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Foreign Policy in Focus
In a recent appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump promised that “we’re going to tweak” the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, because of its “severe” impacts on U.S.-Mexico trade relations. But the real impacts of the agreement run much deeper than a trade deficit.
Some politicians and “experts” still don’t understand — or don’t want to understand — that a great deal of popular discontent in the United States, Mexico, and Canada alike is rooted in undemocratic policies that have produced inequality, unemployment, migration, food dependency, and pollution. NAFTA isn’t the only factor — but it’s one of the most powerful.
The reason is that NAFTA was never designed for the development of our peoples through trade, but instead to advance the narrow corporate interests of multi-national firms and the governments that serve them. In the case of Mexico, it was negotiated and signed by an authoritarian government that only served the interests of large Mexican and global corporations, and which turned its back on productive sectors linked to the domestic market.
NAFTA was once boosted as a democratizing force for Mexico. Though Mexico’s traditional ruling party did lose a few presidential elections, the continued involution and deterioration of the Mexican political system since 2000 has put lie to the claim that NAFTA was going to spur meaningful democratization.
Mexico’s economy has grown since then, but the rate of growth has actually been much slower than in periods from before NAFTA. What has grown since then is extreme inequality, between both social classes and regions in Mexico.
Yet Donald Trump would have us believe that Mexicans have made out like bandits from NAFTA, robbing middle-class jobs from the United States. Instead, more than 60 million Mexicans — more than half of the total population — live in poverty, exposing Trump’s deceptive claims as propaganda.
Almost one million small and medium-level entrepreneurs in Mexico were ruined by NAFTA’s rules of competition, which were written in favor of big transnational corporations, and by the lack of internal support policies for displaced workers and owners. Millions more there were once middle class and thought that with NAFTA they had a prospect of social advancement, but now they’re approaching poverty, too.
In all three countries, NAFTA has meant a downward standardization of wages, labor rules, and environmental standards affecting workers and farmers across each border. Just as many American farmers and workers saw their incomes decline and jobs vanish under NAFTA, millions of Mexicans similarly watched as their economic lot in life grew unbearable.
NAFTA forced the abandonment of the countryside by the Mexican government, effectively expelling millions of peasants who emigrated to the United States and opening the doors to the growth of the narcotics trade — and hence to the control of vast rural territories by organized crime.
Social organizations and networks in Mexico have monitored the results of NAFTA for over two decades now. And in a trinational alliance with our U.S. and Canadian counterparts, we’ve evaluated and constructed alternatives based on fair trade and cooperation, where human rights and respect for the environment are priorities.
Of course, NAFTA has been successful for a few industries in the three countries, but not for the majority of ordinary people. Nor has it been beneficial to our common and unique ecosystems. To “tweak” the agreement is, once again, to peddle the deception of “change so that nothing changes.”
It’s time to replace NAFTA, not to renegotiate it with the same corporate-friendly premises of the TPP. It’s time to think about the interdependence and legitimate interests that exist between our peoples, not perpetuate of the narrow mercantile and financial interests that prevailed in the design and operation of NAFTA.Ing. Victor Suarez is a representative of the National Association of Peasant Enterprises (ANEC). Dr. Alejandro Villamar is a member of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC).
In truth, disorder would seem to be the strategy of the day. Picking up the morning newspaper or tuning on the national news sometimes feels akin to opening up a basket filled with spitting cobras and Gabon Vipers.
But the bombast emerging for the White House hasn’t always matched what the Trump administration does in the real world. The threat to dump the “one-China” policy and blockade Beijing’s bases in the South China Sea has been dialed back. The pledge to overturn the Iran nuclear agreement has been shelved. And NATO’s “obsolesce” has morphed into a pledge of support.
Is common sense setting in, as a New York Times headline suggests: “Foreign Policy Loses Its Sharp Edge as Trump Adjusts to Office”?
Don’t bet on it.
Obsessed with Iran
First, this is an administration that thrives on turmoil, always an easier place to rule from than order. What it says and does one day may be, or may not be, what it says or does another. And because there are a number of foreign policy crises that have stepped up to the plate, we should all find out fairly soon whether the berserkers or the calmer heads are running things.
