Thursday, March 30, 2017

Youth: The Hidden Treasure of Iraq (and the MENA region)

Youth group leaders at the Inter-Faith and Inter-Cultural Youth Camp
This past December I participated in the training of youth group leaders at the Inter-Faith and Inter-Cultural Youth Camp at the University of Kufa in Iraq.  The youth group leaders came from all parts of Iraq and represented Iraq’s tapestry of ethnic and religious groups: Shica, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Sabaens and Shabak.  The young men and women with whom I had the pleasure to interact were some of the most impressive youth I have met during my many years of visiting Iraq.

The training was organized by the UNESCO Chair in Islamic Interfaith Dialogue Studies, and was funded by a grant from the IREX Foundation.  Iraq’s first UNESCO chair is held by co-chair, Dr. Hassan Nadhem, University of Kufa, and co-chair Sayyid Jawad al-Khoei, director of the al-Khoei Institute in al-Najaf.
The Youth Camp was extremely successful and raised the question of the role of youth in rebuilding Iraq following the end of authoritarian rule.   Constituting more than 70% of the Iraqi population, youth represent a huge resource which has yet to be utilized to address Iraq’s many economic, social and cultural needs.  The question thus becomes: why have youth been so neglected by political leaders and how can they better contribute to rebuilding post-Bacthist Iraq?

In my study of Iraqi youth over many years, it is clear that they have been consistently left out of the country’s social and political equation.  Virtually all Iraqi youth with whom I’ve interacted feel that they are not respected. Many argue that they are viewed with suspicion because the country’s political elites view them as a demographic which threatens the status quo. The pattern and attitudes towards Iraqi youth reflects similar attitudes in much of the developing world.  Why are youth seen as threatening?

The instability and weak political institutions in many developing countries, combined with a lack of resources, make it difficult for youth to find a place in society.  With the lack of employment opportunities, youth are highly discontented and often politicized.  This discontent is enhanced when youth see the corruption and nepotism which characterize the political systems in which they live, favoring the relatives of friends of their respective political leaders.

Youth are often in the forefront of political change.  In the Arab Spring, for example, it was youth who organized the demonstrations and political movements which successfully toppled four of the MENA region’s longest serving dictators.

Of course, youth do not always contribute in positive ways to nation-building.  They often constitute the shock troops that enable sub-national militias, such as Hizballah in Lebanon, and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq, and are the reason terrorist organizations, such as al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State have been successful.

However, the Western and regional media focus on youth who challenge political systems in the MENA region belies the many youth who are working within the system to bring about progressive change.  This is certainly the case in Iraq where many youth organizations are engaged in a wide variety of activities, including conflict resolution.
Faculty of Law & Political Science democratization class , University of Kufa, with Drs. Hassan Nadhem, Rich & Davis
My experiences with a number of Iraqi youth groups illustrate their potential to have a positive political and social impact, not just in Iraq but throughout the MENA region.  First, youth thirst for change.  In March, 2016, I taught a course on democratization at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Kufa with my colleague, Dr. Roland Rich, former Executive Director of the UN Democracy Fund.   

Student enthusiasm for the topic was striking.   Indeed, Dr. Rich and I found it difficult to leave the classroom after our lectures were finished because students had so many questions, and wanted to continue our discussions.

When students asked us what could be done to bring meaningful democratic change to Iraq, Dr. Rich and I asked them if they were registered to vote.  When the class responded affirmatively, we asked whether they might consider forming their own political organizations, e.g., a youth party (hizb al-shabab).  The students viewed this suggestion very favorably.  However, without the institutional support and mentoring by members of the political class in Iraq, such an initiative would be very difficult to implement.
Drs. Roland Rich & Eric Davis visit the Institute of Development in al-Najaf
A second encounter with youth during my March 2015 trip to south-central Iraq was the visit Dr. Rich and I made to the Institute for Development, Economy and the Media in al-Najaf.  Active in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces, the Institute seeks to find employment for Iraqi youth.  It is also works to protect women’s rights, an important issue following the collapse of Saddam Husayn’s regime, given the relaxation of protections for women during the severe UN sanctions regime of the 1990s. 

