“A unilateral decision made to draw lines in the sand, to undertake crusades, to oppose their evil with our good, to extirpate terrorism and, in Paul Wolfowitz’s nihilistic vocabulary, to end nations entirely, doesn’t make the supposed entities any easier to see; rather, it speaks to how much simpler it is to make bellicose statements for the purpose of mobilizing collective passions than to reflect, examine, sort out what it is we are dealing with in reality, the interconnectedness of innumerable lives, ‘ours’ as well as ‘theirs’.”- Edward Said
The presidency of Donald J. Trump marks an arrival of initial uncertainty in American foreign policy towards the Middle East. While his campaign promises and inaugural address were clearly imprinted with ‘America First,’ the President’s nebulous worldview and policy contradictions have rendered his Middle East strategy ‘incalculable’ by many. Yet, if analyzed closely, Trump has expressed objectives in the region that give insight to the future of strategy in the Middle East and North Africa. The President’s policymaking will not be shaped by party affiliation or ideology, but rather an unorthodox perception of what defines a foreign policy ‘win.’
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow, Thomas Wright, has deciphered Trumpian principles of policymaking. He has argued that the mystique surrounding Trump’s presidential policy is a false illusion; scholars, policymakers, and constituents should take him both literally and seriously. Wright asserted that the President’s views are “alien to the Foreign Policy tradition,” whereas instead of channeling a hawkish, conservative agenda, Trump harkens back to the 19th century with a strong commitment to mercantilism and isolationism. As in business, Trump will perceive the Middle East not through lenses of conflict alleviation or humanitarian work, but rather a treasure trove of financial ‘wins’ for the United States. This mentality can be explained with Trump’s detest of the international liberal order; despite the United States benefiting from post-war institutions and multilateral treaties in sectors of national security and diplomacy, these are invisible victories to which the United States carries much financial burden. If there is no immediate material or financial gain, American interest pivots. The President’s recent address to the Central Intelligence Agency proves such prioritization; Trump affirmed his devotion to the phrase, “to the victors belong the spoils,” and claimed American troops should have seized the Iraqi state’s oil supply before departing in 2011.
Yet, while deals and foreign policy ‘wins’ will guide the objectives of foreign policy, it will be the narrative of Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory that will embolden future crises. Under President Trump’s stewardship, the Middle East will undergo a drastic rhetorical transformation. Traditional power dynamics will remain — Syria will continue to confront an uncertain future, the Iranian-Saudi Arabian rivalry in the Gulf will continue to haunt sectarian division, many post-Arab Spring governments will continue to reconcile tumultuous political realities. However, a revived use of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory will pour salt in the wounds of bleeding conflicts, aggravating terrorism’s fault-lines of Orientalism and interventionism.
The Tool of the ‘Clash’
In 1992, Samuel P. Huntington gave a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, where he introduced the basis for one of the largest academic discourses in Middle Eastern studies: the “Clash of Civilizations.” The proposition culminated in a 1993 Foreign Affairs Magazine feature, and a 1996 book: “The Clash of Civilizations? The Debate.” Huntington’s proposition that the future of the international system would not feature the “end of history” as Francis Fukuyama theorized, but rather a confrontation between the West — a troupe of ‘civilized’, Christian states — and Islam, a colossal religion he saw inimical towards non-Islamic cultures. Conflict, Huntington theorized from his armchair, was inherently cultural. War would transpire across the fault lines of civilizations, rooted in 20th century globalization. In the eyes of Mr. Huntington, The Cold War days of ideological tussles and nationalist fervor were well behind us, as it was now cultural peripheries that would characterize the slippery slope of international affairs.
While the scholarly community was quick to correct Huntington on the mischaracterization and generalization of a colossal religion juxtaposed with ambiguous ‘Western values,’ hawkish policymakers were just as eager to adopt Huntington’s thesis. After all, in a post-9/11 international order, the idea was easy to incorporate in the Bush administration’s foreign policy; the ‘clash’ was a convenient explanation of the sudden rise of extremist organizations claiming a jihadist battle against the imperial West. It is easy to dismiss the sectarian, demographic, and political complexity of the region with such a simple theory — categorizing a colossal, peaceful religion in opposition to the ‘West,’ whatever the West is.
But the ‘clash’ is only true if it is rhetorically made to be believed; mischaracterization is only reality when society makes it so. The danger of Huntington’s theory is not its context, but its capability to transform into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those that yield power and influence can create an environment of either co-existing cultural peripheries, or civilizations caught in collision. The Trump administration will capitalize on the latter.
President Trump will not only use the Huntingtonian narrative as a framework in foreign policy, but as a tool. Juxtaposing the ‘West’ against a religion deemed a security threat dehumanizes and materializes the region, ripening the Middle East for harsher counterterrorism measures and cooperation with Russia in Syria. If Trump wishes to disassemble the pillars of the current liberal international order — multilateral organizations, such as the European Union and the United Nations, and free-trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — Huntington’s theory will serve as a key mechanism in undermining globalism and putting America first. In the Middle East, this mentality will prioritize the West’s war with Islam above endeavors in democracy-promotion, human rights campaigns, gender equality, conflict alleviation, and even the Gulf oil trade.