The most dangerous of these looming crises is Iran, which the White House says is “playing with fire” and has been “put on notice” for launching a Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile. The missile traveled 630 miles and exploded in what looks like a failed attempt to test a re-entry vehicle. Exactly what “on notice” means has yet to be explained, but Trump has already applied sanctions for what it describes as a violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Program of Action — UN Security Council Resolution 2231 — in which Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear energy program.
A 2010 UN resolution did indeed state that Iran “shall not undertake activity related to ballistic missiles.” But that resolution was replaced by UNSCR 2231, which only “calls upon Iran not to test missiles,” wording that “falls short of an outright prohibition on missile testing,” according to former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter.
The Iranians say their ballistic missile program is defensive, and given the state of their obsolete air force, that is likely true.
The Trump administration also charges that Iran is a “state sponsor of terror,” an accusation that bears little resemblance to reality. Iran is currently fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq, and, through its Houthi allies, al-Qaeda in Yemen. It has also aided the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
As Ritter points out, “Iran is more ally than foe,” especially compared to Saudi Arabia, “whose citizens constituted the majority of the 9/11 attackers and which is responsible for underwriting the financial support of Islamic extremists around the world, including Islamic State and al-Qaeda.”
In an interview last year, leading White House strategist Steve Bannon predicted, “We’re clearly going into, I think, a major shooting war in the Middle East again.” Since the U.S. has pretty much devastated its former foes in the region — Iraq, Syria, and Libya — he could only be referring to Iran.
The administration’s initial actions vis-à-vis Tehran are indeed worrisome. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently considered boarding an Iranian ship in international waters to search it for weapons destined for the Houthis in Yemen. Such an action would be a clear violation of international law and might have ended in a shoot-out.
The Houthi practice a variation of Shiism, the dominant Islamic school in Iran. They do get some money and weapons from Tehran, but even U.S. intelligence says that the group is not under Tehran’s command.
The White House also condemned a Houthi attack on a Saudi warship — which Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer initially called an “American” ship — even though the Saudis and their Persian Gulf allies are bombing the Houthis, and the Saudi Navy — along with the U.S. Navy — is blockading the country. According to the UN, more than 16,000 people have died in the three-year war, 10,000 of them civilians.
Apparently the Trump administration is considering sending American soldiers into Yemen, which would put the U.S troops in the middle of a war involving the Saudis and their allies, the Houthis, Iran, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and various separatist groups in southern Yemen.
Putting U.S. ground forces into Yemen is a “dangerous idea,” according to Jon Finer, chief of staff for former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But a U.S. war with Iran would be as catastrophic for the Middle East as the invasion of Iraq. It would also be unwinnable unless the U.S. resorted to nuclear weapons, and probably not even then. For all its flaws, Iran’s democracy is light years ahead of most other U.S. allies in the region and Iranians would strongly rally behind the government in the advent of a conflict.
The other foreign policy crisis is the recent missile launch by North Korea, although so far the Trump administration has let the right-wing prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, carry the ball on the issue. Meeting with Trump in Florida, Abe called the Feb. 12 launch “absolutely intolerable.” Two days earlier Trump had defined halting North Korean missile launches as a “very, very high priority.”
The tensions with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program are long standing, and this particular launch was hardly threatening. The missile was a mid-range weapon and only traveled 310 miles before breaking up. The North Koreans have yet to launch a long-range ICBM, although they continue to threaten that one is in the works.
According to a number of Washington sources, Barack Obama told Trump that North Korea posed the greatest threat to U.S. military forces, though how he reached that conclusion is puzzling. It is estimated North Korea has around one dozen nuclear weapons with the explosive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, about 20 kilotons. The average U.S. warhead packs an explosive force of from 100 to 475 kilotons, with some ranging up to 1.2 megatons. The U.S. has more than 4,000 nuclear weapons.
While the North Koreans share the Trump administration’s love of hyperbole, the country has never demonstrated a suicidal streak. A conventional attack by the U.S., South Korea, or Japan would be a logistical nightmare and might touch off a nuclear war, inflicting enormous damage on other countries in the region. Any attack would probably draw in China.
What the North Koreans want is to talk to someone, a tactic that the Obama administration never really tried. Nor did it consider trying to look at the world from Pyongyang’s point of view. “North Korea has taken note of what happened in Iraq and Libya after they renounced nuclear weapons,” says Norman Dombey, an expert on nuclear weapons and a professor of theoretical physics at Sussex University. “The U.S. took action against both, and both countries’ leaders were killed amid violence and chaos.”
