Israel and Arab world differ on focus on US election
For Israel, the US election is being viewed as having massive consequences. It could mean an entrenchment of US President Donald Trump’s policies, including his administration’s push for more peace deals, or a potential reversal of some of his initiatives.
However, while this election is being viewed as momentous in some areas of Israel that are watching closely the returns, the rest of the region has a more complex, cynical, jaded and rational approach to the White House.
When Trump came into office he was widely understood as cut from a different mold. He not only promised a more isolationist and nationalist foreign policy, disregarding the tone and multi-lateralism of the Obama years, but he also offered a new page to countries in the Middle East.
Many countries leapt at that opportunity to turn the page on what they saw as some problematic US policies. Turkey, for instance, hungered to get Trump to withdraw from Syria because Ankara wanted the Kurdish groups that the US was supporting to be defeated.
Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, saw an opportunity for warmer relations with the new US administration. The Obama administration had not listened to counsel and not enabled the Gulf states, which are key US allies, to be stakeholders in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran Deal. As such, there was dismay in Riyadh that they had gotten the cold shoulder.
Now with Trump, a new US president appeared ready to listen and his desire for transactional relations would mesh well with countries that have a lot of oil resources to transact. They were pleased with Trump's trip to the region in 2017.
Years later, there is an understanding that with Trump, not everything is what it seems. Turkey has tired of the US administration, after having misled Trump, condemned the US and harassed and threatened US forces and Americans. Nevertheless the Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan still supports Trump, because of concerns over Democratic wrath for years of Turkey slandering US Democrats.
Qatar has fought for the affections of the US, begging for strategic dialogue in recent years and trying to buy influence. It has been fighting with Riyadh since the 2017 Gulf diplomatic crisis to see who can win in Washington.
IN THIS battle for influence in Washington, waged at think tanks, through the media and in the offices of senators and members of Congress, the Gulf states have been largely successful. Saudi Arabia’s biggest problem is its tarnished image of the past several years. There is a lobby in the US that opposes the current Saudi Crown Prince. These are mostly Americans who were linked to previous insiders, such as the late Jamal Khashoggi, and they think the current leadership in Riyadh is destabilizing.
There are also elements in the US who are more sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran, and who tend to be harshly against the Egyptian leadership as well. In many cases the same voices tend to be soft on Iran and against Riyadh, Cairo and Jerusalem. They tend to be warmer to Qatar than to the UAE.
Insofar as the regional states are thus waiting for Trump, it is because they got used to the transactional nature of the relationship – and some don’t want Turkey and Iran empowered. There is a lack of consensus, however, on whether a Biden administration would be soft on both Turkey and Iran. Iranian commentators think that Biden won’t change things dramatically.
An article at Al-Ain in the UAE by Yahya al-Talidi appears to express a view that is likely reflective of a much larger analysis across the region. He writes that if Biden wins, he is expected to repair relations with allies, friends and international organizations. He will also focus on Russia and China and there will be tension with those two states.
He suggests, however, that Biden will return to “traditional patterns of dealing [with the region] that involve a mixture of cooperation and competition.” He concludes that a Biden win won’t bring major changes in US stances or policies to the files in the region. “Arab states will have to work to find ways to better secure their interests in a world where the importance of the American role is gradually diminishing.”
His insight, which is shared across the region, is that the US is in a period of slow global retreat and that it is focusing more domestically. Both the Republicans and Democrats have a relatively dim and cynical view of the Middle East, with both parties having expressed views of the region as being one of ancient hatreds and endless wars. Some have gone so far as to say the Middle East no longer matters.
That means that as the US leaves a vacuum behind, whether in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, others will step in. The US has already witnessed this as Russia and Turkey brokered deals in Syria and Libya. The US has also not shown global leadership on the Azerbaijan-Armenia crisis.
IT IS PRIMARILY only on Israel that Trump has gone far beyond what other presidents have done, rewriting the rules of the game. This involved walking away from any pretense that the US might be a partner with the Palestinians on a peace deal, and also recognizing the Golan, removing the view that Israel illegally occupies the West Bank, and moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
The US also walked away from UNESCO and UNRWA, basically ending US support for the Palestinians entirely. This meant also weakening the US Security Coordinator, the so-called “Dayton’s Army” that Washington helped train in the West Bank, which helped reduce the change of a Hamas takeover in 2005. Even if Biden pivots back, it will take a long time to inject US funding back into the pipeline and reverse the course Trump has set.