One of the important services the Institute provides is to intervene on behalf of women whose husbands engage in spousal abuse.  The Institute’s female employees take women to local prosecutors to stop the violence and seek to have their husbands become involved in counseling so that their behavior doesn’t continue.

In training youth group leaders in Iraq this past December, I had the privilege working with several colleagues, Dr. Hassan Nadhem, Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina from George mason University, Dr. Ayad Anbar and Dr. Hassan Alsarraf, from the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Kufa, and youth working with the UNESCO Chair for Islamic Interfaith Dialogue Studies.

The training involved a mix of Iraqi history on which to model contemporary behavior and projects by Iraqi youth.   Here the notion that Iraqis are not inherently sectarian but have enjoyed a lengthy history of inter-ethnic and inter-sect cooperation was used to bring to the group’s attention several important examples from Iraqi history.

My approach was to employ the concept of “historical memory” in my training module. I began with three “historical modules” which illustrate how deeply Iraqis value learning, education and culture and show Iraq’s important contributions to world civilization.  I also emphasized how these historical traditions demonstrate how Iraqis can live together.

I used three models from Iraqi history to promote the idea of Iraq as a society, polity and cultural entity.  These models were intended to allow Iraqis of all different groups and ideologies to come together to celebrate Iraq’s contributions over time to world civilization, to the surrounding Middle East and, most importantly, towards developing an Iraqi society which has endured, despite great hardship.

Ancient Mesopotamian civilization, cultural contributions made under the Abbasid Empire (750-1258 CE), and the modern Iraqi nationalist movement (1908-1963) each offer an inspirational and non-sectarian example which can provide guidance for national reconciliation in contemporary Iraq.
Frieze in US House of Representatives

Ancient Mesopotamians developed the world’s first language, cuneiform.  Renowned traders, they needed a means for keeping track of the goods they sent to kingdoms beyond the Fertile Crescent.  The first use of the world “freedom” - amagi in ancient Sumerian - was developed in Mesopotamia.  Ancient Iraq also boasts the first parliament and the first recorded time in which a parliament exercised control of decision-making by an executive, in this case requiring the king to obtain permission to go to war.

For sectarians who would seek to claim ancient Mesopotamian accomplishments for Semitic peoples, there are records of the word “Curd” being discovered dating back to 3000 BCE.  Thus all of Iraq’s ethnosectarian groups can revel in its contributions to the world.
Hammurabi frieze-US Supreme Court

Although it came to an ignominious end in 1258 CE, the Abbasid Empire made major contributions to world civilization.  The development of algebra (al-jabr) and chemistry (al-kimia) were accompanied by machines such as a rudimentary computer.

One of the most important contributions was made by the Caliph al-Ma’mun (806-831 CE).  A rationalist sympathetic to modern knowledge, al-Ma’mun sent his advisers to the far reaches of the empire and beyond to gather all knowledge of the known world.  He decided to build a combination library and university in which to house this knowledge which was known as the “House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma). By the  middle of the 9th century CE, Bayt al-Hikma had the world's largest collection of books.
Scholars studying at the Bayt al-Hikma-Yahya al-Wasiti drawing
Among the literature which was translated were books on Greek politics and literature.  These books were translated from the Arabic into Latin during the European Renaissance and later into other Western languages.  Thus Iraqis can be proud of the manner in which an important of Western cultural heritage was preserved by Iraqi Arab scholars.

A third module focuses on the Iraqi national movement which began to coalesce in the last quarter of the 19th century but rapidly developed after the Young Turk Revolt of 1908.  With the Young Turks seeking to “Turkify” the remaining provinces of the Ottoman Empire, in an effort to create what they considered a modern nation-state with a single language and cultural heritage, Iraqis rejected calls to make Turkish the official language of government and the education system.

