Mideast expects big changes under Trump

Published 8:25 am Friday, January 20, 2017

CAIRO — Donald Trump’s all-but-dismissal of human rights as a foreign policy principle could hit like an earthquake across a Middle East landscape beset by warring factions and beleaguered governments, with some players eyeing the prospect of once unimaginable new alliances.

Syria is the foremost test of Trump’s promise of a return to a hard-headed realpolitik and could quickly show whether America is truly abandoning promotion of democracy and the rule of law in a way that could reshape much of the region’s post-Cold War, post-9/11 order.

Trump has raised the possibility of a broad new U.S. partnership with Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian Russia and has even hinted at aligning with Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would amount to a dramatic reversal from years of the Obama administration calls for Assad’s ouster. Trump seems to calculate that their shared enemy in the Islamic State is more important than shared values.

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“When it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries,” Trump explained last July as Turkey was punishing tens of thousands of people seemingly unconnected to a failed coup attempt. “We need allies,” Trump said in a New York Times interview. “I don’t know that we have a right to lecture.”

When Barack Obama declared a new beginning with the Muslim world in a landmark speech eight years ago, he mentioned democracy six times and broached the subject of human rights on a dozen occasions. Trump has barely mentioned these as foreign policy principles, extolling instead deal-making, diplomatic and economic, and championing the fight against IS.

“Human rights will not be his top priority,” concluded Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and defense department at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.

Some believe the change will in the end be largely a matter of style, noting that Obama has fought jihadism all over the region as well. Aaron David Miller, a Mideast adviser under five American presidents, expects Trump to prove “risk- averse” and remain consistent with Obama’s own reluctance to interfere in other countries’ affairs, use military force, remain engaged in Iraq or get truly involved in Syria’s civil war.

But it’s clear that several long-standing allies in the Middle East are relishing an end to what they saw as moralizing rhetoric, confused signals and unfulfilled red lines, and favoring a Trump pivot to counterterrorism and security.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is still waiting for a White House invitation, having been shunned by Obama for his bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is expecting a renewed push from Washington on its arch-rival Iran, instead of Obama’s more neutral stance and its accompanying criticism of the kingdom’s treatment of women and killing of civilians in Yemen. And Israel’s nationalist leadership has made almost a public celebration of Trump’s imminent arrival, confident that its grief for how it treats the Palestinians is over.