Possible Impacts of a Trump Presidency on Iraq and the Kurds

12/22/2016 6:05:00 PM
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David Romano
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In their December 12 article for Politico, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Jonathan Schanzer examine how U.S. President-elect Trump might begin fulfilling his promise to “shake up the world order.” They suggest he begin with the Middle East, a place full of “countries that simultaneously act as U.S. allies, adversaries and enemies.”

While states such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and most of all Turkey have long held a very important place in U.S. relationships and policy, these countries have, during the past decade and a half, also sponsored groups engaged in terrorism and attacks on U.S. military forces and interests. All four of the countries’ officials often rail against America in speeches, and in the case of Turkey’s president Erdogan even brandish conspiracy-laden theories about Washington’s involvement in all sorts of nefarious plots.

Gartenstein-Ross and Schanzer argue that:

Under successive presidencies, American policymakers have somehow convinced themselves that the U.S. needs these Mideast countries more than they need us. Thus, the U.S.’ response to the action of “frenemies” has often been muted—even when American lives were on the line.

As Trump’s administration prepares to take office, America’s reliance on so-called allies that pose direct or indirect threats to Americans must change. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed time and again to renegotiate bad agreements and establish better terms for our country. Here’s a great place to start.

While no one seems too certain what exactly a Trump administration foreign policy towards the Middle East will look like, it seems likely that Mr. Trump will take a harder line against such “frenemies” than past administrations did. Long-standing relationships between the United States and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in particular may come in for serious reexamination. The President-elect is already selecting advisors and cabinet members known for hawkish, even “islamophobic” positions towards the Middle East.

What might this mean for the Kurds? Some might worry, given that most Kurds are Muslims and past appeals centered on human rights and democracy for the Kurds might fall on deaf ears in a hard- nosed, hawkish Trump administration. Newsweek, a well-known and large-circulation magazine in the United States, also recently published an article claiming that soon-to-be President Trump faces a conflict of interest with Turkey: given his business interests there and relationship with the Dogan family (scions of the Kemalist establishment in Turkey), President Erdogan might try to pressure Mr. Trump – threatening his business interests with financial losses should America fail to heed Turkey’s political preferences. Finally, Trump Security Advisor Michael Flynn appears to have lobbied for Turkey in the past, reportedly receiving financial compensation (via his consulting firm) for an op-ed in support of Turkey that appeared on the day of the U.S. election.

These issues are likely very much overblown. Mr. Trump, his advisors and the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment are not nitwits – they can well discern between secular Kurdish Muslims and Islamists. They know that the former never caused America any worries and currently lead the fight against radical Islamists like Da’esh in both Iraq and Syria, while the latter come in many stripes and colors – including “frenemies” who pretend to be fighting Da’esh while wholeheartedly supporting remarkably similar Jihadists of the al Nusra Front, Ahrar al Shams, the Taliban and others.

As for Mr. Trump’s business interests in Turkey, they remain relatively minor and Mr. Erdogan’s problems with the Dogan family long predate Trump’s involvement with them. It seems very hard to imagine soon-to-be President Trump treating the Erdogan government with kid gloves because of this issue. A similar logic applies to his advisor, Michael Flynn. The retired head of Military Intelligence in the U.S. will likely prove anxious to distance himself from accusations of being a paid shill for the Turkish government, and all of his prior articles and statements were extremely critical of Islamism and the increased role it seems to be taking in Ankara.

The most likely scenario, therefore, seems to involve a Trump administration that will have an even rockier relationship with American “allies” like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and even Baghdad (given its close relationship with Tehran). If that administration really means to “rock the boat” or “shake up the world order,” this could well involve more robust support of what they view as more reliable American allies. This would mean things like moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, of course. It could also mean not just increased U.S. military support for Kurdish allies, but political support for Kurdish independence as well.

 

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David Romano is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University