Why (Of Course) the Middle East Should Worry About Donald Trump

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

AFP photo: Gabriel Bouys

America currently faces three simultaneous crises: A pandemic whose severity recalls that of the 1918 Spanish Flu, an economic downturn as serious as the 1929 Depression, and an explosive protest movement reminiscent of 1968. In Donald Trump, America currently also is presided over by a leader unlike any in its history. The Middle East, a region that owes so much to the United States — good, bad and indifferent — should pay close attention to gauge what might be in store after the November 3 presidential elections.

Whether they come from the conservative Republican party or the liberal Democratic party, all American presidents in the past few decades end up leading from the center. They may sweep up one or both houses of Congress with their victory, but two years later mid-term elections are a time of reassessment by voters. They force presidents to seek compromises and to build consensus from the middle position. This didn’t happen with Trump.

Trump doesn’t do consensus: he destroys them through his overweening self-importance. Right, left and center mean nothing to him. His egotism encourages a cultish adoration that should be familiar to many who have lived in the Middle East. Ditto his demonization of opponents. He paints himself as a “strong” leader who can take on anyone and everyone. In this and so many other ways he reminds us again of the Middle East’s history of tyrants and dictators.

Is Lafayette Park the Tahrir Square of Washington? Not really, of course. Not by a long shot. But it could have devolved into a nightmare in aid of a Kodak moment. Still, the new fencing surrounding the White House surely is a reminder of banana republics protecting their symbols of authority — the radio and TV station, the leader’s palace. (Trump ought to be reminded why America named its president’s residence just a “house.”)

Yet, after all this, there is one difference between Trump and the dictators, tyrants and autocrats known and not loved in the Middle East. Trump is lazy. He is intellectually lethargic and work shy. He is all ambition and yet would confound Max Weber a century later as a Protestant with no work ethic. And this is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Trump presidency. He is motivated by no ideas, no ideology, no sense of justice. One might be tempted to say that he elevated nihilism into a political force in America. Except he is too dull to understand what that means and too lazy to offer up anything approaching an ideology. That his presidency should be aligned to the right rather than the left is not a function of preference, but because his appetite defaults in this direction. And because he is a man of large appetite, he veers very far to the right.

In the Middle East, Trump has shuffled one way and then another — in Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine. He withdrew from the “terrible” and “failed” Iran nuclear deal in a spectacular manner, but now has offered Tehran a chance to “make the big deal.” He has hinted that Iran could get better terms if it negotiated with him before the November elections, according to The New York Times. On the southern shore of the Gulf, there would have been disquiet. Except for the fact that the Iranians have spurned the offer in the belief that Joe Biden might win.

Should Trump survive his summer of discontent, should America survive its peek into a dystopia of comic-book proportions, the president might well get reelected. Freed of the prospect of fighting another election, some presidents try to establish hallmark legislations to engrave their legacy. Trump, who has spent the last three and a half years on “perfect” and “beautiful” somethings or others in the making of America great again, sans any definition of that “greatness,” has not provided any hint of such visions. To paraphrase (with apologies to) Gertrude Stein, there is no “there” there in Trump.

He will likely persist with his self-centered style. He might become even lazier and lose all motivation to even pretend he is leader of the country. What this might mean for Americans is uncertain. For the rest of the world, four more years of an unintentional doctrine of strategic uncertainty by the lone superpower is a frightening proposition. Asia might worry. Europe might worry. But the Middle East, beholden to American foreign policy and the locus of so much violence and warfare in the past decade alone, should seriously ponder its options.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.