Small Wars Journal

Trumpism and Tribalism Run Amok in the Middle East

Wed, 11/07/2018 - 11:34am

Trumpism and Tribalism Run Amok in the Middle East

Brian E. Frydenborg

Trump and his enablers do enough damage in America and to their direct targets, but the indirect effects are also quite serious, not least of all in the Middle East

Amid the recent paths of direct destruction of the geopolitical hurricanes that are Trump and other illiberal political “populists,” it is all too easy to overlook the more indirect effects of Trump’s tribalism.  American kids bullying with dramatically increasing racist taunts, for example.  Abroad, it is likely no coincidence that signaling a lack of interest in standing up to Russia or engaging East Asia, Trump has seen leaders in Russia and China take increasingly bolder steps in asserting themselves.  Last week, within a day of Trump’s shameful, inexcusable rhetoric encouraging U.S. soldiers on the border to fire at migrants if they threw rocks, the Nigerian Army cited those very words to justify their own shootings of unarmed Shiite Muslim protesters that killed at least 45 people and injured well over 100.

The Middle East is a very tribal place, and this has often not worked in the region’s favor.  To point out this truth is not some form of racist “Orientalism, as is obvious to people who spend time here and analyze what people who actually are from and live here say (and don’t say) and do (and don’t do) on a regular basis.  What would be at least somewhat racist is to not recognize the very tribal forces rising rapidly in the West, and to simply point a finger at a the Middle East for being tribal without acknowledging similar tendencies in one’s own, and almost all, cultures and regions, even if they don’t exist to the same degree.  In the end, almost all cultures look at other cultures from a skewed ethno- (or religio)-centric prism often further distorted by power imbalances of one sort of another, a tendency hardly unique to the West. 

But in a strange echo effect, Trump’s tribal excesses in the U.S.—both political and ethnic—are reverberating globally, including in the Middle East, helping to amplify a vindictive, cruel form of tribalism that is making policy and action in parts of the region even more extreme than usual.

Two very current, sad examples are Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Buoyed what amounts to somewhat-knowing winks from Trump, Israel seems to think by gutting UNRWA and screwing the Palestinians and treating students that are critical of Israeli policy as enemies of the state, Saudi Arabia by using murder and other coercive means to silence critics and mass collective punishment to suppress Yemen, that they are advancing their interests.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.

A Sick Saudi Mentality

Bombastically proclaiming a desire for closer ties with Saudi Arabia and dispatching his son-in-law Jared Kushner to late-night-bonding sessions with de-facto ruler and official heir Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), that heir—gauging that Trump, with his own intense hostility to the press, would care little—seems to have thought he could have a famous Saudi journalist who wrote for The Washington Post dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and not even bother coming up with a credible account of his demise, so confident were they that their main patron in Trump would not punish them for such hubris and obscenity any more than he would enthusiastically chastise Putin for the same.  This journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was no radical and was a moderate (if liberal) reformer, engaging in criticism of the Saudi monarchy but as a friend and an overall supporter of it.  The leader of Saudi Arabia’s most important ally, Trump, displaying both a very noticeable lack of any serious attention on human rights and a hostility to journalists without a doubt made MBS feel freer in his actions including the dismembering of this journalist.  In this case, a form of political tribalism—in which there are loyalists and traitors, but no room for constructive, well-intentioned critics—has taken over the minds of Saudi ruling elites, and they clearly were not worried about Trump’s possible reactions. 

Knowing how crucial American support to Saudi Arabia is, MBS and his advisors would very likely not have carried out this operation and/or carried it out in such an obvious way if they had known that such acts were of top concern to the sitting American president and that there would be a forceful and immediate reaction from the White House; clearly, this is not the case with Trump and the Saudis know it.  Perhaps the lovefests with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Sergei Lavrov, and Sergey Kislyak, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi only reinforced the impression that Trump simply doesn’t care about human rights.  Maybe the Saudis would even have done this no matter who was the U.S. President, but there is no question that with Trump in power, any Saudi advisor to MBS would have told him the chances of the costs being higher would be dramatically lower than under a Clinton or an Obama, and they would have been right.

It is ironic that the killing of Khashoggi has brought more attention to a far graver problem too long paid too little attention not only by the West but by the rest of the world, too—including, as I have noted, the Arab world—and that, of course, is the disastrous Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the Yemeni Civil War.  Killing vastly far more civilians than one journalist, the piss-poor Saudi management of this conflict has, in just a few years, led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, involving millions on the brink of starvation (eight million people are on emergency rations but that could rise to 14 million soon, according to the UN) and a needless cholera epidemic, among many other horrors.  To be fair, Obama did far too little reign in or try to end this conflict but in the Trump era, civilian casualties in Yemen do seem to be dramatically increasing (as was also the case with direct U.S. involvement in Syria and Iraq under Trump compared to Obama), although tracking deaths accurately in Yemen presents quite a challenge with such a chaotic situation on the ground.

