[Prefatory Note: An earlier version was published on September 1, 2016 in Middle East Eye. This version is modified, and its title slightly changed.]
When it comes to foreign policy, it seems at first glance to be a no brainer. Hilary Clinton is experienced, knowledgeable, intelligent, an internationalist, known and respected around the world. In contrast, Donald Trump repeatedly shoots himself in the foot and others elsewhere, seems clueless on the complexities of the world, makes such reckless hyper-nationalist boasts about how he will crush enemies and make allies squirm. Such posturing makes people everywhere fearful, hostile and even wondering whether the American citizenry as a whole is collectively experiencing a psychotic episode by taking seriously such an outlandish candidate.
Choosing Between Militarism or Isolationism
Yet a closer look makes the choice between these two candidates less obvious, and more interesting, although not more encouraging, especially if the focus is what the election might mean for the Middle East. One of the few consistent positions taken by Trump is to voice his deep skepticism about regime-changing interventions in the region, especially Iraq and Libya, and the accompanying expensive delusions of former presidents, as well as Clinton, about policies aimed at producing democracies. As expected, Trump has some awkward inconsistencies in his earlier pronouncements on these issues if you bother to check out what he had to say a few years ago. Still, his present opposition to military interventions in the Middle East has been consistently expressed throughout the presidential campaign. His essential position is summarized by his own words: “After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before.” What follows, then, is the likelihood that Trump will oppose intervention in the Middle East unless there is a clear connection present with a terrorist threat directed at the United States posed by ISIS, and maybe al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Clinton has a consistently hawkish record in foreign policy, which she tried her best to put out of sight during the primary competition with Bernie Sanders, whose progressive views were surprisingly similar to Trump on this central question of military intervention in the Middle East. During her time as Secretary of State (2009-2012), including shaping policy toward Russia, China, Afghanistan, and in the Middle East, Clinton over and over again pushed President Obama hard to adopt more militarist and confrontational positions, most visibly in the region with respect to American military involvement in Libya and Syria. When visiting Libya shortly after Qaddafi was brutally executed in 2011 by rebels when captured in a Libyan town, Clinton chillingly observed, “We came, we saw, he died.” It was a revealing comment, a kind of cold-hearted gallows geopolitical quip.
Stability First or America First?
It is also relevant that Clinton’s regional grand strategy was premised on keeping friendly dictators in power even in the face of overwhelmingly popular uprisings, disclosed rather starkly in her lobbying efforts to stand by Mubarak in his hour of troubles with the Egyptian people back in 2011. Although she now downplays her support for the 2003 aggressive war in Iraq launched against the regime of Saddam Hussein, she clearly supported at its outset the most disastrous American foreign policy decision since the United States committed itself in the mid-1960s so heavily to the losing side in the Vietnam War. Not only did the attack on Iraq bring many deaths, much devastation, massive displacement, and lasting chaos to Iraq and its people, but the long American-led occupation spread disorder beyond Iraqi borders, and was an important contributing cause to the origins and rise of ISIS.
Yet, despite these Clinton policy misjudgments in the Middle East, isn’t the world still better off with the steady hand of Clinton than the wildly impulsive Trump. Her morbid quip struck hard at what this distinction could mean: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” Such anxiety is intensified as soon as we realize that there are no political checks limiting the capacity of an American president to use nuclear weapons. This makes us aware of how people everywhere despite their huge stake in prudent American leadership, play no role in determining the outcome of a presidential election in the United States. It may be time to consider a plan to enfranchise the whole world to have a vote of some kind in American national elections if the ideal of global democracy and the rule of law are ever to achieve political traction.
Trump has made a number of assertions about nuclear weapons that not only challenge decades of Western conventional wisdom, but also strike fear in the hearts of people wherever they are, including the Middle East. In his preoccupation with conserving American financial resources Trump has suggested that it might not be a bad thing for Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons, and then take over responsibility for their own security. Supposedly he asked a friend, “Why can’t we use nukes?” True, such assertions are not necessarily indicative of what Trump would do as president in the Middle East but neither should they be ignored. Trump seems neo-isolationist in overall outlook, which means fewer international commitments and a desperate search for ways to cut overseas expenditures. It is possible that his unwillingness to give unquestioned support to the nonproliferation regime that has frozen the nuclear status quo for decades might generate a renewed push for phased, total nuclear disarmament, the only decent and reliable long-term solution.