The "identity politics,” sparked by the Young Turk Revolt, intensified with the British invasion of 1914.  The refusal of the British to give Iraq independence led to a powerful uprising – the June – October 1920 Revolution (al-thawra al-cIraqiya al-kubra).  The 1920 uprising was noted for the solidarity of Iraq’s constituent ethnic groups, particularly the Shica, Sunna, Christians and Jews.

When the British sought to use the traditional colonial “divide and conquer” strategy, Iraqis purposely engaged in behavior to resist it.  Sunnis and Shica prayed in each other’s mosques – a practice still used today – and made self-conscious efforts to bring Christians and Jews into demonstrations against the British.

As I document in my Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, the Iraqi nationalist movement was characterized by four characterisiti89cs: inter-ethnic cooperation, strong social justice and civil society impulses, a vigorous press and artistic movements which valorized national-popular culture and traditions and stressed opposition to political authority through non-violent means.

The Iraqi nationalist movement offers a vision of Iraq which counters the sectarian conflict and violence which characterized the post-2003 US invasion.  While beyond the scope of this post, it can be strongly argued that the US’s role in the construction of a political system which was placed under the control of “carpetbagger” sectarian entrepreneurs explains much of the difficulty Iraq has faced ion developing a stable, democratic political system after 2003.

Empowering youth to implement positive social and political change

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Iraq in its Geo-Political Context: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria

Recently I made a presentation to the Italian Navy at its base in the Venice Arsenale, “Iraq in its Geo-Political Context: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria.”  The talk offered my thoughts on recent political developments in Iraq, particularly how they have been affected by its neighbors. What type of arguments did I offer?
Entrance to the Venice Arsenale Naval Base and Museum
It was appropriate to make such a presentation in the Arsenale, the first industrial complex in the world, whose etymology can be traced to the Arabic language.* Begun in 1104 CE, the Arsenale developed a shipyard in which some of the most technologically advanced ships of the time were built using assembly line techniques.  Still a shipyard today, as well as a naval base, the Arsenale covers a large portion of Venice.  It is the reason Venice was able to dominate the Adriatic Sea, the Veneto and later parts of Italy’s terra firma, the Dalmatian Coast and the eastern Mediterranean Basin.
Comandante Paolo Gregoretti, base commander

I began my analysis with the proviso that understanding Iraq and its political development is only as good as the conceptual framework on which such understanding is built.  Specifically, framing Iraqi politics in the narrow sense of sectarian identities – namely using the “unholy trinity” of Shica Sunni and Kurdish identities – or through an abstract concept known as “Islam,” provides limited insights into Iraqi politics.

Rather than focusing on the recurring problems generated by framing Iraq through such well-worn stereotypes, a theme of many prior posts on The New Middle East (, I was more interested in examining how Iraq has been influenced by “neighborhood effects.”  Specifically, I sought to avoid a narrow case study which views Iraq as a “stand alone” nation-state.  Instead, I sought to demonstrate how the impact of Iraq’s neighbors both constrains domestic policy-making as well as offer opportunities for new political initiatives.

The verbiage emanating from neighboring regimes in Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria belies the underlying power struggle within the eastern MENA region.  No longer the military power it once was under Saddam Husayn, Iraq has become a battlefield for other regional states.  Thus to understand Iraqi politics, requires a broader purview than focusing on its domestic politics alone.

Iran and Iraq
It is ironic that the most powerful external actor in Iraq today is Iran, once characterize by the George W. Bush administration as a member of the “Axis of Evil.”  However, Iran exercises more of a veto power in Iraq than the ability to control the country’s politics on a day to day basis.
Venice Arsenale Officers Club
The core of Iran’s power is in the degree to which its commercial and construction sector has penetrated Iraq’s economy.  Hotel construction in the shrine cities of al-Najaf and Karbala’ is dominated by Iranian companies.  Imports of Iranian fruits and vegetable have devastated what was already a weak and neglected agricultural sector under Saddam’s regime.  In many respects, Iraq can be viewed as a satellite of the Iranian economy.

