US Elections 2016: Final countdown: Middle East

Neither candidate offers reassurance on engaging region

Israeli supporters of the US Republicans holding up signs with "Trump" written in Hebrew during an election campaign event called "Jerusalem forever" last month in Mount Zion.
Israeli supporters of the US Republicans holding up signs with "Trump" written in Hebrew during an election campaign event called "Jerusalem forever" last month in Mount Zion.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Few regions of the world need United States re-engagement and support more than the Middle East. Yet no Middle Eastern government has a clear idea of what the next US administration is likely to do in the region. And, for once, that includes even Israel, notwithstanding the Jewish state's extraordinarily intimate affinity with the US.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never made a secret of the fact that he supports Republican candidates in US elections. Still, Israel's leader has observed a deafening silence about Mr Donald Trump, largely because Mr Trump was so outlandish in his statements and behaviour that even Israel's political elite - otherwise enthusiastic about anything or anyone American - felt the need to distance itself from the Republican nominee.

And equally unusually, Israel did not feature highly in the electoral campaign. Mr Trump, who met Mr Netanyahu in late September, referred to the Israeli Prime Minister only once during the campaign's televised debates, by claiming that "Bibi" was "not a happy camper" about the nuclear deal which the US signed with Iran, hardly a revelation.

But Mrs Hillary Clinton did no better by repeating generalities such as her promise "to stand by Israel" in "times of need".

Nor were the presidential candidates any more revealing in their approach to other crises in the Middle East. Mr Trump claimed - falsely - that he had always opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. And he argued - nonsensically - that although the US should not have deployed troops in the Middle East, Americans were entitled to just "take the oil" of Arab nations. His anti-Muslim slogans alienated just about every resident of the Middle East, including the Israelis.

No Middle Eastern government has a clear idea of what the next US administration is likely to do in the region. And, for once, that includes even Israel, notwithstanding the Jewish state's extraordinarily intimate affinity with the US.

 

Meanwhile, Mrs Clinton offered "a plan to defeat" the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by either simply "intensifying our air strikes on ISIS" or "going after them" online. "I think we need to do much more with our tech companies to prevent ISIS and their operatives from being able to use the Internet to recruit and radicalise," said Mrs Clinton without elaborating.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, this was one of the most dispiriting and fact-free electoral campaigns in modern American history, and did nothing to reassure the nations of the region that the US is still interested in upholding security in an area where Americans used to be deeply engaged.

Still, most observers in the region assume that should Mrs Clinton win the elections, America's posture in the Middle East will change. Much will depend on how the wars in Syria and Iraq shape up by the end of January, when the newly elected administration takes charge.

If the current Russian military campaign succeeds in either defeating or substantially weakening anti-government rebels in Syria, a Clinton administration will have to compromise, and accept that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will remain in power; that's why the Russians are currently rushing to pulverise rebel targets.

But if the Syrian rebellion still has any life in it by January, a new US administration will increasingly look at alternative options, such as supplying more weapons and logistical support to the rebels. US drones will also be used more extensively; the current Obama strategy of doing nothing in Syria will be dropped. The same will apply to Iraq, where US support will be intensified, as will the political pressure on the Iraqi government to make itself more inclusive and resilient to future domestic rebellions and terrorism.

Other tenets of current US policy in the region will also change. A Clinton administration will be reluctant to push for a resumption of the Israel-Palestinian peace talks, mainly because this was tried by outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry to no purpose. But at the same time, a President Clinton will reverse Mr Barack Obama's policy of treating the monarchies of the Gulf as part of the problem in the Middle East; instead, she will try to revive and nurture traditional ties with Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf sheikhdoms.

But the biggest bone of contention for any incoming US administration will be how to deal with Iran. Mrs Clinton wants to uphold the current nuclear deal with Iran, yet she also accepts that Iran's behaviour elsewhere in the Middle East remains disruptive, and that Iranians should not be allowed to undermine US-friendly governments in the region. Her problem will be how to maintain a balance between engaging with Iran on nuclear matters, and containing Iran on the ground.

And that, in turn, will depend on the composition of the next Congress; a Republican-dominated legislature will remain hostile to the Iranian nuclear deal, and unwilling to cooperate with the administration.

Either way, the Middle East will require the new president's attention from the first day she or he steps into the White House.

Jonathan Eyal

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2016, with the headline 'Neither candidate offers reassurance on engaging region'. Print Edition | Subscribe