There are other worries. Trump opposes the Iran nuclear deal, probably the most constructive diplomatic initiative taken during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Trump thinks it was a terrible deal since it “gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing.” Scrapping the agreement, or even failing to live up to its commitments, endangers an unraveling of the whole normalizing relationship of Iran within the Middle East, and could tempt Israel to launch some kind of preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or even give rise to an extremely dangerous nuclear arms race in the region. It should be noted, in passing, that both Trump and Clinton have tied themselves so firmly to the mast of pro-Israeli alignment as to be blind to the desirability of promoting a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone, a proposal that enjoys the support of every Middle Eastern government except Israel, and would probably do more to stabilize the region than any other single initiative.
Thinking that Clinton is more reliable than Trump may be more a matter of style than substance. Supposedly she did not oppose giving Israel a green light to attack Iran during her period as Secretary of State. Also worrisome is her long undisguised admiration for the warped wisdom of Henry Kissinger, and even Robert Kagen, considered the most militarist member of the neoconservative inner circle, and despite being closely identified in the past with Republicans, has endorsed Clinton, and reportedly acts as the most prominent advisor in her foreign policy braintrust. It is hardly a surprise that 50 self-proclaimed Republican national security specialists publicly endorsed Clinton over Trump, but it is a marker of how unusual this contest for the American presidency has become. As has been often observed, Clinton is of the foreign policy/national security establishment that has brought to where we are now, while Trump is seen as a potential spoiler who might pursue policies that would cause structural disintegration and with it, the collapse of the neoliberal economic order, that is, ‘the Washington consensus.’
Trump, too, boasts of his meetings with Kissinger, as some kind of certification of his worthiness that overcomes his amateurish qualifications for high political office. Yet his opinions adopt lines of thought that are probably an anathema to this aged master of real politik. Clinton, of course, has reflected more and longer on such matters, and in an effort to please all sides opts for what she is calling ‘smart power,’ a customized blend of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power that is supposed to be responsive to the complexities of shaping foreign policy in the early 21st century. The Clinton formula, not unlike that of other recent mainstream candidates in the U.S., is designed to please as much as possible the warlords of the Pentagon, the wizards of Wall Street, and the champions of Israel, or at least not distress any of these three nodes of American geopolitical primacy.
With these profiles as a background, can we predict the foreign policy of a Clinton or Trump presidency in the Middle East? It is possible to make more reliable guesses about Clinton because she has made some of her positions already clear: an escalation of support for anti-Assad Syrian forces (except ISIS), a hardening of diplomatic bargaining with Iran in carrying out the nuclear agreement, a further upgrading of the ‘special relationship’ with Israel, and no change of course with respect to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other Western-leaning autocracies in the region. In addition, a possible recommitment of American military forces in Iraq, and especially robust military action against political extremism throughout the region,
Trump can be expected to indulge his neo-isolationist inclinations, likely moving policy in an opposite direction, withdrawing American combat forces and downgrading military bases in the region, in effect, a pivot away from the Middle East. The exception would seem to be his extravagant pledge to crush ISIS, whatever that might mean in practice, especially as it already seems almost crushed. The related idea of imposing an absolute ban on Muslim immigration to the US, if enacted, is likely to have disastrous blowback effects, fanning the flames of Muslim civilizational discontent.
If voting for an American president was only about the Middle East, I would rate the candidates as a tossup, but it isn’t. When the American domestic scene is taken into account, as well the rest of the world, Clinton holds the clear edge unless one feels so disgusted her candidacy as to write in Bernie Sanders on the ballot or cast a vote of conscience for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. I remain uncertain as to which of these choices to make.
My liberal friends become angry when even such a possibility is mentioned. They still blame the Ralph Nader candidacy in the 2000 election for depriving Al Gore from a victory in Florida, and thus a national victory over George W. Bush. I remain puzzled by and opposed to such a logic. Why allow third party candidates to seek public office if the pundits view it as irresponsible, or worse, to vote for them if the best candidate? Or maybe, it is okay to vote for them if your state is not ‘a swing state,’ but that again means that it is more important to vote for the lesser of evils to avoid the greater of evils rather than to vote for the best candidate. I take a more nuanced position. It depends on how evil is the greater of evils compared to the lesser evil, and whether this seems to matter. At present, if I were in a swing state I would vote for Clinton, although reluctantly (domestic issues and nuclear weapons policy), but since I live in California I will probably vote for Jill Stein. Somehow I wish Bernie Sanders had wrestled with this dilemma rather than uncritically adopting the liberal consensus, which given Clinton’s slide to the right since the Democratic Party convention should keep him awake some nights.