It is notable that the sudden recent post-Khashoggi-murder calls from the U.S. government for the war in Yemen to end and/or be reigned in were not made by Trump or the White House, but by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; at the time, Trump was consumed by holding political rallies ahead of the midterm elections, and one wonders if he was involved at all in this public push against the Saudi campaign in Yemen; if anything, before Mattis began this push to end the Saudi intervention in Yemen, the White House—even quite recently—was supportive of Saudi Arabia’s actions and seemed to be so without the general reservations, frustrations, and worries of the Obama Administration that still supported the Saudi intervention overall but was obviously uncomfortable with Saudi conduct, although Trump did issue an uncharacteristic, outlier statement of concern for civilians in Yemen in December, 2017.  That statement on the Yemen war seems to have contributed then to a temporary relief of the Saudi blockade of the major Yemeni port of Hodeida, letting in more supplies and relief for civilians; but with Trump himself  currently on the sidelines, even after recent the criticisms from Mattis and Pompeo, Saudi Arabia has only intensified its attacks in Yemen.

If the Khashoggi murder highlighted anything, it was the insecurity of MBS and the Saudi government, so concerned were they with the words of a single journalist that those words merited an elaborate, if incompetently carried out, assassination operation. 

With the Yemen war, rather than showcase the military and diplomatic might of the Kingdom, it is hard to know whether gross incompetence, stunning negligence, strident indifference, or Hague-level war-criminality is the most salient aspects of what has been laid bare. 

What is even more amazing from a logical standpoint is that Saudi Arabia before MBS’s rise was already famously low on reputational capital, even in their own Middle East, and yet, just as MBS is trying to redefine Saudi Arabia’s image abroad and attract foreign investors into his Kingdom, he and the other Saudi rulers are doubling down on massive moral outrages that are impossible to ignore, sabotaging their own efforts to redefine their nation.

Between Khashoggi and Yemen, Saudi Arabia may find that the negatives and damage far exceed whatever positives and improvements MBS and his backers were hoping would be possible under his leadership; they will be more hated and less trusted by all, less attractive to sorely-needed investors as a result, meaning the Kingdom will also be less secure, less stable as its finite fossil fuels reserves gradually dwindle.

Israel’s Insensitivity Will Haunt It

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-party-dominated ruling coalition seems to have given up on the even pretense of operating within any framework that has an endpoint involving a two-state solution and Israeli withdrawals from the occupied Palestinian West Bank.  The current policy of Netanyahu, as best as anyone can describe it, is not only to demand non-violence, but even to demand an end to the peaceful boycott movement that seems now to preoccupy Israel almost as much as the threat of violence; these demands are made with no offer of anything in return, and, after unjustly vilifying Obama for years because of his Muslim middle name and that he actually tried to work on behalf of both Palestinians and Israelis, the right wingers in Israel seem almost giddy at Trump’s rise to power, so confident are they that he is a “friend,” meaning, he will favor Israel (Jerusalem, anyone?) over Palestine, won’t put forth any serious public criticism of Israel nor assistance to Palestinians, and will basically allow Israel to do just about anything it wants.  Hence, officials in the Israeli government felt confident in detaining an American student, Lara Alqasem (who had already been granted an Israeli visa), simply because her political views seemed to be not the ones they preferred.  Did Trump say a word to help this American student, a U.S. citizen of Arab descent?  No, not one; it was Israeli’s highest court which rescued both Alqasem from detention and unfair treatment and also Israel from Israel’s own stupidity and self-inflicted public relations nightmare.

A consequence of far more import, though, from Trump’s seeming to give Israelis free reign to handle their “Palestinian/Arab problem” with little-to-no fear or criticism coming from the U.S. has been the emergence of a joint-Israeli/U.S. campaign to not only defund, but to delegitimize and possibly end UNRWA

UNRWA stands for “United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine” and has been helping Palestinian refugees from the multiple Arab-Israeli wars since 1949; it has been “running education, health [together two/thirds of its budget], and relief and social services programmes” for Palestinians in and around their many refugee camps in the Middle East region.  Since the late 1940s, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants have been treated as an undesired political football, kicked between Israel and its various Arabs neighbors.  Most Arabs states have discriminated against Palestinians who have settled, for now, within their borders.  Israel flat out denies Palestinians’ legal “right of return” as refugees, fearing Israeli Jews would be overtaken demographically and become a minority in their own state founded so that Jews would have one place in the world in which they were in charge, not subject to the whims and historically temporary goodwill of non-Jews.  Yet how can one fault Palestinians for wanting to return to the homes they lost in living memory?  If you are even partly empathetic to one of these positions and not the other, your tribal hypocrisy is showing.