The North Koreans know they have enemies — the U.S. and South Korea hold annual war games centered on a military intervention in their country — and not many friends. Beijing tolerates Pyongyang largely because it worries about what would happen if the North Korean government fell. Not only would it be swamped with refugees, it would have a U.S. ally on its border.
Obama’s approach to North Korea was to isolate it, using sanctions to paralyze to the country. It has not worked, though it has inflicted terrible hardships on the North Korean people. What might work is a plan that goes back to 2000 in the closing months of the Clinton administration.
That plan proposed a non-aggression pact between the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and North Korea, and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. North Korea would have been recognized as a nuclear weapons state, but would agree to forgo any further tests and announce all missile launches in advance. In return, the sanctions would be removed and North Korea would receive economic aid. The plan died when the Clinton administration got distracted by the Middle East.
Since then the U.S. has insisted that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, but that’s not going to happen — see Iraq and Libya. In any case, the demand is the height of hypocrisy. When the U.S. signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it agreed to Article VI that calls for “negotiations in good faith” to end “the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
All eight nuclear powers — the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan, and Israel — have not only not discussed eliminating their weapons. All are in the process of modernizing them. The NPT was never meant to enforce nuclear apartheid, but in practice that is what has happened.
A non-aggression pact is essential. Article VI also calls for “general and complete disarmament,” reflecting a fear by smaller nations that countries like the U.S. have such powerful conventional forces that they don’t need nukes to get their way. Many countries — China in particular — were stunned by how quickly and efficiently the U.S. destroyed Iraq’s military.
During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would “have no problem” speaking with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. That pledge has not been repeated, however, and there is ominous talk in Washington about a “preemptive strike” on North Korea, which would likely set most of north Asia aflame.
There are a number of other dangerous flashpoints out there besides Iran and North Korea.
- The Syrian civil war continues to rage, and Trump is talking about sending in U.S. ground forces — though exactly who they would fight is not clear. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent once called Syria a three-dimensional chess game with nine players and no rules. Is that a place Americans want to send troops?
- The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — now America’s longest running war — is asking for more troops.
- The war in eastern Ukraine smolders on, and with NATO pushing closer and closer to the Russian border, there is always the possibility of misjudgment. The same goes for Asia, where Bannon predicted “for certain” the U.S. “is going to go to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.”
How much of the White House tweets are provocation and grandiose rhetoric is not clear. The president and the people around him are lens lice who constantly romance the spotlight. They have, however, succeeded in alarming a lot of people. As the old saying goes, “Boys throw rocks at frogs in fun. The frogs die in earnest.”
Except in the real world, “fun” can quickly translate into disaster, and some of the frogs are perfectly capable of tossing a few of their own rocks.Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com.
Let’s hope that Donald Trump is the political version of syrup of ipecac.
The American system has been sick to its stomach for some time. Then along comes Donald Trump, America swallows him (hook, line, and sinker), and the system experiences gut-churning convulsions ever since. According to the most hopeful medical prognosis, America will eventually expel Trump from its system and feel so much better afterwards.
Reminder: The whole world is watching. How we deal with this president’s fundamentally anti-American policies will have tremendous international ramifications. In fact, the rest of the world is already dealing with the “Trump effect.”
After all, while Trump is our emetic, he’s the rest of the world’s smelling salts. Some key countries around the world are already coming to their senses about the threat of dangerous populists. The test cases will be France and Germany. But a progressive backlash appears to be building elsewhere as well.
Against Le Pen
Marine Le Pen is the smiling face of the new fascism.
She’s a twice-divorced Catholic who supports a woman’s right to choose. But she’s also a dangerous populist with virulently anti-immigrant, anti-multicultural, anti-EU views. She’s more law-and-order than Rudy Giuliani. And her anti-globalization rants appeal to some on the left, which means that her National Front party is doing well in areas that once voted for the French Communists.
Marine Le Pen is also a frontrunner in the presidential race slated for later this spring. She leads her rivals in the latest polls with 27 percent. It’s enough to generate predictions of a Trump-like upset.
Until recently, her major challenge came from someone with views nearly as abhorrent as hers. Francois Fillon, the candidate of the conservative Republicans, was clearly hoping to steal votes from Le Pen, the New York Times reported, when he “positioned himself as a staunch defender of French values, vowing to restore authority, honor the Roman Catholic Church, and exert ‘strict administrative control’ over Islam.”
