North Africa, West Asia

Is Trump repeating Bush’s worst mistakes?

The early signs of the new Trump administration’s policies towards the Middle East suggest that he is poised to repeat some of the Bush administration’s most fatal errors.

Ragnar Weilandt
4 February 2017

Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast February 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Picture by Win Mcnamee DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Even if one subscribes to the questionable concepts of collective guilt and collective punishment, it is quite clear that Donald Trump’s decision to ban citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US serves only one purpose: To satisfy the alt-right, a loose set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals united in their opposition to multiculturalism, social justice movements and mainstream conservatism whose torchbearer Steve Bannon is a key power broker within the new administration.

Notably, not one of the 9/11 attackers came from any of the seven countries affected. In fact, according to an analysis by the Cato Institute, none of their nationals has killed Americans on US territory between 1975 and 2015.

While the ban doesn’t make the United States any safer, it is likely to make both the US and the rest of the world a less secure place. Just like the Bush administration’s “global war on terror” rhetoric, the ban will help extremist demagogues to convince potential followers that the US is at war with Islam. But while Bush repeatedly emphasized that it was not, Trump doesn’t even distinguish between ‘moderate’ and less ‘moderate’ Muslims. Both his rhetoric and his actions alienate the Muslim community and the leaders of Muslim-majority states which are key to fighting domestic and international Islamic extremism.

Trump's most outlandish and dangerous populist slogans could become US policy.

As scary as the ban and its potential ramifications might be, what it tells us about what to expect over the coming four years is alarming as well.

Trump first called for a “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” during the early stages of a campaign that was full of outrageous promises. The executive order putting the ban in place shatters any remaining hope that there might be a difference between the candidate and the president. It also indicates that the Republican party isn’t able or willing to contain him. As a result, even Trump's most outlandish and dangerous populist slogans could become US policy.

Just like the ban, his promise to “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS”, if kept, is likely to make things worse rather than better. As of 25 January, 2017, the US led coalition has conducted a total of 17,734 air strikes in Iraq and Syria. It is hard to see how to further expand the campaign and intensify the bombing without destroying entire cities and causing a major increase in civilian casualties. More bombing raids are unlikely to force ISIS to back off. But just like the Iraq war provided a boost for recruitment for al-Qaeda, ISIS recruiters know all too well how to use them to their advantage. Pictures of Syrian and Iraqi children killed by American bombs are highly effective in this regard.

The same goes for Trump’s campaign promise to make it his “number one priority” to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran”. The last days have seen an escalation of rhetoric, with National Security Advisor Michael Flynn “officially putting Iran on notice”, citing ballistic missile tests and support for Houthi forces in Yemen. President Trump refused to rule out military action against the Islamic Republic.

Teheran responded to Trump's travel ban by barring the US wrestling team from participating in the Freestyle World Cup competition in the western city of Kermanshah. Further retaliation might follow, as Teheran has already announced that “Iran will implement the principle of reciprocity until the offensive U.S. limitations against Iranian nationals are lifted”.

After his first ten days in office, it looks like his administration is poised to repeat some of the Bush administration’s most fatal errors.

These developments could be the first steps towards reigniting a dangerous and unnecessary conflict whose permanent resolution was closer than ever.

The United States and Iran have a shared interest in fighting ISIS. Led by the reformist cleric Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian government has been able to normalise relations with the West. Until now the reformists have enjoyed sufficient support for their course among the population and the country’s religious leadership.

But the progress that culminated in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal framework should not be taken for granted. In fact, the current situation reminds of the early 2000s.

At the time, US-Iranian relations were at their best. In 2000, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had acknowledged US responsibility for the 1953 coup against the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddegh for the first time. The United States was about to embark on a crusade against Iran’s main security threats: The Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the reformist Iranian government around Mohammad Khatami was interested in improving relations with the US, hoping the west would lift its crippling economic sanctions in return.

Rather than seizing the moment, Bush decided to include Iran in his “axis of evil”. His rhetoric against the Iranian regime became increasingly aggressive, while western sanctions continued to hurt the Iranian civilian population. As a consequence, both the religious establishment and the public lost confidence in the moderate camp around Khatami. The ultra-conservative hardliners won the upper hand again, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president and stayed in power for eight long years.

History might very well repeat itself. During the Republican primaries, Trump spent much of his campaign blasting Jeb and George W. Bush over the Iraq invasion, falsely claiming that he had opposed the war. But after his first ten days in office, it looks like his administration is poised to repeat some of the Bush administration’s most fatal errors.

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