Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Trumpism as experienced from Lebanon is inextricably linked to the effects of the Trump administration’s positions and policies in the broader Middle East. The complexities of Lebanese politics and intrigue, and the social and economic challenges faced by the Lebanese as well as the country’s huge refugee population, however, are of little interest to President Donald Trump and his inner circle. Their de-contextualized fixation on Hizballah reflects US domestic politics and parochial Israeli anxieties rather than broader US geopolitical interests.

The early phase of President Trump’s first year was marked by his relatively muted rhetoric and an overall foreign policy continuity with the Obama administration. Even the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria—initiated by Obama, but which Trump claimed as his own to give his vision, such as it is, shape and meaning—was uncontroversial and internationally sanctioned and legitimized. Space for contesting the region’s status quo (a violent and manifestly unjust one to be sure) remained narrow, much to the frustration of those Lebanese who viscerally hated Obama for his apathy on Syria, and, ironically, for his one clear policy success in the region: the Iran nuclear deal. For those Lebanese, Trumpism represented a welcome antidote to Obama’s putative weakness towards Iran and its regional role.

Trumpism did not effect much change in the region geopolitically during this initial phase. The United States maintained a status quo that protected the gains of Russia, Iran, Syria and Hizballah in the aftermath of Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria, which aimed to preserve a weak state there. Similar dynamics applied in Iraq. Trump seamlessly continued direct US support for Saudi Arabia’s catastrophic war on, and military failure in, Yemen. This war, in turn, continues to inadvertently showcase Saudi Arabia’s impotence in political and strategic terms, and boost Iran’s perceived geopolitical gains in the region. Meanwhile, Trump remained relatively silent on Palestine, Israel and even Hizballah and Iran, both of which the United States was cooperating with indirectly in the war against ISIS. It is no coincidence that it was under Trump’s administration that the Lebanese army, explicitly supported by a visibly triumphant Hizballah, was finally permitted to rout al-Qaeda and ISIS forces occupying towns in northern Lebanon in August 2017.

Curiously, in its first year the administration’s approach to the Middle East eschewed the inflammatory religious rhetoric that has been Trump’s signature domestic strategy towards Muslim Americans. Instead, Lebanon and the Middle East have been instrumentalized to conjure up images of the region as a breeding ground for hordes of extremist Muslims in order to mobilize his national base, foster national Islamophobic sentiment, and justify the war against an ISIS that, in Trumpist terms, represents an existential threat. For many Lebanese, however, Trump’s early agenda in the region was initially seen to reflect primarily his personal business interests and nepotistic inclinations (not unfamiliar concepts in Lebanese politics); and secondarily geopolitical motives that were intertwined with US domestic controversies and priorities. People of all stripes initially followed Trump’s naked pursuit of both, and his overall buffoonery, as they did popular Turkish and Egyptian television soap operas.

Trumpism appears now to be revving up in the Middle East, as US foreign policy is increasingly liberated from Obama’s conservative, status-quo-based course. It seems to have entered a new, post-ISIS phase with re-energized attacks on Iran and Hizballah; unprecedented support for the increasingly erratic Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his regional hubris; hesitant confirmation of a long-term military presence on Syrian territory; and ill-conceived intervention in Palestine with the December 6, 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and promises of an (already defunct) “ultimate deal” for the Middle East under a presumed Israeli-Saudi agreement.1 Trump has also issued threats against the vast majority of United Nations (UN) member states that voted to condemn the US Jerusalem decision and proceeded to cut off significant aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that provides crucial support for Palestinian refugees. [2]

While all this has polarized debates in geopolitical terms, it has still not had an effect on religious or sectarian dynamics. In Lebanon, there has been relatively little sectarian mobilization such as that which marked earlier periods of instability—most notably in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the first phase of the Syria war. Even the US rhetoric against Iran, currently the main target of Trump’s vitriol, has not, at least not yet, been cast in specifically sectarian language despite Israeli and Saudi agitation to do so.

US policy in the region now seems to reflect Trump’s persona more faithfully: bullying, impulsive, uninformed and yet also curiously dynamic. It is an unpredictable mix of authoritarian tendencies, capricious reactions and tweets based on delusions of grandeur and an alarming ignorance of the Middle East. The latter is epitomized by the deeply incompetent duo who have had a significant impact on Trump’s Middle East policy: US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump’s ignorance is amplified by his pandering to Zionist extremists within his own circles—including Sheldon Adelson, Trump’s and Haley’s biggest single financial backer—and concurrent emasculation of the US State Department and its Middle East apparatus of experts and coterie of associated think-tank pundits.

Crucially, this more aggressive phase has opened the door to renewed crisis and contestation in the region. Some in Lebanon hoped that this upheaval would, at least inadvertently, produce a new international dynamic that opens up space for reinvigorated opposition action against the Asad regime in Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon or even in Iran itself. Others see these new dynamics as the last throes of a dying US-led order, with the consolidation of an effective Resistance Axis from Iran and Iraq through Syria and Lebanon to Palestine. The emergence of Hizballah as a major regional player arguably best symbolizes this axis’s current success in defying the previous order and imagining a new one.