Yet the upright Fillon hasn’t turned out to be as scrupulous as he pretended. A scandal involving alleged payments to family members for parliamentary work has caused Fillon to slip considerably in the polls.
This would ordinarily represent an opportunity for the left. But the socialist and left parties haven’t been able to reconcile their differences and unite against the center-right and the National Front.
Which leaves independent politician Emmanuel Macron as the most appealing candidate who can go up against Le Pen. Macron isn’t an easy politician to pin down. He was the economy minister in Francois Hollande’s Socialist government, but he’s infuriated the more obdurate of the French left by embracing free trade, challenging union privileges, and speaking out against the 35-hour workweek (at least for younger workers). On the other hand, Macron is EU-friendly, pro-immigrant, a fan of Germany over Russia, and committed to the full progressive agenda on social issues.
Despite his establishment credentials, Macron is presenting himself as an outsider. He’s channeled Trump by railing against the elite — those who take advantage of their entrenched economic and political privileges — and he wants to shake up France with En Marche! movement. He’s also channeled Obama by emphasizing his own youth and dynamism.
Macron isn’t afraid to make waves. He took a hit in the polls recently when he argued that French colonial policy in Algeria amounted to a “crime against humanity” and refused to back down from implicating the French state in these acts.
However you define him politically — and he himself avoids labels — Macron is the best bet that French progressives have of defeating Le Pen in a second round of voting. As long as Le Pen doesn’t secure an outright majority in the first round, most of the French electorate will have an opportunity to gang up against the neo-fascist threat — just as they did when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round in 2002.
Macron can also ensure that France doesn’t end up with Fillon’s only slightly less repugnant version of National Front politics (the equivalent of defeating Trump only to elect Ted Cruz).
Taking Back Germany
For Angela Merkel, it’s the best of times and the worst of times.
The rise of Donald Trump and the retreat of the United States from international affairs have placed Merkel and Germany at the moral center of the “West” because of their acceptance of refugees and non-acceptance of Vladimir Putin. Domestically, however, while Merkel’s immigration policies have infuriated the German right, the economic policies that have impoverished Greece and threatened the cohesion of the European Union have angered the German left. The Christian Democratic Party is consequently slumping at the polls.
Despite all the press that Franke Petry and her far-right Alternative fur Deutschland party have gotten in the Western press — including this almost admiring piece in The New Yorker — the anti-immigrant party only polls around 10 percent. The real beneficiary of the Trump victory in Germany has been Martin Schulz, the head of the Social Democratic Party. Schulz has effectively used the threat of nationalism and Trump-like politics to bring his party neck and neck with Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Writes Anthony Faiola in The Washington Post:
In a country that stands as a painful example of the disastrous effects of radical nationalism, Schulz is building a campaign in part around bold attacks on Trump. He has stopped well short of direct comparisons to Adolf Hitler, but Schulz recently mentioned Trump in the same speech in which he heralded his party’s resistance to the Nazis in the lead-up to World War II.
Schulz is the former president of the European parliament, where he also served as a member for two decades. As such, Schulz has become the face of the new MEGA campaign: Make Europe Great Again. Having been active at the European level for so long, Schulz is also something of an outsider to domestic German politics. Like Trump, he prides himself on being self-taught. Unlike Trump, he actually reads books.
The Social Democrats might not succeed in dislodging Merkel. But they’ll help keep the extremists out of power and may just manage to get enough votes to necessitate a grand coalition. With the European Union threatening to implode, such an example of trans-partisan governance at the heart of the continent could reassure those fed up with political polarization that compromise — and indeed, politics as we know it — can still thrive in modern democracies.
Less optimistic is the situation in the Netherlands, where the party of extremist Geert Wilders is leading the polls. Wilders, whose mother’s family came from Indonesia and whose wife is Hungarian, has built his career on anti-immigrant fanaticism. If he becomes prime minister, he’s promised to guide his country out of the EU, close borders to immigrants, and close all mosques: Trump on steroids.
The Dutch elections take place in mid-March. Even if Wilders wins a plurality of the votes, it’s not likely that he’ll be able to form a government. No other parties are willing to join hands with such a toxic politician. The Dutch might be crazy enough to vote for Wilders — but they’re not crazy enough to actually work with him.
