When it comes to the US presidential candidates and foreign policy, it seems at first glance to be a no-brainer.
Hillary Clinton, the Democrat nominee, is experienced, knowledgeable and intelligent, an internationalist who is known and respected around the world. In contrast, Donald Trump, the Republican Party choice, repeatedly shoots from the hip, as well as himself in the foot. He seems clueless on the complexities of the world and makes reckless, hyper-nationalist boasts about how he will crush his enemies and make America’s allies squirm.
Such posturing makes people everywhere fearful, and makes many wonder whether the American citizenry as a whole is experiencing a psychotic episode.
Yet a closer look at the candidates makes the choice between them less obvious and more interesting, if not more encouraging, especially if the focus is on what the election of either might mean for the Middle East.
Trump against intervention, sort of
One of the few consistent Middle Eastern positions taken by Trump is his deep scepticism about regime-changing interventions in the region, especially Iraq and Libya, and the accompanying expensive delusions of former presidents about policies aimed at producing democracies.
If you bother to check out what Trump had to say on these same issues a few years ago, then you will find some awkward, if expected, inconsistencies in his earlier pronouncements. His loudly claimed opposition to the US occupation of Iraq is not backed up by any statements at the time. In fact, asked whether he supported invading Iraq by right-wing radio presenter Howard Stern six months before the war, he said: "Yeah, I guess so." Soon after the invasion, he appeared to change his mind.
Still, his present opposition to interventionist diplomacy has been a consistent theme throughout the presidential campaign, encapsulated in his own words: “After 15 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.”
The likelihood is that Trump will oppose intervention in the Middle East unless there is a clear connection to a terrorist threat directed at the US, either by Islamic State (IS) or, possibly, by al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula.
Clinton pro-war, pro-dictator
Clinton has a hawkish foreign policy record, which she tried to keep out of sight during the primary campaign, where her rival Bernie Sanders held progressive views that were surprisingly similar to Trump on the question of military intervention in the Middle East.
During Clinton’s time as secretary of state from 2009 till 2013 - which included her shaping of US policy toward Russia, China, Afghanistan and the Middle East - she repeatedly pushed President Barack Obama to adopt a more militarist approach, most visibly as regards American military involvement in Libya and Syria.
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. This became starkly apparent in her vigorous efforts to stand by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in his hour of trouble with the Egyptian people in 2011.
She also clearly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq - the most disastrous American foreign policy decision since the US committed itself to the losing side in the Vietnam War – even if she now downplays her position.
Not only did the invasion bring death, devastation, massive displacement and lasting chaos to Iraq and its people, but the long American-led occupation also spread disorder beyond Iraq’s borders and contributed to the birth and rise of IS.
Yet despite Clinton’s policy misjudgements in the Middle East, isn’t the world better off with her steady hand, especially when the alternative is the wild impulses of Trump?
Indeed, Clinton’s morbid quip in her speech at the Democratic National Convention last month 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 when we realise that there are no checks limiting the capacity of an American president to use nuclear weapons – and how US allies around the world, despite their huge stake, play no role in determining the election outcome. It may be time to think about enfranchising the rest of the planet if the ideal of global democracy and the rule of law are ever to achieve political traction.
Trump has made several assertions about nuclear weapons that not only challenge decades of Western conventional wisdom, but also strikes 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 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.
United against Iran deal
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 agreement since it “gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing”.
Scrapping the deal, or even failing to live up to its commitments, risks unravelling the entire region’s relationship with Tehran, and might tempt Israel to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or give rise to an extremely dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
It should be noted 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. It's a proposal that enjoys the support of every Middle Eastern government except Israel, and would probably stabilise the region more than any other single initiative.
Clinton's neocon endorsers
But the belief that Clinton is more reliable than Trump could be regarded more as a matter of style over substance. According to reports, she raised the possibility of 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 Kagan, considered the most militarist member of the neo-conservative inner circle. Kagan has endorsed Clinton and is the most visible advisor in her foreign policy brain trust, despite being closely identified in the past with the Republicans.
Trump boasts of his meetings with Kissinger as some kind of certification of worthiness that overcomes his amateurish qualifications for high political office. Yet his opinions adopt lines of thought that are probably anathema to this aged master of realpolitik.
Clinton, of course, has reflected much more and longer on such matters. She has adopted, in an effort to please all sides, what she dubs "smart power", a customised 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 known and the unknown
Given all this information, can we predict what would be the Middle East policy of a Clinton or Trump presidency?
It is possible to make more reliable guesses about Clinton because she has made some of her positions clear already: an escalation of support for anti-Assad Syria, a hardening of diplomatic bargaining with Iran as seen in the nuclear deal and a further upgrading of the special relationship with Israel.
In addition, her administration would likely recommit to larger numbers of American military forces in Iraq, and especially robust military action against political extremism throughout the region.
In contrast Trump can be expected to indulge his neo-isolationist inclinations, likely moving policy in an opposite direction by withdrawing American combat forces and downgrading military bases in the region. In effect he will pivot away from the Middle East.
The exception would seem to be his extravagant pledge to crush IS, whatever that might mean in practice. The related idea of imposing an absolute ban on Muslim immigration to the US is likely to have disastrous blowback effects, fanning the flames of Muslim civilisational 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 domestic political scene is taken into account, as well the rest of the world, then Clinton holds the clear edge - unless one feels so disgusted 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.
- Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. In 2008 he was also appointed by the UN to serve a six-year term as the Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: People cast their ballots in a polling station during the presidential primary election on 26 April 2016 in Philadelphia (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.