The US President Donald Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’ – the decision to temporarily curb through a ninety-day period the arrival of visitors from seven select Muslim countries and to impose ‘extreme vetting’ on visa applicants from three others – has created turbulence in American politics and the regional opinion that could impact the new administration’s policies in the Middle East.
Quite obviously, ‘It is Trump, stupid’ – rather than the ‘Muslim ban’ as such – which has incited the avalanche of criticism and condemnation of the presidential executive order in America itself. The fine print shows that the White House’s executive order simply adopted a precedent taken out of President Barack Obama’s copybook. Trump administration simply followed Obama’s footfalls in regard of selective targeting of the 7 Muslim countries. As one commentator pointed out, «Yes, these policies are bad, very bad. Trump is bad. But so was Obama and so is Clinton. Protesting the policies of one while not protesting when the other implemented the same policies, is insincere grandstanding».
Bill and Obama went scot-free because they were ‘liberals’. Indeed, no matter what Trump does – be it on Muslim ban or on the decision to make his chief strategist Steve Bannon a permanent invitee to the National Security Council meetings – he is going to be pilloried. How can America fly its flag with credibility in the Middle East and command respect and hearing when it has such a dissonant voice and displays such dishonesty at home?
Without doubt, another wave of ‘anti-Americanism’ is sweeping over the Islamic world, which will complicate Trump’s best-laid plans for the Muslim Middle East. The hostility on the Arab Street apart, there is also the prickly dilemma that confronts the Middle Eastern regimes that are the US’ allies, especially Saudi Arabia, which unabashedly uses its religious clout to project its role in regional politics. Of course, a way around can be found – indeed, it will be found eventually, if history is any guide – but it takes time to ride out the public fury.
Meanwhile, the clock has already begun ticking for the 30-day timeline Trump gave on Saturday to the US military to devise a «comprehensive strategy and plans for the defeat» of the Islamic State. Practical issues are involved. The new strategy means more US forces and military hardware moving into Iraq and Syria – and yet, the Iraqi parliament just voted a reciprocal travel ban on US citizens.
The foreign-policy brief posted on the White House website on January 20 within hours of Trump’s inaugural says, «Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary». Now, assembling a ‘coalition of the willing’ is going to be difficult in the present circumstances. Importantly, the US’ major European allies have a chip on their shoulder in consorting with the Trump administration. Of course, their citizens are not directly affected by the ‘Muslim ban’. Yet, how far would they wish to associate with Trump administration’s «aggressive joint and coalition military operations» in the Middle East?
Again, the Trump administration’s policy dilemmas over the very idea of establishing ‘safe zones’ in Syria and Yemen may have become more acute. It is a hugely controversial idea in the first instance demanding a scale of regional consensus that is simply hard to reach, given the conflicting interests involved, and possibly requiring underpinnings of strong US military presence for a long time to come to enforce the ‘safe zones’. Indeed, the actual location of the safe zones itself will run into headwinds. The Syrian government has taken the stance that any attempt to install safe zones without its consent would constitute a "violation of Syria's sovereignty."
Clearly, the evolution of the US-Iranian engagement in the coming period, a highly consequential template of regional security in the Middle East, also remains to be seen. Probably a military option against Iran was never quite viable or realistic for Washington all along, but it is manifestly so today.
True, there has been condemnation in Tehran over Trump’s Muslim ban. But the Foreign Ministry statement is in measured tone calling attention to the «clear insult to the Islamic world» and the danger that Trump may be inadvertently making «a great gift to extremists and their supporters», providing fertile ground for recruitment by terrorist groups. The emphasis is on the legality of the US decision and the statement differentiates «the rancour and enmity of some in the US government and influential circles both within the United States and abroad towards».
Meanwhile, President Hassan Rouhani made a significant remark on Monday highlighting the importance of constructive engagement with the international community «for the benefit of our people and national interests», drawing a clear distinction between sovereignty and isolation. Suffice it to say much as emotions are running high in the Muslim world, Iran (or Saudi Arabia for that matter) will be inclined to see the current agitated mood as transitory. Pragmatic considerations will prevail.
Perhaps, the good part in all this is that unilateralist US military interventions in Muslim countries may be becoming increasingly difficult – that is, even if Trump were to abandon his ‘America First’ foreign-policy doctrine and acted more like Hillary Clinton would have done. To be sure, the litmus test is Syria where for the Trump administration, partnership with Russia and dependence on Russian military capabilities to fight the Islamic State increases, while the US may have to acquiesce with the participation of the Syrian government forces and also live with ground reality that the Iran-supported militia and Hezbollah are making a decisive contribution in the actual ground fighting against terrorist groups.
Trump’s main challenge lies in weathering the visceral opposition that he faces within America itself with one half outright rejecting his legitimacy to lead the nation. It is the ultimate paradox that in this extraordinary struggle, the so-called liberal progressive left in America is focusing on opposing Trump instead of opposing the wars that created the refugee problem.