A New Middle East
North Africa, the Levant, and the Gulf all remain in extremely precarious conditions. Many of their postcolonial lesions still bleed with conflict, political and institutional instability, and civil disunity. The failed democratic demands of Arab Spring protestors still linger in Tahrir Square, Avenue Habib Bourguiba, and Baniyas, with little chance of immediate re-emergence. Most notably, a once-isolated conflict in Syria has globalized into one of the largest refugee outpours since the Second World War, as well as a gargantuan power vacuum that has welcomed both forces of extremism and proponents of peace. To say President Trump is inheriting great disarray in the Middle East is an understatement — however, the president will prove selective in the crises he deems ‘winnable,’ using Huntingtonian logic to materialize gains and dehumanize conflicts.
The Rhetorical Battle Against ISIS
Aside from ‘America first’, Trump’s most notable campaign pledge to the American people was the eradication of Daesh, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has proven its parasitic existence in Syria and Iraq’s power vacuum and potent in its ideological appeal across the globe. The organization’s notability is derived from its eccentricity; the Islamic State sets itself apart from traditionalist terrorist organizations, as their social media adeptness, territorial conquest, and recruiting techniques truly deem it a 21st century phenomenon. Trump is right to perceive the terrorist organization as a national security threat; the organization has killed nearly 1,400 people in over 90 attacks across the world with frequent direct threats upon the United States, while operating a $2 billion war effort in the Levant.
However, the mechanism Trump has chosen to confront ISIS has been through rhetorical strategy rather than one of pure policy, using the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative by creating a social construct that blurs the lines between religious affiliation and terrorist fervor. The president has made a point in deviating from the Obama administration’s rhetoric, opting to use the phrase, “radical Islamic terrorism,” instead of “acts of terror.” The implicit choice to implement the word “Islam,” confirms Trump’s commitment to associate terrorist organizations with the a religion they misinterpret — a tactic to pose counterterrorism as a larger battle not between a government and non-state actor, but a duel between civilizations.
Such language is counterproductive in the battle against radicalized organizations in the Middle East. Characterizing the enemy as a cultural, incompatible entity is a cyclical tactic, as the same rhetoric is used in terrorist propaganda and recruiting mechanisms. Emile Nakleh, a former senior intelligence service officer and director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program from the Central Intelligence Agency, has argued the avoidance of using “Islamic terrorism” is a strategic choice, as distortion of religious identity isolates necessary allies integral in the fight against terrorism.
Strategizing a New Syria
Trump’s navigation of Syria’s political vacuum will be increasingly transactional, isolating much of the humanitarian, political, and ethical entanglements that contributed to the conflict’s intractability. It has been made clear — through campaign rhetoric and the selection of cabinet members — that Donald Trump’s paramount objective in Syria is not ousting the Assad government, opposing Iran, nor rivaling Russia, but eradicating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from the Levant. In fact, Donald Trump perceives Iran and Russia as key partners in ousting the terrorist organization; he has erroneously stated that the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia were actively and effectively fighting ISIS in the region, when really, the forces were brutally striking separatist and moderate Sunni rebels, such as the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in attempt to secure the survival of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In the process, an estimated death toll of 470,000 individuals have been counted in Aleppo under Russian-Syrian army bombings and series of chemical weapons attacks. The possibility that American policy will sacrifice deposing a regime guilty of innumerable war crimes in exchange for regional support in the fight against terrorism signals a pivot from the multi-faceted framework of the previous administration, to one that is purely politically strategic in its Huntingtonian campaign.
By framing the Islamic world as a civilization in and of itself, Trump isolates the humanitarian strife that the previous presidential administration and liberal institutions sought to recognize. Such a tactic was exemplified in the administration’s controversial executive order, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” The intentional ambiguity of the order’s language enabled the ‘clash’ to emerge in airports across the United States — refugees and visa-holders from seven predominantly Muslim countries were barred from entry, with the exception to persecuted Christians. While the order did not specifically reference Muslims, it still employed Huntington’s theory through intentional interpretation of Islam as a threatening ‘civilization,’ rather than religious identity. Uniformly casting Muslim refugees and immigrants under the broader guise of national security threats, Trump masterfully succeeded in using the ‘clash’ to his advantage.
The year 2017 presents many questions to both American constituents and the international community. The rise of right-wing populism in the West, the acceleration of kleptocracy in receding democratic governments, the transformation of Syria’s civil conflict into a globalized quandary, and the impending collapse of post-war, liberal institutions have begun to deconstruct what we know as the international liberal order. The largest phenomenon of last year was the presidential success of Donald J. Trump, who now occupies the most precious, precarious office in the world. Trump’s American presidency will create great reverberations around the international community, but will particularly shape and embolden a new Middle East. The contemporary Middle East will continue to confront its disarray; postcolonial recovery from imperial exploitation, manipulation of indigenous resources and identities, tension between nationalism and fallacious Sykes-Picot borders, and violent extremism. Just as in the past, American foreign policy will continue to struggle with the weighty complexity the Middle East presents them, but the adoption of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” will only exacerbate the region’s conflicts, not alleviate them.