The Middle East After November 3rd: The Cambridge Middle East and North African Forum

Julie Luebken 25 October 2020
Image Credits: HillReporter

It’s no secret that the stakes are high in this year’s American election. Whether that concerns the handling of the coronavirus, the reboot of the economy after the pandemic, the civil unrest following police shootings or the future of America’s role on the international stage, the United States has a lot to gain and lose. Last night’s presidential debate showed two very distinct visions the candidates have for their country. While foreign policy was not a focal point, the United States will continue to have a place in global politics and contend with the relationships it has favoured and dismissed over the past four years.

Where does the Middle East fit into this? The Middle East and North Africa Forum in Cambridge hosted a discussion about the future of the region after the November 3rd results. Present were two prominent ambassadors. Ambassador Feltman worked in Tunisia, Lebanon and Tel Aviv during his career, covering issues relating to Palestine, while Ambassador Ford served in Iraq, Syria and Algeria. Both presented astute perspectives on the Middle East under various election scenarios.

When discussing Trump, predictions and foresight are difficult, if not impossible. Despite having four years of evidence as to a foreign policy strategy, the unpredictability of the Trump administration remains. Ambassador Feltman spent time highlighting the lack of a policy program. The process is “messy, non-existent, irrelevant.” There is no attention to detail, no consistency as “Trump trusts his instinct over his advisors.” Even his campaign promises have not been followed through. Trump vowed to significantly decrease the presence of the American military in the Middle East yet troops are still present in Afghanistan. There is a current estimate of 1500 troops in Kuwait (official numbers are no longer made public) and 500 in Saudi Arabia. Why this is the case is uncertain but they are mainly remnants of post-9/11 deployments. Surely these are no longer necessary. Beyond military involvement, American relations in the Middle East have become more ambiguous. Trump very much favours personal relationships over considerations of political compliance or economic gain. The administration has better relations with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia than it does with some of its traditional European allies. Trump only respects strong male leaders, and ones who are like him and unlikely to challenge him in any way. Needless to say, that the pool is very limited. The American priority (or what it was), of prioritization, democracy and human rights compliance, has eroded significantly and there is nothing to suggest that this would change under a second Trump term.

“Ruined relationships will not be easy to repair”, is Ambassador Ford’s advice to Biden. If the Democratic candidate wins, the international political landscape is going to look very different to a man who was used to certain American standards.

“Ruined relationships will not be easy to repair”, is Ambassador Ford’s advice to Biden. If the Democratic candidate wins, the international political landscape is going to look very different to a man who was used to certain American standards. Sure, this is most applicable to the European countries, who now make a mockery of the United States. Things have also significantly evolved in the Middle East and will continue to do so on its own terms, hopefully, no matter who is President. Well, in painting the picture of a Biden presidency, it does not seem likely that the Middle East is going to be a primary concern, or even a concern at all. The Biden campaign and potential presidency has been, and will be, very focused on COVID-19. This is working well as a topic against Trump and dealing with the virus is essential for the health of the population as well as the economy. Alongside this, other prevalent concerns include healthcare and immigration reform. The Obama administration also took a very different approach to its global strategy. The Democrats, before the outbreak of the Syrian war, were concerned with an ‘Asian pivot’, as Ambassador Ford described. A heavy emphasis on cooperation with China is essential to remain relevant and powerful. Russia also provides the United States with a challenge and need for attention when it comes to foreign policy. Latin America is also higher on the agenda, for trade and immigration issues especially.

One of the most destructive moves Trump has made during his presidency was his withdrawal from the JCPOA (Iranian nuclear deal). Ambassador Ford, while still condemning the choice, does not believe Biden will be so quick in reversing this. In order to have a meaningful relationship with Iran, there needs to be a willingness to comply with international norms. Yes, this is a timeless statement, but the withdrawal of the United States has meant even less consideration for the agreement on the Iranian part. Another mistake, one that is not confined to the Trump presidency, is the American involvement in the Yemen war. This was a great mistake and one that has tarnished the United States’ reputation as well as that of Saudi Arabia, according to Ford. Delving further into the topic of political mistakes: Biden has expressed regret as to his vote to invade Iraq in 2002. This may suggest a rolling back of accepted American practices of intervention in the Middle East, a move that Democrats such as Warren and Sanders would be in support of. The United States has created and continued many conflicts in the region – perhaps staying back would prove beneficial for both parties.

As a general takeaway from this conversation, it seems there are two distinct possibilities. On the one hand, Trump gets re-elected and we see more of the same, whatever that means in terms of unstable and unpredictable policy. On the other hand, Biden wins and the world can let out four years’ worth of tension. As the anticipation for November 3rd continues to mount, a lot of questions arise. Hopefully, we will have answers soon enough.