On Election Day, The Middle East Is Watching — And Praying

Wow.” Trump himself was lost for words when he tweeted this a few days ago. Even he, was taken aback by the FBI’s decision to inform the US Congress that it was reviewing another batch of Clinton-related emails. Suddenly, with this unexpected late rebound, Trump believes in opinion polls ― again. Why wouldn’t he? In the homestretch before election day, he is leading nationally in some polls, in others he is tied with Hillary Clinton. His bid for the White House may have looked all-but-dead just over a week ago; but the FBI Director’s surprise announcement served as a formidable defibrillator to his campaign, particularly in battleground states.

Although Trump’s chances may have been spectacularly revived, it remains to be seen whether this reversal of fortune will alter the electoral college count where Clinton appeared, up until the FBI’s electroshock, to have a comfortable lead. So, America will remain hung until 8 November, and possibly beyond. And so will jittery governments the world over; waiting and watching.

For now, both candidates’ sole preoccupation is to ride an archaic U.S. voting system. But they are both also keenly aware that by 9 November, as Commander-in-Chief-elect, U.S. foreign policy and the ongoing wars the country is embroiled in will be at the top of their agenda. As one reluctant Republican Trump supporter in the U.S. congress put it: ‘we don’t know everything he is going to do if he is elected president, but we know what she is going to do’. And that pretty much sums it all up.

Looming large is the U.S.-Russian relationship and the new balance of power in the Middle East and beyond. Clinton’s electioneering bombast towards Russia and its President, whom she repeatedly called a ‘dictator’ and characterised in terms not used by U.S. Presidents, even at the height of the Cold War, will be a bitter pill for Moscow to swallow. Putin will likely exact a price for having been described in ways usually reserved for the US’ worst enemies among Third World potentates.

Which brings us to Syria. If the Obama administration is painstakingly trying to find its balance in dealing with Moscow, a Clinton Administration will face a greater handicap. After all, Hillary Clinton was instrumental in pushing Obama to intervene in Libya, despite Russia’s objections. And if it were up to her, the U.S. would have launched an overt military operation against the Syrian government, much earlier and much more boldly. Putin also knows that.

A Trump Administration, on the other hand, will reset the relationship with the Kremlin and find common purpose on Syria, if we take Trump’s campaign pronouncements at face value: “We have no idea who [the insurgents] are, we give them weapons, we give them everything. Maybe it’s worse than Assad. Why are we involved?” His disdain for military interventionism and his stated willingness to work with Russia to defeat common enemies could herald a departure from conventional American policy: “If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I’m all for it 100 percent.” He believes a new U.S. approach is required to stabilise the region, minimise the risks of a direct East-West military confrontation over Syria ― and cut costs, reminding his supporters that Washington’s military adventurism has cost taxpayers 6 trillion dollars, and that Obama doubled the country’s debt, now at 20 trillion dollars.

The all-out war in Syria encapsulates America’s foreign policy dilemmas: the rise of ISIS, the proxy roles of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran, and Russia’s growing power projection. Trump seems eager to let the Russians take on ISIS and other armed groups in Syria; for him, Syria and Iraq represent a dismally failed policy which has eroded U.S. power. Trump wants to restore American glory and redefine America’s objectives. To that end, his likely strategic realignment ― a possible U.S. policy U turn on Syria ― will provoke the ire of traditional allies in the region like Saudi Arabia, already deeply irked by what they view as Obama’s treacherous stance on Syria, or Turkey, a NATO ally safekeeping dozens of U.S. nuclear warheads at the Incirlik base 70 miles off the Syrian border.

Will Trump rethink and redraw America’s web of alliances in the Middle East? Will the bold, brash and unpredictable citizen Trump make way for a pragmatic and cogent President Trump, possibly more attune to a doctrine of geo-political realism than American exceptionalism? Less interventionist and bellicose than a President Clinton? America’s erstwhile allies in the region are undoubtedly praying for Clinton. And if their prayers are not answered, then, they will have to pray even more.

Originally published 8 November 2017 on The Huffington Post