Closer to home, the Trump effect is providing the Mexican left with its greatest boost in years. Huge demonstrations have taken place around the country to protest the energy policies of Enrique Peña Nieto’s government and the immigration and trade policies of Donald Trump. Nieto’s popularity is embarrassingly low — 12 percent, lower even than Trump’s.
Veteran left politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador is the major benefactor of all this dissatisfaction. He’s a perpetual outsider to Mexico’s national politics. But, like Bernie Sanders, he acquired considerable experience as a mayor — of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005. “He ran a populist and popular administration which kept subway fares low, built elevated freeways and partnered with the billionaire Carlos Slim to restore the city’s historic center,” writes David Agren in The Guardian. “He also provided stipends to seniors and single mothers, initiatives initially denounced as populism but replicated by others including Peña Nieto.”
AMLO, as he is often called, is currently the presidential frontrunner, though elections won’t take place until July 2018. But he’s not holding his fire until then. “Enough of being passive,” AMLO said recently. “We should put a national emergency plan in place to face the damage and reverse the protectionist policies of Donald Trump.”
With Justin Trudeau in Canada and a possible leftist leader in Mexico, Donald Trump would be caught in a potential North American containment strategy. Perhaps, in a reversal of the Cold War dynamic, Europe would establish military bases in Montreal and Tijuana to make sure that the United States doesn’t overstep its bounds.
Further afield, South Korea will be holding an election this year after a decade of conservative rule. The current president, Park Geun-Hye, has popularity figures even lower than Nieto or Trump. She’s been embroiled in an impeachment process over corruption charges, her conservative party has changed its name to escape any associations with her reign, and no truly viable conservative candidate has emerged to extend the right’s hold on power. Ban Ki-Moon, the former UN general secretary, was briefly the Hail Mary candidate for conservatives before dropping out of the running.
The current frontrunner, Moon Jae-in, is an establishment progressive who used to work in the Roh Moo-Hyun administration. He would resurrect some of Roh’s policies such as a more balanced approach to the United States and China as well as some form of principled engagement with North Korea. But he’s not the only progressive alternative. There’s also the mayor of Seongnam, Lee Jae-Myeong, who styles himself the Sanders of South Korea.
The election is officially scheduled for December, but if Park is impeached, the date would be moved up. No doubt many in the United States wish the South Korean electoral rules pertained here: impeachment followed by new elections. Impeachment is still an option, of course, but the prospect of President Pence isn’t reassuring.
In November, Donald Trump’s victory seemed to be part of a global rejection of liberal internationalism — from Russia to the UK to the Philippines. Certainly many in the Trump administration, most notably strategic advisor Steve Bannon, hope to use their newly acquired juice to help their compatriots, like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, take power as well.
But threats have a marvelous mobilizing effect. Donald Trump may be an inspiration to some. For many others, however, Trump is a whiff of something evil-smelling that jolts progressive politics all over the world out of its swoon.John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.
Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of fear. During his presidential campaign, he portrayed terrorists, immigrants, the Chinese government and many other people and entities as threats to America. But nothing proved more powerful as a mobilizing force than his anti-Islamic pronouncements.
Other presidential candidates were careful to distinguish between what they considered to be radical extremists and ordinary Muslims. Trump made no such attempt. “I think Islam hates us,” he declared. It was not a very great leap to his conclusion: Ban all Muslims from the country. Trump was going beyond mere political incorrectness to challenge the very U.S. Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on religion.
As president, Trump has followed through on his promise. With his executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries entrance to the United States, the president has attempted to legalize his Islamophobia. The order does not mention Islam, and the order doesn’t include the largest Muslim country in the world: Indonesia. Nor does the order mention Christianity. But it promises to “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other interviews, Trump has made it clear that he means to specifically prioritize Christians.
True, the executive order doesn’t apply to all Muslims around the world. But Trump and his allies, like Rudy Giuliani, know that his policies must have at least the appearance of legality to make them less susceptible to judicial challenge. More importantly, Trump wants to foster a hostile climate of opinion in the United States so Muslims will think twice about visiting, immigrating or staying. The courts have, so far, blocked Trump’s efforts. But he will likely issue another executive order that tries to achieve the same results but within the parameters of the law.