Of course, Iran exercises important political influence as well.  This influence has been magnified by the role Shica militias or Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs/al-hashad al-shacbi) are playing in fighting the so-called Islamic State (Dacish).  While not all PMUs are under Iran’s control, those which are have given Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces the opportunity to send military personnel into Iraq to train and oversee militia activities.  Working alongside the PMUs, Iranian forces are privy to much intelligence information, including US cooperation with the Iraqi Army.

More disturbing is the integration of PMUs into the Iraqi Army. This power play is meant to insure the continued political influence of pro-Iranian PMUs after Dacish is defeated. Having loyal units within the Iraqi Army gives Iran an ongoing say in military policy. 

Although the presence of loyalist PMUs within the Iraqi Army is viewed by many Iraqis as a dangerous development, an influential political committee, comprised of powerful Shica as well as Sunni politicians, has proposed a new law for a comprehensive process of national reconciliation which would be offered as a national referendum. Part of the proposed new legislation is the elimination of the PMUs. 

One long term aspect of Iraq-Iran relations which has not been given much attention is the developing commercial ties between the private sector in Iraq and Iran.  Many Iranian firms operating in Iraq are arms of the Islamic Republic. 
However, there are private sector firms which do not support the massive corruption which plagues the Tehran regime and its Revolutionary Guard forces.  To the extent that the private sectors in both countries can develop positive economic ties, there is the possibility of a counter-veiling forces developing to promote moderate political forces on both sides of the border.

Turkey and Iraq
Turkey poses a serious threat to Iraq’s stability.  Much of Turkish foreign policy under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reflects his desire to create a “new Ottomanism.” In this vision, Turkey would shed its secular Kemalist republic and establish a new Islamist state, a process which is already well underway.

As the Erdoğan regime has assumed an increasingly authoritarian character, it likewise has become much less predictable in its behavior, not just in domestic but in international politics as well.  The three variables which structure Iraq-Turkish relations are those related to the Kurds – in Turkey, Iraq and Syria - the type of regime which will emerge after the Syrian civil war, and oil resources in northwest Iraq.

After the toppling of Saddam Husayn in 2003, Turkey was most concerned with the model that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) might provide for its own rapidly expanding Kurdish population. For a time, it seemed as if this issue would be tempered by negotiations between the Erdoğan regime and the Iraqi Kurds, especially after the Turkish energy giant, Genel, began investing in the KRG and oil began to flow into Turkey.

The formation of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), led by a partnership between chairwoman, Figen Yüksekdağ, a Turk, and Selahittin Demirtaş, a Kurd, undermined the negotiations.  This was especially true after the party performed well in Turkey’s 2014 presidential elections and then became Turkey’s third largest party after the June 2015 national parliamentary elections. 
Erdoğan found the idea of a secular, leftist coalition between Turks and Kurds, one which sought to transcend the ethnic divide between the two communities, an anathema.  He was angered that the 2015 parliamentary elections did not provide his AKP with enough votes to emend the Turkish constitution.

The Kurds angered Erdoğan from another perspective as well.  His regime has watched with increasing concern and trepidation as the Syrian (Rojava or Western) Kurds have established and institutionalized their own semi-autonomous region in northeast Syria.  The model of the Rojava Kurds has been more appealing to Turkey’s Kurds, with whom they are closer culturally and ideologically, than the authoritarian and corrupt model offered by Iraq’s Kurds and the KRG.

That the Rojava Kurds have established a regime which promotes gender equality, fights corruption, and treats the many minorities living within its region with respect and tolerance provides a sharp contrast to the sectarian and corrupt practices of the Erdoğan regime and the AKP. That one of the Rojava Kurds’ cantons (administrative units) is ruled by a female Prime minister, Hevi Ibrahim Mustafa, and that women and men co-direct administrative and civil society organizations, contravenes the conservative gender politics of the AKP.

