President Trump and the Middle East

By December 21, 2016

The following piece reflects the opinions of Dr. Paul J. Sullivan and does not reflect the views of the Federation of American Scientists.

I approach this article with some degree of uncertainty and trepidation. The uncertainty is due to the public vagueness about what president-elect Donald Trump’s policies towards the Middle East may be. The trepidation is due to a combination of that uncertainty and the realities of the fluid, dangerous and volatile nature of the region as it is today — and likely will be in the future — and how getting this right is so important for the United States.

The impression one gets is that a President Trump would want to scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the “Iran Deal.” The Iran Deal is hardly the gold standard of diplomatic agreements. It has many faults. I am on record as being critical of it for many reasons that go beyond the scope of this small memo. However, there is a certain asymmetry to diplomacy. A deal was struck to contain uranium enrichment in Iran to certain levels and amounts. A large number of the centrifuges were dismantled (yet are still in Iran), and many of the other provisos of the deal have been followed, albeit not perfectly, with some concern by outside parties. It is a limited document and fails to deal with ballistic missiles and Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region inter alia.

However, ripping this deal up could easily be seen as the green light for Iran to go right back to what it was doing prior to the deal — developing enriched uranium from centrifuge cascades that could lead to nuclear weapons development. Ripping this deal up could bring Iran into a political and military boil. It is already problematic and aggressive in many areas, particularly in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Ripping up a flawed document could create far greater and more negative consequences than keeping the flawed document. It might also lead to greater tensions between the mostly Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and mostly Shia Iran.

President-elect Trump will also have to deal with the disasters of Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Each of these countries needs to be rebuilt and moved forward if any sort of peace is to be won. There is no question of this. History shows those countries that are in wars, especially those with many ethnic and tribal differences, need to get back on their economic feet as soon as possible, or they will go right back into war. Winning battles and dropping bombs is a lot easier than winning the peace. Syria, Libya, and Yemen could prove to be far more difficult than Iraq, which continues to struggle with this.

President-elect Trump will need to deal with the chronic and seemingly insolvable Palestinian-Israeli issues, which are also projected as Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Muslim issues for a large part of the world. Solving these issues could help resolve many others, but will not necessarily resolve many others. There is so much work to do on so many problems in the region that it is immensely daunting and even paralyzing for some to even think about them as a whole. Each issue may be taken on separately, but it does not take long to figure out how intertwined and recursive so many of the issues are.

Egypt is a country that is in a battle against terrorism and has considerable economic and social issues to contend with. It is in an ideological battle with the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not see Egypt as a country but as a part of its quest for its own sort of community of like-minded people.The Muslim Brotherhood would have its own hierarchy running the country, as happened when the “morshid” ( the supreme guide) of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie,  gave edicts and orders to President Morsi during his failed rule. The Muslim Brotherhood is no friend of the United States either. It would be a huge win to stabilize Egypt and get it moving forward.

Look at the region. Egypt is one of the most vital countries in the region. And right now it is a wall against nearly complete anarchy and violence in some parts of the region. This country needs backup and needs economic and other developments to be a stabilizing influence in its very dangerous neighborhood.

President-elect Trump and those working or acting as spokespeople for him might want to think about treading very carefully, in nuanced and careful fashions, with regard to the Islamic world. Indeed, there are terrorists among those of the Islamic world (as well among people in the Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and other worlds). However, 1.6 billion people should not be branded as terrorists because they are Muslims or because they have beards or because they happen to be named Mohammed or Ahmed. There is a certain tyranny in small numbers when those small numbers of people, the terrorists, violently try to define and defy the massive numbers of people in their communities who disagree with them.

Antagonizing and pushing away the 1.6 billion people in the Muslim world will do our country no good. Reaching out and understanding the complexity of that community that stretched across most of the world is vital for the security of this country.

If national security is a goal, and it is, then we need fewer enemies, not more.

Indeed, we all need to work to even further separate, and prove as outliers and transgressors, these groups from the much larger community of Muslims in our thinking and in our actions. I respectfully submit that the rhetoric needs to be toned down considerably and real strategic thinking and actions need to take hold.

The election is over. Now the reality of leadership has begun. And that leadership will face many complexities and dangers that need to be understood for what they are — and not just what some would like to think they are. Realism, strategic thinking, and strategic actions are needed for the sake of national and international security and stability.

Yes, go after or neutralize the enemies of the country whose intent is to do us harm, but please do not make more enemies by going after or insulting our allies, potential allies, and even our friends. Many of the military and other people I have worked with, taught, and have known as friends will tell you how important those positive relations in the Muslim world have been and can be in the future — for the national security of the US and global stability.

The Middle East is far more complex than what the above shows. But this is a very limited article. Overall, I respectfully recommend that the real professionals and those who have dust and mud on their boots, and vast experience, be brought into the discussions regularly — and make sure these are the people who will have the courage and guts to be blunt, to the point, and tell it the way it is and could be, unlike the careerists and narrow-minded ideologues who have brought us into quagmires and traps in the past. A lot can be learned from the true experts who really care about the issues, especially those who have seen the wrenching developments. Yet, some hope — in a region that is still in search of its future.