If there is one thing that unites Middle Eastern leaders these days, it is concern over what Donald Trump might do in 2017. A true political outsider, Trump will arrive in the White House next month with no track record and no political markers that might give an indication.
The list of policy problems is certainly long, yet his list of policy ideas, as mooted during his campaign speeches and interviews, is worryingly short. Perhaps the Iran nuclear deal will be “ripped up”. Perhaps the United States embassy will be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Perhaps support for Syrian rebels will be withdrawn. Those are a lot of “maybes” for a region needing certainty.
With few concrete policy ideas, attention has turned to any underlying political philosophy. And here again, there is a blank. Certainly, Trump wants to break with the past. But beyond that, he appears to have no principles to guide him to the future. Most of what Trump appears to want to do is to not do things.
Overall, he is an isolationist, a true retrenchment president in the mould of Barack Obama. Republicans in the US are fond of talking about what “American power” can do in the world. Trump, unusually for a politician from the right, has a keen sense of the limits of US power. He believes the Iraq war was a disaster, that the US, with Nato, should not have intervened in Libya, and that in general it should remove itself from the region.
Yet just because Trump has a sense of the limits of US power doesn’t mean he has a sense of humility about it. The crucial difference lies in how he conceptualises US power and what it can do in the world. Like George W Bush, he believes force can solve problems – but crucially, and worryingly, he also believes problems can be solved piecemeal, like business deals.
This view of politics as dealmaking will almost certainly lead him to make decisions that have seriously bad consequences. Politics in a region as interconnected as the Middle East cannot be understood piecemeal, nor can it be understood as dealmaking. The element of justice is crucial.
Political actions have consequences. Obama’s decision not to intervene in Syria had an effect as surely as any intervention.
For Trump, ripping up the Iran deal will have consequences – indeed, even the suggestion that the deal will be ripped up has consequences, as Iran will prepare for that eventuality, most likely by interfering further in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
The same is true of Palestine and Israel. Moving the US embassy from the Israeli capital to Jerusalem is an overt recognition that the US will accept Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, understood by every other country to be a violation of international law. Again, that has consequences, intended or otherwise. In Palestine, it will provoke a reaction, which will be bloodily put down by Israel. Worse, it empowers the Israeli right – and the right-wing in other countries – by showing that the US will eventually accept illegal acts, as long as countries do them for long enough.
Nowhere will that message be more clearly heard than in Damascus, already celebrating the de facto retreat by Obama. Bashar Al Assad now has as good as a free hand, together with Russian fighter jets and Iranian soldiers, to destroy what remains of Aleppo, extend his control back across the country, and starve, torture and slaughter his opponents into submission.
This is the crucial problem with piecemeal politics: it ignores all the consequences that follow. Piecemeal politics looks at the world as if it were a game of chess, where once the king has been captured, the game ends. In reality, everyone on the board keeps playing. Retreat from the Syrian civil war will not end it; it will simply shift from a ground war to an insurgency.
If Trump’s foreign policy in the region is based simply on trying to make deals here and there, putting out fires when they appear, it will fail, regardless of how much money, political capital or military force is used.
The missing piece of the puzzle is justice. Dealmaking forgets how people act in the real world. People can put aside their grievances in a business deal and then work together within the agreement. But no people can put aside grievances that involve their very identities. Without justice, there will be no future for Palestine, regardless of any “deal” made. Without justice, the Syrian rebels will continue to find a way to fight and civilians will continue to become refugees. Without justice, Iraq’s sectarian communities will continue to fight one another. Dealmaking may work when building hotels in New York. But building a brighter Middle East will require justice.
Faisal Al Yafai is chief columnist at The National.