As the US gears to elect its 45th president on November 8, the feeling is that Middle East has “lost time” in anticipation of the outcome. Yet, whoever is the winner, there is high expectation in the Middle East and beyond that there will be a radical change in US policy from the one we witnessed in the last years, with a more confirmed and “interventionist” approach. The question is: does Washington still have the necessary muscles for major adventures abroad?
Many tend to think that the region chaos left behind after the Tsunami that was once called the “Arab Spring” only a determined US leadership could bring order back to the region, and end the current anarchy.
Whether the winner is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, there is growing expectation in the Middle East, that once the election season is over, there will be a more assertive American policy. After two terms under Barak Obama, who came to power promising to disengage US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, close down Guantanamo prison, and mend ties with the Islamic world. Although Obama received the Nobel Peace Price for his good intentions, there are still US troops participating in anti-Islamic State (ISIS) war in Iraq bombing from the air but also taking part in the ground offensive in Mosul, some ten thousand American soldiers are based in Afghanistan as “trainers”, Guantanamo is far from being closed-down, while US troops are participating in a series of new wars from Syria to Libya, Yemen and beyond. A covert drone war with extrajudicial killings on suspicion and without a court judgment has grown to proportions never seen before.
In spite of Obama’s best intentions, America failed to withdraw its armies from the Middle East. And in spite of his efforts to normalize relations with the Muslim World, US is still accused to be responsible for the bloodshed there: some suspect that American conspiracy is behind instability in the region (from Egypt to Syria to Turkey), while others accuse lack of US leadership for the continuation of Asad regime and the Syrian war.
This might change soon.
There is first Donald Trump, with his Islamophobic declarations, who is promising to change US Middle Eastern policy. Trump not only made promises to re-boost US military build-up, and to reverse trends of decreasing Americans under duty and arms spending, but he also talks about using them. Trump was on the record advocating to “taking the oil” of Iraq, in return for the successful US military mission there. Trump seems also proposing to escalate the infamous “war on terror”: in the first televised debate he said: “We have to knock the hell out of ISIS – and we have to do it fast.”
The Republican candidate, who is known for his undiplomatic declarations, has been soft on populist leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump has made several positive declarations about Putin, and said that they would go along well. He has proposed an alliance with Russia to solve the problems of the Middle East. Trump also had encouraging words addressed to the Turkish President, expressing his opposition to any American pressure on Turkey for the post-coup repressions.
While it remains guesswork what Trump would do once elected, it is easier to guess Hillary Clinton’s choices. She has already been Secretary of State, and exercised political power. She will continue to support Israel, take a hard line on Syria, and push back “bully” Russia. She might take a tougher attitude in “war against terror” as a reaction to the American failure in Libya, when the US embassy was attacked in Benghazi and several lives lost.
Whatever US presidential candidates promise they have little means for action. The 9/11 attacks have shown American vulnerability, as its major Middle Eastern ally was the source of that attack: not only the mastermind was a Saudi citizen but also 15 out of 19 pirates were Saudi as well, which was the start of the degradation of Washington-Riyadh relations. The wars of George Bush, and the defeat of the great neocon project has turned further US-Middle Eastern relations upside down: it destroyed Saddam Hussein’s regime but made it an Iranian protectorate; it angered Ankara because the 2003 US invasion of Iraq created a Kurdish de facto state for the first time in history, an indirect threat to the territorial integrity of Turkey. The only close ally of the US in its fight against ISIS today is the PKK, which calls the US “imperialist”.
Like many US presidents before him Barak Obama initially wanted to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, to disengage from Middle Eastern politics, and concentrate on Asia-Pacific region. He could not. Whatever the intentions of his successor, they will be equally drawn into the chaos and violence of that region. Yet, it will be too much asking from the next tenant of the White House to come up with a solution to the Middle Eastern wars.
The US power in the Middle East is similar to British and French Empires after the Suez war of 1956: even though the US won all their battles in the Middle East, their influence is in free fall. Just like previous high expectations, this one too will end up in disappointment.