Why Trump's Middle East Strategy Is Not a 'Radical Departure' From Obama's

An Iraqi man in Najaf displays his finger to the camera on January 30, 2005 in Najaf, Iraq. The purple dye indicates that he has just voted in Iraq's first elections. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Just six years after a spate of popular uprisings toppled authoritarian regimes across North Africa and the Middle East, sparking optimism about its future, the region remained mired in sectarian conflict, tyranny, and violence. Will the struggling countries in the Islamic world shake off this legacy and embrace democracy? Or are these cultures intrinsically incompatible? 

Few people have devoted as much thought to these questions as Dr. Shadi Hamid, an author and scholar who serves as senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. Hamid's most recent book Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World was published to wide acclaim last June and was shortlisted for the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize. On April 20, Hamid will appear with Dr. Dalia Fahmy at Asia Society to debate democracy, tolerance, and terrorism in the Middle East.

In this conversation with Asia Blog, Hamid discusses his support for the recent U.S. strikes in Syria, his concern about Egypt's resurgent authoritarianism, and why President Trump's policies are less of a departure from President Obama's than many people think. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You expressed support for President Trump's missile attack in Syria but criticized the idea of "doing something for the sake of doing something." What do you mean by this?

The dangerous aspect of Trump's airstrike is if it isn't tied to a broader strategy or vision on Syria. One-off strikes are fine as a first step in deterring Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons in the future. But they don’t address the fundamental issue, which is how to push for the end of the Syrian civil war and force Assad to come to the negotiating table and make real compromises to the Syrian opposition. Without a continued credible threat of military force, Assad has no real incentive to moderate his ambitions to complete eradicate the Syrian opposition.

Ideally, I hope that the Trump administration considers what its ultimate objectives in Syria are, and to make sure what we’re doing militarily is tied specifically to those objectives. If it’s just a one-off punitive strike, then Assad may decide that he’s not going to use chemical weapons in the future and just do what he’s always done, which is to kill large numbers of Syrians with conventional weapons.

I also worry about defining our policy very narrowly about chemical weapons. That is not the main issue in Syria. Again, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed through conventional means. I worry that we’re missing the point by making this about a very specific weapon, as horrific as chemical weapons are.

President Trump welcomed [Egyptian President] Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House and praised him, which is something President Obama pointedly would not do. What are the repercussions of this change? Does it send a terrible message to liberals and democrats in the Middle East? Or is this controversy overblown?

I think the controversy is overblown in the sense that what we’ve seen under Trump isn’t actually a radical shift from Obama when it comes to Egypt. Obama was pretty indulgent of Sisi and did very little to push back against human rights abuses at a very critical period during and after the 2013 coup. That was a real moment to deter Sisi from becoming more repressive or more brutal, but instead the U.S. did relatively little and instituted a very minimal aid suspension that everyone knew wasn’t going to last that long. Secretary [of State John] Kerry specifically said to his Egyptian counterparts that it was not something they should worry about much. And Kerry was also regularly praising Sisi and using the term “democratic transition.” So we shouldn’t forget that very recent history.

Now, it’s clear that Obama himself was morally uncomfortable with Sisi’s behavior. But what does that really mean for policy when Sisi’s repression worsened under [Obama's] watch? I think Trump giving the green light to Sisi by not bringing up human rights abuses might embolden him further, but Sisi is already so repressive that it’s unclear how much more repressive he could theoretically be.

I think Trump's policy could result in changes around the margins, but we shouldn’t overstate the effects of it. One interesting thing here is that Trump hosted Sisi before the Syria strikes, up until which point he had almost never used the language of morality and values in talking about foreign policy. But with the Syria strikes we’re seeing this new theme really emerging for the first time of Trump using more moralistic language, calling Bashar al-Assad a “butcher,” talking about Syria’s kids as “God’s children,” or even using the word “values” in his justification for the attack.

Going forward, the interesting thing to watch is: Do we see Trump returning to the bipartisan consensus of talking about both national security interests and as well as ideals and values? Of course, the two are related, but often times they’re treated, for better or for worse, as separate categories. So we have to wait and see. Does Trump make more of an effort to incorporate values in the way he talks about foreign policy going forward? And would that apply to Egypt in the coming months if Sisi thinks it would arouse Trump’s newly-found moral anger?

If Trump were to return to a more strictly transactional view of foreign policy, one less tethered to human rights and democracy promotion, what do you think would be the consequences for democracy movements in the Middle East? Would it be very damaging? Or would it not make much of a difference?

It depends on what we’re comparing it to. Considering how bad the human rights situation is in so many of these countries (not just Egypt), including our close allies, a lot of the deterioration already happened under an Obama administration that supposedly cared about morals and values. So the key question for me is less about rhetoric and more about the actual policy. Did Obama put serious pressure on allies and condition financial assistance on democratic progress or on being less repressive or on respecting some minimal standard of human rights? No. For the most part, Obama did not do that. So that is the key focus — but I worry our endless discussion of words, optics, and what presidents say is only worth so much without being followed up by an actual policy change.

That’s why it bothered me a little bit when you had liberals, Democrats, and former Obama officials talking about Trump’s stance on Sisi and other foreign policy issues as if it were a radical departure. It was not a radical departure.

You’ve written extensively about the relationship between democracy and Islam. Is there any reason that countries in the Middle East or Western Asia are less compatible with democracy, than, say countries in Latin America in the ‘70s and ‘80s?

