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Trump's Mideast policy oblivious to Arab opinion, experts say

'War against terrorism' continues to determine course of US involvement in region
Even in places like Saudi Arabia, people have unfavourable opinions of Trump (Reuters)

WASHINGTON, DC - Fresh polling data of Arab opinion in the Middle East on Donald Trump and US policy towards the region has shown that the majority of Arabs hold a negative view of the American president, even in places like Saudi Arabia where the government is friendly towards his administration.

More than half of respondents in this poll unveiled on 26 October by the Arab Center Washington DC – a non-profit that focuses on American-Arab relations – said Trump was anti-Muslim and that his administration has battered US credibility in the world.

The index, which surveyed eight Arab countries, found that 56 percent thought Trump was Islamophobic, and almost half of respondents said he was dangerous and intolerant. Only 38 percent said he was qualified to be president.

This is a president and an administration that has chosen war over diplomacy, guns over butter.

- Phyllis Bennis, the Institute for Policy Studies

“When we asked about the so-called Muslim ban...the overwhelming majority disagreed [with it],” said Tamara Kharroub, senior analyst and assistant executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, which hosted a conference to release the poll and explore its findings.

The responses highlighted widespread opposition to Trump’s efforts to institute restrictions on citizens from several majority-Muslim countries entering the United States.

“They opposed the ban, although it's important to note that none of the countries that we surveyed are included in [it], so we imagine that it would be more negative if we surveyed people in those countries,” Kharroub said.

The survey, which polled people in Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, is being touted as the first in-depth examination of Arab perceptions of the US president and his policies.

The poll found that Arab views toward the US, the American people, and the administration's strategy vis-a-vis the region varied sharply. As in previous years, US intervention in the Middle East remained unpopular across the board, but anti-American sentiment targeted foreign policy – not the US as a country or its population.

The survey of 3,200 Arab respondents, contacted between 14 September and 13 October, showed that none of the US's policies in the region were particularly popular.

The largest proportion of respondents said they did not support American intervention in the region at all, while the second- and third-largest proportions wanted the US to prioritise the conflict in Palestine and to resolve the crises in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria respectively.

The most negative perceptions were reserved for how Washington dealt with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Arab's disapproval of Trump's policies stands in stark contrast with the administration's optimism about reaching an 'ultimate deal' between Israel and the Palestinians (AFP)
“The overwhelming majority thought the current administration's policies towards Palestine have been negative (81 percent),” Kharroub said. “The majority are also pessimistic about the Trump administration's success in resolving the Palestinian conflict.”

This pervasive disapproval stands in stark contrast with the administration's optimism about reaching an “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians.

“The president remains optimistic that progress can be made,” said Joan Polaschik, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs at the US Department of State. “There are likely to be ups and downs on the way to peace, and progress for a comprehensive deal will take time.”

'War on terror'

This disconnect between the administration and Arab sentiment lends credence to assertions that Washington makes minimal effort to consider Arab perceptions when formulating regional policy – which, in turn, continues to be determined through the narrow lens of counter-terrorism.

“The policy of the US in the region right now is dominated by the global war on terror,” said Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

“The US has been at war with terrorism for 16 years now and frankly, terrorism is doing well. What's new is not only the escalation, but also the level of recklessness in this policy.”

Many analysts lament Washington's embrace of a policy that strives to manage the Middle East instead of taking an active leadership role in it – with counterterrorism and combatting the Islamic State (IS) group defining most of the administration's engagement.

“Our highest priority is the defeat of ISIS,” Polaschik acknowledged, using a different acronym for IS.

However, “the US can only do so much,” she said. “The US cannot fix the Middle East, but we stand ready to work with our partners who have the courage and leadership to address...challenges.”

'Isolationism of diplomacy'

Many observers have concluded that the administration is not seeking medium- or long-term transformation of the Middle East, but rather looking for quick wins that play well with Trump's constituents.

“Today the pre-eminence of war against terrorism, ISIS in particular, is above or at the expense of other considerations, continues to determine the course of US involvement in the region,” said Tarek Mitri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University of Beirut and a former Lebanese minister.

“American foreign policy is seen more than in previous years as subservient to domestically motivated considerations,” said Mitri, who also served as head of the UN Support Mission in Libya.

The administration's “America first” approach to foreign policy has portrayed Trump as an isolationist, but troubling signs – such as the slashing of State Department's budget and boosting the Pentagon's coffers – point to an even greater expansion of the US's already sizeable military.

“The only isolationism I see is the isolationism of diplomacy. There's no isolationism on the military side,” Bennis said.

“You have a cabinet that is grounded in billionaires and generals,” she added. “These are not people who have a view of building an internationalist foreign policy that is grounded in human rights, centrality of the UN and equality for all.”

Missing from the discourse is the continuity of policy from previous administrations, Mitri said. When Barack Obama was in power, the US also saw “the region from the narrow lens of counter-terrorism. [Obama] expanded the use of special operation forces, drone strikes and cyber warfare to limit what he saw as terrorist threats to the USA,” he said.

With Trump's blessing, Washington continues to engage in the Middle East, arousing fears that the US military footprint there will grow even further, with consequences as far-reaching as the 2003 invasion of Iraq – to which IS can be traced.  

“This is a thoroughly militarised set of policies. As incoherent as they are, the one point of coherence is the focus on military,” Bennis said. “This is a president and an administration that has chosen war over diplomacy, guns over butter.”

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