How do these developments affect Iraq?  First, Turkey has maintained a very equivocal relationship to the Dacish in Syria and Iraq.  With one of the most powerful armed forces in the MENA region, it has the capacity to crush the Dacish and eject from their presumptive capital of Raqqa, less than a 100 miles south of the Turkish border.  Instead, the Erdogan regime has allowed the Rojava Kurds and, more recently, Iraq’s Kurds, to bear the brunt of casualties in Iraq’s efforts to defeat the Dacish.
Nevertheless, Turkish troops have been stationed inside Iraq without the permission of the Iraqi government, despite requests by the Iraqi government that they be withdrawn.  In another disturbing move, Erdogan is now training KDP Pesh Merga forces to help it seize territory from the Rojava Kurds, using the excuse of fighting the PKK.
In what appears to be an effort to gain access to oil resources in northwest Iraq, Turkish forces have also begun training Sunni militias to offset the power of PMUs loyal to Iran.  This is why Turkey stationed its special forces troops near the village of Bashiqa in northwestern Iraq (

Thus Turkey, even more than Iran, has been actively involved in destabilizing Iraq.  On the one hand, it seeks to create a wedge among Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds through developing an alliance with the KDP to fight the Rojava Kurds and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).  On the other, it promotes Sunni Arab identities in region around Mosul at a time when many Iraqi politicians are working to supersede the Shica-Sunni divide. 

Turkey also seeks to use Iraq’s Turkmen population to enhance Turkey’s interests in Iraq.  Having a major presence in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Turkmen still maintain cultural ties to Turkey based on their Turkish heritage. Divided into Sunni and Shica communities, often based along tribal ties, opportunities exist for manipulating divisions among the Turkmen based on tribe and/or sect which can serve the Erdoğan’s interests.

Erdoğan mischief-making in Iraq will be somewhat constrained by his recently established working relationship with Russia. From a low point in relations after Turkey downed a Russian jet which had strayed into its airspace in November 2015, Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin have developed a rapprochement.
No longer does Erdoğan stridently call for removing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad from power.  Nor does he attack the Islamic Republic of Iran for its support of al-Asad and for sending Revolutionary Guard trainers into Syria.  Because Russia is allied with both the Asad regime and Iran, Turkish relations with Russian now trump Erdoğan’s severe distaste for Bashar al-Asad.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is not as actively involved in domestic Iraqi politics as Iran or Turkey.  Nevertheless, its regional policies impact Iraq in a negative manner. Ever since the fall of Saddam Husayn, the KSA has feared that the rise of Shica political parties in Iraq threatens to make it a surrogate of Iran. The ongoing “Cold War” between the KSA and Iran, which will only intensify in coming years, means that Iraq will remain a “battleground state” for the foreseeable future. 

Even before the ouster of Saddam and the Bacth, the KSA sought to undermine Iraq and prevent it from reestablishing a powerful army which could threaten the kingdom and the Arab Gulf as it did with the seizure of Kuwait in August 1990 and the January 1991 Gulf War. One of the ways the KSA sought to subvert Saddam was to fund Sunni Arabs who would be willing to promote its violence-prone, anti-Shi a, and culturally atavistic Wahhabi ideology, especially in the Sunni majority provinces of al-Anbar, Ninawa and Salah al-Din.  During the harsh United Nations sanctions regime of the 1990s, women were paid to wear the hijab and men were paid to pray.

Saddam’s so-called “Faith Campaign,” begun in 1993 and designed to coopt Sunnis who had become disenchanted with the Bacthist regime, especially after the post-Gulf War UN sanctions regime had destroyed the national economy, made Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces fertile soil for Wahhabi recruitment.  Funds which poured into Iraq did not just come from the KSA alone but from private Saudi donors, including those from other Arab Gulf countries.

KSA hostility to its Shica minority, which inhabits the important oil producing provinces of the country’s northeast, makes the Iraq model where Shica rule a largely democratic political system particularly galling.  Indeed, Iraq’s efforts – often half-hearted and hesitant – to bridge the sectarian and ethnic divides which developed after the collapse of Saddam frightens the KSA because of the model it provides not just to Shica Saudis but to Saudi society as a whole.

Although a comprehensive study has yet to be completed, there is no doubt that the KSA, Arab Gulf states, and private citizens in these countries (who have been given free rein to support radical Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq) have been a major source of promoting sectarian identities in Iraq.  Until the Wahhabi-Sacud family axis is broken, and the struggle with Iran tempered, KSA interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs will continue.

