As US President Donald Trump and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei trade barbs, a nervous Arab World is caught in the middle.
Earlier this week Iran’s Supreme Leader made headlines thanking President Trump for “revealing the true face of America”. While much of Ayatollah Khamenei’s criticism was directed at the Administration’s hard-line policy and threat to “put Iran on notice”, he zeroed in on the disastrous White House Executive Order and its impact on refugees and immigrants and visitors from seven majority Muslim countries. At one point, in his remarks Khamenei, speaking of Trump, said “Now with everything he is doing—handcuffing a child as young as five at an airport—he is showing the reality of American human rights” (correction: a child of five was detained in the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order, but he was not handcuffed).
This news item and the nasty and childish Twitter exchange and war of words between Iran’s religious leader and the President of the United States brought home the intimate connection between US domestic and foreign policies and encapsulated the dilemma that will be faced by America’s Arab allies in the “Age of Trump”. It reminded me of two stories from the first George W. Bush Administration—both involving Saudi Arabia’s then Crown Prince Abdullah.
Bush’s callous disregard for the rights of the Palestinians, his Administration’s policies which trampled on the rights of Arabs and Muslims in the US, and his disastrous invasion of Iraq—all severely strained US-Saudi relations. The Kingdom, ever cognizant of the important role the US played in providing a security umbrella protecting the Gulf Arab states from the threat of the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran, was at its wit’s end. At one point Abdullah told Bush that if the US persisted in ignoring Arab concerns, Saudi Arabia might feel compelled to go its own way. It was not a step he was eager to take, but it was one born of frustration with US policies and the increasingly high cost they incurred at home.
To make his point, Crown Prince Abdullah liked to tell a story about a sheep herder who was losing a sheep a night to aggressive wolves. To protect his flock, the herder hired guards. They kept the wolves at bay, but the herder had to kill two sheep daily to feed his newly acquire protectors. The price he was forced to pay, he noted, was becoming greater than the benefit received.
Then on election night 2004, I received a call from a friend of mine who served as an advisor to the Crown Prince. He asked me excitedly whether the news stories he was hearing were correct—that Democratic challenger John Kerry was in a position to beat incumbent George Bush. I was surprised and asked why he would be supportive of Kerry. I said, “Kerry has been very critical of Saudi Arabia, while Bush claims to be your friend”. He responded (and he made clear that he was speaking for himself, not his boss) “I think it is better for us to have a US President who hates us, than to have a US President hated by our people”.
During the last 16 years, US-Gulf relations have been on a dizzying roller coaster ride. First there was the adventurism of the Bush Administration—which went from neglect, to destabilising war, to misguided democracy promotion based more on ideology than reality. The Obama Administration only compounded Arab frustration. It began with great promise but the failure to deliver coupled with multiple miscues led to it being judged as an enormous disappointment.
By 2016, the Arab region was in disarray and the US-Arab relationship was in tatters. Thanks to the foolish Iraq war, and its seriously bungled aftermath: that country is in the midst of a long civil war; Iran has been unleashed and emboldened as a threatening regional power; the US military and public are war weary and wary of new conflict; Russia has extended itself into the Middle East; violent extremist movements have found safe-havens and metastasised spreading across the region; and because US allies have felt abandoned they have felt compelled to act on their own, sometimes rashly, to defend their interests vis a vis Iran’s designs.
To some extent, Arabs felt like they were caught up in the tale of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. With Bush they had “too much”, with Obama “too little”. With the 2016 election, they were hoping for “just right”. They wanted a relationship with a partner that would work with them to insure regional security and stability. And a partner that was both respected by and respectful of their people.
From its performance, to date, the Trump Administration does not appear to be such a partner. Trump has spoken forcefully about wiping out extremism and reining in Iran, but he and too many of his advisers have coupled this with ham-fisted anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies that have caused ISIS and al Qaeda, and now the Iranian leader to thank him.
It would be a grave error for this Administration to fail to understand the connection between how they treat and are perceived to treat Arab and Muslim peoples and their ability to achieve their broader policy objectives in the Middle East. The scenes at US airports and the heart-breaking stories that filled Arab media in the wake of the Executive Order and the shocking anti-Muslim rhetoric associated with some White House officials has outraged Arab and Muslim public opinion. It has also, as we now see, heartened our adversaries and put relations with our allies at risk.
While a dramatic course correction is required, it remains to seen whether this Administration is capable of that. If they don’t change or if they take more provocative measures against Arabs and Muslims (or do something else to aggravate tensions like moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem), the destabilising roller coaster ride will continue with severe consequences that will be felt for years to come.