator. And having no friends in the Congress will remain a challenge for Turkey.

The big question for the world, particularly America’s allies, is whether the next administration would be able to put a polarized US house in order, stop its global decline and follow a steady course. Turkey’s putting its house in order and breaking its international isolation are just as crucial problems.

To conclude, one cannot be optimistic regarding the future of Ankara’s relations with Washington regardless of who emerges as the victor in the presidential election. So, on November 3, I will not go to the polls. Turkey has probably lost its share of my fictitious voting quota to be shared among democratic countries anyway.

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[i] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2016/05/02/the-obama-legacy-a-view-from-the-middle-east/

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