The new president’s Islamophobia is purely political. As a businessman, Trump has had no problems making deals with predominantly Muslim countries. He owns a pair of towers in Istanbul. He’s moving forward on two luxury resorts in Indonesia. He licensed his name to a golf course in Dubai. He has Muslim clients in the United States as well, such as Qatar Airways.
If Trump were merely a transactional president, he would be making deals everywhere in the world. But Trump as president is not looking at the world through a businessman’s eyes. He has surrounded himself with advisers who have a very different approach. Strategic adviser Steve Bannon, for instance, wants to turn the United States into a Whiter, more Christian and more conservative country, and many Trump supporters concur. As a result, the Trump administration is pushing policies that Trump the businessman would have opposed because they adversely affect U.S. corporations and the U.S. economy.
This disregard for the bottom line can be seen most prominently in the administration’s approach to Iran. From a business standpoint, the nuclear deal with Iran is a win-win. The United States stops a potential nuclear threat, and U.S. businesses eventually gain access to a lucrative overseas market. During the presidential campaign, Trump disregarded the obvious economic advantages of the agreement in favor of using it as a cudgel to beat those associated with negotiating it.
Even after the election was over, Trump didn’t back away from his criticisms of the deal and of Iran in general. Ostensibly in response to an Iranian missile test, Trump applied new sanctions against the country. “The international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior,” Michael Flynn said when he was still national security adviser, signaling the new direction of U.S. policy. “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.” At risk is the nuclear deal as well as the nearly $17 billion worth of commercial jetliners that Boeing has sold to Iran.
Moreover, the Obama administration spent eight years trying to balance the two major powers in the Middle East — predominantly Shia Iran and predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia — in an effort to keep Iraq together, minimize fallout from the Arab Spring, and later find some solution to the conflict in Syria. Trump and the Republican Congress have no interest in maintaining such a balance.
Trump has widened the scope of his actions beyond Iran. In addition to threatening to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, the administration wants to include the Muslim Brotherhood. Here again, anti-Islamic orthodoxy has trumped pragmatism. The Brotherhood has attracted the ire of real terrorist organizations for abandoning armed struggle in favor of participating in democratic politics. Senior State Department and Pentagon officials are reportedly urging Trump to reconsider these designations.
During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to focus more on problems at home. He seemed less interested in trying to use either soft power or hard power to change the complex realities of the Middle East. With the single exception of destroying the Islamic State, Trump preferred to address problems at the water’s edge with immigration bans, physical walls and a beefed-up military to protect the homeland. A streak of isolationism ran through his “America First” rhetoric. Trump was also proudly ignorant of the most basic facts about the region, saying that he’d learn the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah if and when necessary.
As president, Trump has largely abandoned this hands-off approach. He has announced that he would be delighted to arrange a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. At the same time, he has sided almost exclusively with Israel on every important issue of disagreement — supporting a move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, condemning a UN vote on Israel’s settlement policy that the Obama administration backed, and nominating an ambassador to Israel (David Friedman) who believes that the country should simply annex parts of the West Bank.
Outside the Middle East, the Trump administration has betrayed a similarly anti-Islamic approach. It has aligned itself with far-right wing and Islamophobic political parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France. The travel ban has potentially jeopardized relations with majority-Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia and elicited adenunciation from the African Union as well.
But the most troubling aspect of the Trump administration’s approach to the Muslim world is its tendency to view matters through a “civilizational” lens. Bannon understands Western civilization as fundamentally anti-Islamic (and anti-secular), its identity forged at the Battle of Tours in 732 and through later conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. Bannon and his extremist allies in Europe are threatened not just by separatist movements like the Islamic State, but also by religious pluralism, which blurs the lines of their particular identity politics. The documentary project that Bannon was working on before joining the Trump campaign focused on a hypothetical Islamic takeover of the United States, a companion piece to the “Londonistan” and “Eurabia” arguments made by European Islamophobes. The resignation of Michael Flynn might diminish the overt Islamophobia of the administration but it will not affect the underlying civilizational framework within which Bannon and others operate.
Many Americans supported Trump because he promised to be a transactional president who “gets things done.” In the end, because of the people he has brought into his inner circle, Trump will end up attempting to transform the relationship between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. It’s not likely, however, that Trump will go down in history as either the dealmaker he promised to be as president or the transformational leader his aides are pushing him to become.John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the new novel Splinterlands.