The whole approaching of Israel’s Jewish right-wing government seems to mimic Trump’s approach to governance: gloat over and humiliate your tribal/political rivals, cruelly shoving into their faces their disempowerment you are facilitating.  In Israel, this was the obvious mood when, instead of reaching out with an olive branch to Palestinians after Trump’s unprecedented favoring of Israel over them on the issue of the status of Jerusalem, Israeli leaders basically spiked the ball in the end zone and taunted Palestinians, attacking their very narrative that Palestinians had any legitimate claims on Jerusalem and gloating unrestrainedly; as Kushner spoke at the opening ceremony of the American embassy in Jerusalem, Israelis responded with a very heavy and lethal hand against “mostly unarmed” Palestinian protesters in Gaza, and Trump Administration criticism was limited to just the Palestinians for their rowdy protests, not for Israel’s excessive use of force, which that day killed almost 60 Palestinians and wounded several thousand (only one Israeli soldier was “slightly wounded”). 

The move to cut off funding and support for, and perhaps even destroy, UNRWA—often the sole or main provider for millions of destitute Palestinians abandoned by the rest of the world—is much in the same vein and seems a particularly unnecessary act of cruelty, as the Palestinians served by UNRWA are generally stateless, helpless, and increasingly hopeless.  With strong advocacy from Kushner and just weeks after Netanyahu—without even consulting his security and intelligence professionals—asked Trump to end all U.S. funding for UNRWA, Trump did just that, to the visible delight of Netanyahu and his crew, with the Israeli Prime Minister callously calling the move “a blessed and important change.”

But it isn’t just mean to the Palestinians.  It hurts Israel’s interests and makes Israelis less safe.  Throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a recurrent theme is the perverse satisfaction (sometimes, it seems, even joy) that hard-liners and extremists take from really sticking it the other side where it hurts. 

In this spirit, far too many Palestinians constantly delegitimize the Israeli state even after Israel has won every single war its Arab neighbors have carried out against it since 1947, too few condemn terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, and too many celebrate such attacks.  They seem not to realize that until Israelis feel safe, Palestinians will not be free.  But Israelis seem to think that Palestinians in Israel’s midst living in extreme conditions without freedom or hope will somehow not affect Israelis’ security, not realizing that the more Palestinians suffer and lose hope, the more they will carry out bitter, violent attacks against Israelis.

Seeking to have funding for UNRWA cut off and the agency abolished is just one of those needless cruelties spread throughout this conflict, but as a single act the assault against UNRWA could have massive long-term destabilizing affects in the region, making millions of vulnerable Palestinians more hopeless, destitute, and angry, and Israelis more vulnerable to Palestinians radicalized as a result, pushing both peoples further away from necessary peace, understanding, and compromise.

Trump’s Enabling of Hate Helps No One

In the end, sticking it to journalists and dissenters and Yemenis and students and Palestinians past anything that is necessary not only weakens already terribly weak public images for Saudi Arabia and Israel, it weakens the safety of both countries, and Trump encouraging and giving comfort to such behavior is not America being a good ally or friend but being an enabler to addicts of hubris.  For Saudis and Israelis, acting in the cruel spirit of tribal hate that animates Trump will only generate more hate in the directions of Saudi Arabia and Israel, and whatever short-term gains they think they will reap from Trump’s support for their terrible policies, over the long-run they cannot make their countries or peoples safer or stronger in an atmosphere of such increasing hate.  It is such tribal hate the blinds them to their own folly and that must be transcended to overcome these crises.

Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area currently based in Amman, Jordan.

About the Author(s)

Brian Frydenborg has spent two decades studying, writing about, or working in the fields of conflict analysis, counterterrorism, international affairs, public policy, politics, history, and humanitarian aid and international development.  His work has been featured in Newsweek, Jerusalem Post, Modern War Institute at West Point, London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, Jordan Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Real Clear Defense/History, among others.  You can follow him on Twitter @bfry1981 and on his website, Real Context News.