Another issue in the region is that many countries have grown increasingly skeptical of the ability of America to stick by its partners and allies or even keep its word. Because US administrations appear to zig-zag on policy every four or eight years, there is an expectation by local governments that it is unreliable.
Some of them have tried to counter that by investing in influence peddling in the US, becoming closer to certain political parties. Others are simply shifting toward Russia, China, Turkey or Iran. This is because they see those countries, which are generally authoritarian like most Middle East regimes, as being more consistent in foreign policy.
For example, two US decisions led many to wonder if America has any long-term commitment to anyone in the region. The first was enabling Iranian-backed militias to push US Kurdish allies out of Kirkuk in 2017. The second two years later was to enable a Turkish invasion against other Kurdish partners in Syria, where thousands had suffered casualties helping the US defeat ISIS.
Middle East-based analysts can read the pronouncements of US think tanks that mock people in the region as “transactional” relationships or “temporary and tactical” and speak of American “interests” but not allies. They know that Iran and Russia, China and Turkey, tend to stand by their partners and interests in the long term with more clarity than the US does.
For instance, the US decision to reverse course several times in Syria – first funding rebels against the Assad regime, then making the fight against ISIS a priority and then abandoning the Syrian Democratic Forces in October 2019 – leaves many thinking that Washington simply cannot formulate policy. They know that US commanders at CENTCOM say one thing while the State Department says something else – and the White House doesn’t even seem to communicate to its own generals and diplomats.
THIS EXPERIENCE led some countries, such as Egypt, to conclude that while they accused the previous US administration of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, the current administration simply had no real policy. They didn’t know what to expect from the US in Libya and heard rumors that AFRICOM, the US Africa Command, might do more or less in Libya, or in the Sinai, Somalia or Niger. There was no real clear policy.
Similarly on Iran, while Gulf states were pleased the US was taking a tougher line on Tehran, they saw that the US did not respond to ships being mined in May and June 2019, or to a drone being downed and an attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq.
US policy on places like Iraq is also happenstance, first supporting Haider al-Abadi as a mythical Iraqi “nationalist,” then threatening airstrikes against Iranian proxies, then killing IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani – and finally pivoting to reduce US forces. Iraq wants strategic dialogue, but also knows that the US could use Iraq to focus on Iran, which Iraq’s pro-Iranian leaders don’t want.
Regarding Lebanon, the US pushed for maritime negotiations with Israel but won’t consent to financial bailouts. There is concern that Washington might have enabled Hezbollah through the negotiations. But maximum pressure by the US had harmed Iran’s ability to fund its proxies, like Hezbollah, which potential US allies in Lebanon like.
With Turkey, the US finally stood up to the Erdogan government for hosting Hamas twice this year. However in general, the government got a blank check to attack its neighbors and threaten Armenia, Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, the European Union, NATO and Israel, and also to destabilize Iraq and Syria. Turkey also acquired the Russian S-400 system, although the US does seem to have put a hold on F-35 deliveries.
THIS F-35 issue brings us back to the Trump administration’s transactional policies. The White House wants to sell them to the UAE, and potentially to Qatar. But Democrats may put up roadblocks. This means that while the White House makes promises, locals in the region know that America often doesn’t follow through.
This is why most of the region is looking at US elections with a kind of 50-50, glass-half-empty view. Many who felt that the Trump administration would mean renewed US power were dismayed. Others felt that his brazen willingness to rewrite the script on Jerusalem, or strike Soleimani and the Assad regime, were positive. It blew wind into the sails of normalization, as opposed to US Secretary of State John Kerry who seemed to hold Gulf states back from normalizing with Israel.
If Biden wins, the trend of normalization may continue with those countries that have already signed deals because the negative reactions are sunk cost and they have much to gain now. Others may be more hesitant and wait for the messaging from key Biden advisors like Antony Blinken.
In the end, most of the region is not as focused on the White House race as Israel is – because whereas Trump has been consistently pro-Israel, his views on the rest of the region border on either not caring or being totally transactional in his approach.
Transactions are short term by nature, like the US presidency. Countries like Jordan, Kuwait and others that have not become a partisan issue in Washington can expect the same from either administration. Their publics know that and are not hanging on every vote that is being counted.