The spectacular rise of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is perhaps the purest expression of this new, more dynamic Trumpism in the region. Taking his cue from Trump emissary Jared Kushner, Mohammed bin Salman’s modus operandi is a mix of ambition, rashness and uninformed short term thinking, all of which have resulted in a failure to achieve regional goals and a consolidation of Iran’s favorable position. First tested in Yemen under Obama, the Saudi approach was upgraded during the latter part of 2017 under Kushner to fuel rapid regional destabilization under the banner of fighting Iran, terrorism, obstacles to Middle East peace and domestic corruption all at once. These stated objectives have not deceived many in Lebanon on either side of the Iran-Saudi rivalry who see this as a pure power grab.

Mohammed bin Salman’s handling of Qatar, particularly the imposition of harsh sanctions and blockade in 2017 as punishment for its reluctance to toe Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran line, first bemused then shocked many Lebanese who worried about similar moves against Lebanon and its fragile economy that relies on the uninterrupted flow of expatriate remittances from the Gulf. The senior Saudi minister leading the Lebanon file issued a series of vitriolic statements against Hizballah and Lebanon, which echoed precisely Israeli threats against the country, its infrastructure and its people as a whole. There was even a brief moment where many Lebanese thought a joint Saudi-Israeli attack on Lebanon was possible, if not imminent.

Mohammed bin Salman-ism, however, most notably played out in the spectacle of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s forced resignation speech of November 4, 2017, dramatically delivered from Riyadh on the Saudi-owned al-‘Arabiyya television station. In that now infamous speech, intended to pressure Hizballah and unsettle its ally Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a visibly weary Hariri reluctantly channeled his Saudi handlers’ unsubtle threats to stoke sectarian tensions in Lebanon, undermine its fragile economic stability and bring down its national unity government.

Just as it had done in Yemen and Qatar, this Saudi bullying backfired spectacularly. Rather than mobilizing pressure for a favorable change in Lebanon, Mohammed bin Salman’s tactics led to unexpected and unusually resolute demonstrations of national unity, including popular and elite support across (most of) the political spectrum for the status quo in Lebanon. The strong joint stance in support of Hariri—including a rejection of his resignation—by Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah and President Aoun was very well received even by their political opponents. Hariri’s own Future Party, long supported and funded by Saudi Arabia, angrily denounced alleged Saudi plans to replace Hariri with his more hawkish brother. Mohammed bin Salman is also alleged to have threatened to re-arm jihadists in Palestinian refugee camps to fight Hizballah on behalf of “Sunnis,” an extremely dangerous proposition that most Lebanese, weary of such wars, rejected out of hand.3 Remarkably, there was virtually no traction, even among the more hard-line Islamists, to provoke the sectarian tension that the Saudi Crown Prince had intended his actions to create. Hariri returned to Beirut, still a prime minister, to a triumphant, nationalist reception. The symbolism of his arrival in time for Lebanon’s Independence Day ceremonies on November 22 were not lost on anyone.

The Lebanese reaction also internationalized Hariri’s quasi-abduction and hastened French and Egyptian mediation. Even US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took advantage of Mohammed bin Salman’s, and Kushner’s, failure by chastising them in private and getting Trump to support Lebanon’s “sovereignty” in public.4 The popular backlash, American rebuke and resulting Saudi backtracking of its threats against Lebanon, demonstrated bin Salman’s political immaturity and poor strategic thinking. But this odd Lebanon episode also exposed Mohammed bin Salman-ism’s limits within the clear, although wide, parameters set by a United States that itself is not so much retreating from an increasingly contested and multipolar region as quickly losing its grip.

To be sure, US imperial inclinations in the Middle East have not been dimmed. In the broader context, Trumpism represents a clear continuity with the long-standing main pillars of US “divide and rule” foreign policy in the Middle East: protection of US oil interests and routes, unquestioned support for Israel, and combating de-contextualized “radical Islam” and “terrorism.”

Each US president’s approach, however, differs in style, calculus and application from that of their predecessors. The ominous turn in the region over the past few months merely reflects Trump’s agenda, which is centered on an explicit Israeli-Saudi patrolled order and the capitulation of an otherwise ascendant Iran—and its allies such as Hizballah—by any means necessary. By, unsuccessfully so far, seeking to scupper the Iran nuclear deal and (successfully) administrating the final blow to the moribund “peace process,” Trumpism thus promises more violence, upheaval, contested regional politics and struggles for legitimacy. It also promises failure. Since at least 2003, the US no longer has the sole power to frame regional dynamics, as the Syria war has clearly shown.

Meanwhile, from Lebanon, all eyes are on the southern front once more.


Endnotes

[1] Peter Baker, “Trump Team Begins Drafting Middle East Peace Plan,” The New York Times, November 11, 2017.
[2] UNRWA, “Statement by the UNRWA Commissioner-General on the US Decision to Cut Funding,” January 16, 2018.
[3] Anne Barnard and Maria Abi-Habib, “Why Saad Hariri Had That Strange Sojourn in Saudi Arabia,” The New York Times, December 24, 2017.
[4] Mark Perry, “Did Kushner Leave Tillerson in the Dark on Saudi-Lebanon Move?” The American Conservative, November 27, 2017.

How to cite this article:

Karim Makdisi "Lebanon Dispatch," Middle East Report 283 (Summer 2017).
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