I don’t think Muslim-majority countries are less compatible with democracy. Are they less compatible with liberalism? Yes. But those are two separate issues. Not all democracies are liberal democracies. Liberalism in the classical sense, not the American political sense, has long been in tension with democracy. This has often been a theme of political philosophers and political theorists from centuries ago to the present day. And it’s been popularized more recently by, for example, Fareed Zakaria in his book The Future of Freedom where he coined this popular phrase that has become quite mainstream: “illiberal democracy.” There’s more and more a recognition that liberalism and democracy don’t necessarily go together. That’s a distinction we have to make when talking about Muslim-majority countries.

We can have a debate about what liberalism means in practice when it comes to certain human rights concerns. The ones that are most relevant are things like freedom of speech when it goes into the territory of “blasphemy.” What are the limitations there? Or how would we feel with, as Americans, if voters in a certain part of Indonesia decided to support the implementation of hudud punishments, such as cutting off the hands of thieves? How would we talk about that from a human rights perspective? If it was, in fact, the desire of voters, and it was promoted through a legitimate, legal, democratic process and subject to judicial review, then what could we say? It would bring the tensions between liberalism and democracy to bear in a very stark way.

I’m someone who believes very much in the idea of democratic mandates and democratic legitimacy. It raises this question — what if Egyptians or Jordanians or Indonesians decide they don’t want to be liberal in the classic sense? Do people have the right not to be liberal? One response is that classical liberalism tradition is universal, and therefore it is not really subject to debate. But that’s simply a normative position that can’t really be defended because liberalism is only universal or really “neutral” to those who are already liberal. If you’re not already liberal, you would not consider liberalism to be value-neutral.

If liberalism and democracy are not entwined, and the U.S. decides to have a value-driven foreign policy, should they throw their hat in the ring with democracy and allow voters to elect illiberal regimes, or should the goal of American foreign policy and the West be the promotion of liberalism? What do you think should be the priority?

The priority has to be on democracy and less on liberalism simply because we don’t have great mechanisms for making people into liberals. It’s contradictory to think that liberalism can be aggressively pushed contrary to people’s democratic desires. Liberalism is something that has to be freely chosen for it to have intrinsic value. You also don’t want to create a backlash where the U.S. is trying to force or push certain countries be more liberal. Then liberalism becomes more closely tied to what people would perceive to be American imperialism. It’s unclear to me how this could be productive.

I think the U.S. should continue to make clear what its liberal values are, but I don’t think countries should be sanctioned for promoting illiberal laws as long as those laws are a product of a democratic process. If they’re not the product of a democratic process, say if they come from an authoritarian Islamist regime, then we should be against that because that would not be democratically legitimate.

Also, I think it’s worth noting that we elected, I’d argue, for the first time in our history, an illiberal democrat as our president in Donald Trump. We’re also not on very strong ground to tell others to be liberal when we ourselves voted for someone who has strong illiberal tendencies.

And that’s why I’ve been very outspoken about respecting Trump’s democratic legitimacy. I’m very uncomfortable with any talk about undermining his legitimacy or saying he’s “not our president” or even talking about impeachment. Any kind of talk of impeachment this early in the term of a democratically-elected president would be fundamentally dangerous to our conception of democracy as a country and would be essentially violating the will of American voters.

If Trump were to gradually assume more power and stay in office as long as he wished, would the circumstances then change?

If he was trying to violate constitutional limits on presidential terms, then there would be judicial grounds to oppose him. The question for me is always going to be: “Is Trump acting within the framework of American laws and the American constitution?” I think that there are limits which are clear. For example, if he refused to give up office after his second term and tried to circumvent the constitution to allow for a third term, then yes, he couldn't do that. But again, if there was a democratic process through which Republicans were able to successfully push for changes in term limits and they did so through a legal democratic process and the constitution was changed, then we as Americans would have no choice but to respect that.

To what extent has the proposed ban on immigration from six Muslim-majority countries damaged American soft power? Has this had a strong effect? Or has American soft power been extremely weak and this isn’t going to move the needle?

I think the travel ban was wrong because it was wrong. It was morally offensive, and it wasn’t about national security. It was about preventing and restricting the immigration of people who we don’t think should be in the country, and a desire to limit the number of Muslims who come specifically because they’re Muslims and, supposedly, believe in things contrary to American values. That’s why there was explicit language in the first travel ban about ideological tests. That to me was the major red flag.

I don’t think we should make this about soft power per se because our soft power has been decreasing well before Trump. In many ways, Obama’s decision to not to live up to his “red line” in August 2013 did much more damage to American soft and hard power and perceptions of American leadership than anything Trump has considered doing thus far. It’s early, of course, it’s only been a couple of months into his presidency. But I think we should also be fair.

I worry that our dislike and hatred of Donald Trump has undermined our ability to be objective about what he’s actually doing in real life. We have to be really careful about that in my view. Otherwise, we lose our credibility as analysts.

Also, I think it’s worth noting that Arab regimes were not particularly outspoken against the travel ban, and a couple of them were actually supportive. Part of the reason for that is that Arab regimes aren’t very pro-Muslim either. Just because leaders are Muslim doesn’t mean they share the interests of Muslims or even care about Muslims from other countries. These are primarily authoritarian regimes that have little regard for human rights or good immigration policy or anything like that.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.