Syria and Iraq
Of all Iraq’s neighbors, Syria provides the most serious political problems.  Of course, is differs from Iran, Turkey and the KSA by not having a strong regime which can directly interfere in Iraq’s domestic politics.  Nevertheless, the Syrian civil war has greatly harmed Iraq’s efforts to develop a stable political system following the 2003 US invasion and occupation.

After Saddam was ousted, Syria did little or nothing to prevent radical Islamists from organizing in eastern Syria and crossing its borders into Iraq.  Damascus became a refuge for much of the remnants of the Iraqi Bacth Party and a venue for planning ways to undermine the new post-Saddam Iraqi state.
Of course, Dacish used Syrian territory to plan its attack on Mosul which it seized in June 2014.  

While the policies of former Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, facilitated the seizure of Mosul, had the city not been seized by the Dacish, the PMUs would not have had any raison-d-ȇtre to be formed. Further, Iran would not have subsequently had the opportunity to gain military advantage through developing its own loyalist militias.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army has suffered huge losses in its campaign to retake Mosul.  Urban fighting has been extremely difficult as the Dacish have had a long time to prepare for the assault. With the drop in oil prices, Iraq is ill prepared to spend the large sum of funds needed to support the campaign to eliminate the Dacish, US financial and military support notwithstanding.

Finally, the Syrian civil war has opened doors for Turkey to interfere in Iraqi politics, particularly through is efforts to influence intra-Kurdish politics and relations.  By supporting the authoritarian and corrupt KDP leadership of the KRG in the person of President Masoud Barzani, the  Erdoğan regime is hindering efforts at reforms in the KRG and, by extension, efforts to achieve national reconciliation and a stronger federalism in Iraq.

Iraq, “neighborhood effects” and the future
While Iraq cannot control the behavior of its neighbors, it can control its own domestic politics.  Here the recent efforts to achieve national reconciliation, which are absolutely critical after the defeat of the Dacish and the retaking of Mosul, are critical.  National reconciliation undermines the ability of external powers to manipulate sectarian and ethnic cleavages for its own advantages.

Despite its populist and often inflammatory political rhetoric, the Sadrist Trend, unquestionably the most powerful political movement in Iraq, is strongly behind a nationalist politics and hostile to efforts to build political coalitions along sectarian lines.  If a new Sunni movement develops – one which realizes that radical Islamism offers nothing but death and destruction – and can be brought into a national coalition, then Iraqi politics could emerge much stronger after the Dacish is militarily defeated.

In addition to building cross-sect and cross-ethnic coalitions, Iraq needs to tackle its rampant corruption.  Sectarian and corruption – with the concomitant lack of social services – produce a toxic brew which could reignite support for political extremists.  The military destruction of the Dacish is only the first step in convincing marginalized groups in Iraq, especially Sunni Arab youth that extremism offers nothing but a dead end (no pun intended).

Telephone reports from Mosul indicate that the fears which Moslawis had about the Iraqi Army when it first approached Mosul were misplaced.  Its bravery and caution in fighting street by street battles, in an effort to reduce civilian casualties, and the assistance it provided to Moslawis once they were liberated from the Dacish, has given the army a new and highly favorable status in Iraq.  

Including more Sunni Arab forces within the army will go a long way towards assuaging the fears of residents in Iraq’s Sunni Arab majority provinces that the post-Da ish period will result in a return to the status quo ante. Here is an opportunity for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Hayder al-cAbadi to demonstrate that Iraq is entering a new era, one that addresses the needs of the Sunni Arab population, as well other groups, such as the Yazidis, who were severely harmed by the Dacish.

Whether the ties which developed between the Iraqi Army and the Pesh Merga during their joint efforts against the Dacish will produce any long-term ties still waits to be seen.  However, the post-Dacish era is the time to push forward with strengthening federalism, to incentivize Iraq’s Kurdish population to remain within the country, and likewise devolve more administrative and financial power to Iraq’s 18 provinces.

