National Press Club: The Presidential Elections and U.S. Middle East Policy
BY: Clara Ana Ruplinger/Contributing Writer
At the National Press Club on Wednesday, Arab Center, Washington D.C. hosted a panel discussion on the impact of the presidential elections on U.S. Middle East Policy. Four prominent scholars spoke on this issue: Ellen Laipson, Distinguished Fellow and President Emeritus of the Stimson Center; Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives for the Wilson Center; Manal Omar, Associate Vice President of the Center for Middle East and Africa at the U.S institute of Peace; and Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland, and nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Changing U.S. Policy in the Middle East
Aaron Miller introduced the panel by stating that regardless of who the next president is, the U.S. should expect continuity rather than change. Miller continued: saying that in forty years, the only times major shifts in U.S. policy towards the Middle East have occurred was when there were major aberrations within or from the Middle East itself, such as 9/11, which prompted a reaction that deviated from long-standing foreign policy in the region.
Overall, the next President’s policies will be driven more by opportunities and constraints in the Middle East, rather than by any of the campaign promises the candidates are making today.
The panelists made some predictions about how either president would be received in the Middle East. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is only marginally different than President Obama in her approach, with the exception of her more hawkish rhetoric regarding Syria.
The rhetoric of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, is similar to Clinton’s; however, the panelists have affirmed that Trump’s policy proposals regarding Muslims may cause tension in U.S.-Middle East relations. His inexperience in politics and lack of a track record make him less easy to predict than Clinton. It should be noted, though, that Trump’s business ties with moguls in the Arab world has potential to smooth his relations with the region, should he be elected.
Syria and Fighting ISIL
The candidates differ on the Syrian refugee issue, Clinton hopes to take in 65,000 a year, while Trump is in favor of stopping all refugee inflow. They also differ on the removal of Assad as president of Syria. Clinton in favor of it, while Trump is not.
When it comes to ISIL, in polls of all issues facing the Middle East, defeating ISIL is the most important to Americans, which is why both candidates have made this issue a key part of their platforms.
However, the candidates differ in a few ways on Syria.
Regarding removal of Assad, Clinton is in favor, and Trump disagrees.
Regarding ISIL and the ways to prevent its spread, panelist Manal Omar mentioned several points on why the terrorist network has been so successful.
ISIL understands what the U.S. is still trying to come to terms with.
Firstly, ISIL understands that there are no borders anymore; its propaganda and strategy transcends the nation-state, which is the basis of current political structures. ISIL is good at branding brutality.
Secondly, at a time when currents throughout the world are rejecting multiculturalism, as exemplified by the recent Brexit vote, and various strains in the U.S., ISIL is embracing them. ISIL videos and propaganda feature people from all walks of life and cultures, united by their brand.
Lastly, ISIL understands franchising. Boko Haram, or other groups and individual actors, can gain worldwide attention simply by associating themselves with ISIL, regardless of whether they agree or even understand the group’s ideology. This gives ISIL a transcontinental reach that other groups don’t have.
It is on many matters of National Security where the candidates seem to diverge. Trump wants to reinstate the NSA’s mass surveillance program and ban Muslims from entering the U.S. The Republican candidate is also in favor of keeping Guantanamo bay open, and continuing harsh interrogation techniques.
Clinton wants to prohibit harsh interrogation, keep the current restrictions on NSA surveillance, and close Guantanamo. However, she is in favor of a stricter screening process for people migrating to the U.S.
Manal Omar countered the candidates’ national security concerns by mentioning that giving up substantial civil liberties has no comparable increase in security. She argued that the U.S. has become less secure and less free. Therefore, the current national security course is not yielding good results.
Both presidential candidates are pro-Israel and their projected policies are where they find the most agreement.
Still, this presidential election has been free from contention over Israel and Palestine. New polls have shown that millennials have been in favor of a more even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly among Bernie Sanders supporters. Shibley Telhami attributed this growth in favor for Palestine to an increased trend of cosmopolitanism and support to human rights. In fact, polls have shown that nearly 50% of Democrats support sanctions against Israel as a consequence to committing human rights abuses toward Palestinians.
The panelists also pointed out the partisan split over the Israel-Palestine conflict. Over time, Republicans are becoming more uncompromising in support for Israel, while Democrats are engaging in a more evenhanded approach.
Despite this trend, no one should suspect significant changes in the way the U.S. relates to the Israel-Palestine conflict, nor should they expect any sort of resolution. A lack of attention for the conflict, compared to other Middle East issues, is causing a decrease in concern for a resolution. While people are getting sentiments more sympathetic towards Palestine, other issues in the Middle East, such as the fear of ISIL, are perceived as much more important.
This panel served as an important indicator for possible future policies in a critical region. For some Arab Americans, foreign policy on any one of the before mentioned issues can decide a person’s vote. While the panelists painted a rather fixed or inflexible future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, discussing the future remains critical in the election process.