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Trump or Clinton: The Middle East’s rock and hard place

Hillary Clinton's policies are interventionist, while a Donald Trump presidency seems completely unpredictable
Hillary Clinton speaking at AIPAC (AFP)

NEW YORK - The United States' 2016 presidential race increasingly looks like a face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – candidates with wildly different views on how the US should behave on the world stage and in particular, in the Middle East.

At first glance, Clinton, a former US Secretary of State, appears to be the obvious choice. The Democrat has years of experience in Washington and the White House and is on first-name terms with many leaders from the Middle East and the wider world.

But look again. The former US senator voted for the 2003 Iraq war and advocated US interventions in Syria and Libya, with its woeful results. Could Trump, a celebrity builder who wants to withdraw the US from foreign entanglements, be a better choice?

“Clinton’s disastrously hawkish positions in the region are a matter of record, helping to leave a trail of destruction in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Palestine, while once threatening to annihilate Iran,” Joe Lauria, an Erbil-based world affairs analyst, told Middle East Eye.

“Trump is a wildcard: he speaks non-intervention but has surrounded himself with interventionist advisers so no one really knows how he’d react to a crisis in the region. Neither inspires much hope at all.”

Trump emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee after winning this week’s Indiana primary, making November’s presidential election a likely contest between him and Clinton. She leads polls by an average of 6.5 points.

Each party will formally select its nominee at its convention in July, followed by three months of campaigning on domestic and foreign policy in a White House race that promises to be a vigorous clash between two pugnacious characters.

Trump spelled out his “America first” foreign policy in a recent speech, slamming Clinton and US President Barack Obama while expressing isolationist leanings and a desire that US allies pay for their own defence and stop relying on American muscle.

He blasted Washington’s failures in Libya and Syria and for giving the Islamic State (IS) group space to “grow and prosper”. He did not revisit previous controversies, such as his past calls to bar Muslims from entering the US or to build a wall on the frontier with Mexico.

But Trump’s speech left many analysts scratching their heads. Critics say he is too erratic and unpredictable to wield a superpower’s nuclear arsenal. For Donald Baer, a former White House advisor to Bill Clinton, the billionaire comes with a hazard warning.

“This election has the potential to be deeply destabilising with regard to our relationship with that part of the world because of Mr Trump’s stated objectives and attitudes and the great deal of uncertainty that surrounds what a Trump presidency would be like,” Baer told MEE.

Donald Baer, a former White House advisor to Bill Clinton (MEE/James Reinl)

These sentiments are echoed in the region. While Trump’s rejection of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran accords with sentiments in Saudi Arabia and many other Sunni Muslim states that fear Tehran’s growing influence, his anti-Muslim rhetoric made him many enemies.

“He’s a racist and a chauvinist who will never be widely welcomed in the Arab world,” said Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdullah.

When it comes to Middle East policy, Clinton and Trump overlap on some areas. At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) confab in March, they both stressed the need for strong US support for Israel in its struggle with Palestinians.

This was an about face for Trump, who had floated the idea of being a “neutral” broker there. 

There is slightly more daylight between the candidates on the Iran deal. Clinton has spoken both for and against Obama’s deal on blocking Iran’s route to nuclear weapons. She currently backs the agreement, while still talking tough against Iran’s mullahs.

Trump called the deal “disastrous” and has vowed to stop Iran from building doomsday weapons, but noted that European allies also signed up and that “your friends need to know that you will stick by the agreements that you have with them”.

“Hillary may ratchet up her language on Iran, but ultimately she will not withdraw the US from a major Obama foreign policy achievement,” Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute think tank, told MEE.

Jonathan Cristol, scholar at the World Policy Institute think tank (MEE/James Reinl)

“Trump is a wildcard. He may demand a renegotiation in search of a mythical better deal. This would be dangerous not only for US-Iranian relations, but the ensuing global re-evaluation of US commitments would not serve US interests and reverberate beyond the Middle East.”

The biggest difference between Clinton and Trump is their reflexes.

Clinton’s track record is interventionist. She voted for the Iraq war in 2003, but later recanted. She was a staunch advocate of toppling Muammar Gaddafi in Libya’s 2011 uprising, despite the lack of planning for what would follow.

On Syria, she took a tough line on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, favouring a no-fly zone, arming of moderate rebels and bombing of Syrian government positions after a chemical weapons strike outside Damascus in August 2013. 

Trump, on the other hand, has rejected the “dangerous idea” that western-style democracy can be exported to the Middle East. Libya was better under Gaddafi, he says, and the US should have backed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s revolution.

On Syria, Trump says that defeating IS is the priority. He would consider sending some 30,000 US troops to wage that battle, but has also expressed a desire for Assad’s forces and Russia to do the fighting instead.

“It’s possible that Trump’s policy will be non-interventionist; it's also possible it will be insanely interventionist. Trump is a thin-skinned egomaniac who knows nothing about foreign policy and changes position based on what he read that morning,” Cristol told MEE.  

“His is not a policy of non-intervention, but of withdrawal and isolation, and that’s dangerous for the Middle East and the world. What would Saudi Arabia do absent US support, which can be a constraining force? The potential for violence and aggression increases tremendously.”