The US should remain actively involved in providing training to the Iraqi Army which was critical in standing up the elite Counter-Terrorism Force and other military units.  The ties between the Iraqi and US armies will work to insure that the professionalism which it demonstrated in the anti-Dacish campaign continues once the terrorists are finally defeated in Iraq and Syria.

*From the Arabic Dar al-Sinaca, or industrial area (lit., “abode of building”).


Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Trump Presidency and US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Pouring Oil on the Fire?

Trump's Executive Order banning Muslims
This is the first in a lengthy series of post which will monitor and analyze Us foreign policy in the Middle East under the Trump administration.

In an earlier post, I speculated on what a Trump Middle East foreign policy might encompass (  Little did we know that President Trump would up-end much of the United States’ traditional policies in the MENA region so soon after taking office.  Now that we have seen how much change Trump has already brought to US Middle East foreign policy during his first week in office, what can we predict will be the outcome?

Trump’s style runs completely counter to traditional diplomacy.  In some respects, this is a good   Too often in the past, US presidents and secretaries of state have been too timid in criticizing political elites in nation-states whose policies run counter to US national interests and international political norms and values.  A good example of this timidly has been the lack of criticism of Saudi Arabia for its domestic human rights abuses and sponsorship of global terrorism via the export of its extremist Wahhabi ideology.  Obviously, the need for Saudi oil made any US administration forgo criticism of the oppressive Saudi regime.  It will be interesting to see if Trump continues this policy tradition.

Trump’s foreign policy, like his domestic policy, applies a business model drawn, in part, from the decision-making process outlined in his well- known book, The Art of the Deal.  It is already clear that staking out an aggressive policy position with regards to foreign nations will be his modus operandi.  To accomplish that end, Trump feels he must stake out his position in publicly.  Unlike the business world, however, public diplomacy - in the Trumpian sense - has already shown itself to be counter-productive.  Certainly the last week has proven this to be true.

As an example, we can site two policies which Trump tried to implement this week.  First, his assertion that Mexico would pay for the $15 billion wall that he wants built along the Mexican-American border placed President Enrique Peña Nieto in a defensive position, causing him to vigorously deny that Mexico would pay for it. 

Key Trump aide Steven Bannon
Embarrassing foreign leaders may play well with Trump’s pugilistic aide, Steven Bannon, and his social base in the US, but will, if continued, damage the US’ standing not only in Latin America but other parts of the world. For example, many foreign leaders, such as Pope Francis and the mayor of Berlin, just to mention two, oppose the wall and have asked Trump not to build it.  (Thus far, only one political leader, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has publicly supported Trump’s wall).

The second policy which bans citizens from 7 Muslim majority countries in the Middle East from federal judge has already blocked the implementation of Trump’s ban.  At least 2 countries, Iran and Iraq, have reciprocated by blocking American citizens from entering their countries.
entering the US for 120 days has led to international condemnation (as well as domestic, e.g., American Jewish groups criticized Trump for announcing the ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day). Two

A nation-state’s security is always its most important concern.  President Trump is on the mark to be concerned, as commander- in- chief, about the United States’ security, especially in an era of increased international terrorism.  However, the question on the table is whether his executive orders during his first week in office enhance or undermine the security of the United States.   Are we as a country more or less secure as a result of his actions?

In the case of Iran, this tit-for-tat will not have an immediate or significant detrimental effect on United States policy in the Middle East.  In the case of Iraq, on the other hand, the impact could be enormous if continued beyond the 120 days.  In the short term, Iraq’s counter-policy will constrain US diplomats in pursuing our national interests in Iraq because their contacts and movement in the country will undoubtedly be impeded. 

In the longer term, the Trump ban will provide great propaganda fodder for Iraqi politicians hostile to the US, e.g., pro-Iranian militias and Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement.  The ban will give more ammunition to Iran’s allies within the Iraqi government, such as the sectarian former Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, whose policies, after he began his second term as prime minister in 2010, exacerbated many of the political problems which Iraq currently faces.   But it is militia leaders such as Hadi al-Ameri, Qais Khazzali and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who maintain close ties to Iran, will be the greatest beneficiaries.

In Europe, the United States’ NATO allies are horrified by the ban.  Here in Italy, where I am writing this post, newspaper headlines are dominated by the immigration ban.  Today’s Corriere della Sera announces: “Trump stops the immigrants. Those who have arrived from 7 countries are forbidden entry. Protests in American airports” (Trump ferma gli immigranti. Bloccati quelli in arrive da sette Paesi. Proteste negli aeroporti americani).  If the European Union, which is the United States’ most important ally, continues to view Trump negatively, it could adversely affect the Western alliance. 

There are other problems with the ban.  How can Trump explain why Saudi Arabia, whose citizens were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, is not included in the ban?  Why is Egypt not covered by the ban? Could US business interests be at play in explaining this contradiction in Trump’s policy?  Specifically, could Trump’s own business interests in Saudi Arabia and Egypt explain their not being included in the ban?  Put differently, many foreign countries see the omission of Saudi Arabia in particular as contradicting the supposed goals of the policy and hypocritical.

Who benefits from Trump’s ban on immigration?  A main beneficiary is Vladimir Putin.  Trump is accelerating a process which began with Barack Obama’s retreat from the Middle East, especially his refusal to maintain troops in Iraq after 2011 and refusing to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.  If Obama allowed Russia to exploit the vacuum that he created in the Middle East, Trump is increasing Putin’s influence in the region.  

Despite calls from Republicans, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Trump has refused to say anything negative about Putin, including condemning his policies in Syria which has resulted in serious civilian causalities through bombing and have stiffened Bashar al-Asad’s resolve not to agree to a negotiated solution to the crisis.  And Trump has refused to criticize Russian policy in the Ukraine – the seizure of Crimea and the support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Trump’s refusal to call out Putin for his efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections, and his dictatorial rule, which has involved suppressing all opposition Russian media, seizing the assets of capitalists, and enriching himself and his personal elite through widespread corruption is only adding to the United States’ foreign policy problems.  It threatens to divide and possibly even destroy the traditional Western alliance which was built after WW II.  NATO and later the European Union have become the most successful alliance and economic partner respectively for the US.  To undercut NATO and the EU will only work to Putin’s benefit and encourage him to engaged in even more aggressive foreign policy behavior vis-à-vis Europe, economically and militarily.

The ban is being interpreted in many Muslim majority an attack on Islam.  This is unfortunate because it can be argued that Trump has made a self-fulfilling prophecy of Samuel Huntington’s well-know, but flawed, “crisis of civilizations” argument.
Yet another dimension of Trump’s Middle East policy is his goal of moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a policy with which even many Israelis feel uncomfortable and is not supported by most of the United States’ allies, either in Europe or the Middle East. The question should be asked again.  Whose interest does this decision serve? 

Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem will further undermine the already moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestine National Authority.  Also it makes it more difficult for Arab states which would like to engage in rapprochement with Israel to be able to do so.  Along with the ban of citizens from Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, moving the United States embassy will anger Muslims throughout the Middle East and larger Muslim world and, once again, provide great copy for the terrorist propaganda mill.

Finally, we need to ask the fundamental questions: Will the Muslim ban make the United States any more secure?  Will moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem enhance United States national interests and, for that matter, benefit Israel?

The answer in both cases is no.  The United States also has in place a strong vetting system for all foreign nationals entering the United States.  For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has created a comprehensive data base linking Canada the United States and Mexico, in other words, if a terrorist were to land in Mexico City, that individual’s name would appear in Washington and Ottawa.

Having the United States Embassy to Israel move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will only inflame passions in the Middle East, which is probably the most unstable region in the world.  Trump’s declaration has already encouraged the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dramatically increase illegal settlements in the West Bank.  It strengthens the extreme right in Israel which does not enjoy support among the majority of Israelis as is clear from local public opinion polls.

Acting “tough” and making policy which has not been vetted by a range of Middle East regional experts, military officials, members of e intelligence community and Congressional representatives will lead to completely counter-productive results with potentially dangerous consequences.