US elections set to disappoint region

22 January 2024


Donald Trump’s thumping victory in the Republican Party’s Iowa caucus on 15 January – the first of the US presidential election year – suggests the former president will clear the first of three obstacles separating him from four more years in the White House.

Trump’s opponents claim the result means little and other challengers will shine in due course. The Republican Party’s nomination for president and vice-president, which will be confirmed at its national convention in Milwaukee in July, is far from certain.

But that was said in 2016. And we all know what happened next.

A larger obstacle is the 91 felony counts across two state courts and two federal districts, together with a civil suit in New York that could wreck Trump’s businesses. These will come to a head in the middle of the campaign and could influence it.

Lawsuits in some US states that seek to have Trump disqualified from the presidency even if he wins in November will certainly be challenged in the Supreme Court. This is unprecedented and the outcome cannot be confidently forecast.

The final hurdle is winning the presidential vote itself. Opinion polls suggest Trump would beat President Joe Biden, but not by much. More worrying for the Democrats is the slump in Biden’s job approval rating to the lowest for any US president in the past 15 years.

As in 2020, when he lost, Trump is loathed by many American voters. This time, however, Biden is the incumbent and Trump is the challenger. This could make all the difference.

Trump agenda

This spring, the world will have to face up to the prospect that Trump could well be back in 2025. But what could that mean?

Trump’s agenda pivots on appeasing social conservatives while pleasing the middle class with tax cuts and a fiscal policy that keeps the economy humming. The main differences with the Democrats are issues that split Americans across all parties – such as immigration, law and order, abortion and same-sex marriage – with little resonance abroad.

Trump has promised, as he did in 2016, to encourage more fossil fuel production. However, his foreign policy is potentially as consequential as any attempted by a US president in living memory.

In speeches and interviews in recent months, Trump has said he will review Nato’s mission and ask Europe to reimburse the US for almost $200bn-worth of munitions that it has sent to Ukraine. He has said he could end the Ukraine war in 24 hours, though no one knows how.

Trump plans to raise retaliatory tariffs against countries with trade barriers of their own and has floated the idea of a 10 per cent universal tariff. He has called for an end to China’s most-favoured nation status and new restrictions on Chinese ownership of US infrastructure. Trump rarely discusses Taiwan, though he asserts that China would never dare to invade it if he were president.

Other contentious ideas include intensifying the war against Mexican drug cartels by designating them as foreign terrorists and using special forces to attack their leadership and infrastructure inside Mexico. Under his presidency, the US Navy would enforce a blockade and the Alien Enemies Act would be used to deport drug dealers and gang members.

Addressing the new Middle East reality created since the Hamas attacks on 7 October last year is probably beyond America’s capacities, whoever is in the White House

Regional letdown

Trump’s pursuit of the unconventional overseas essentially stops at the Middle East, however. What he will do in office depends upon who he appoints as secretary of state and to his national security team, but there are clues.

Trump has shifted from criticising Israel’s leaders at the start of the war in Gaza to focusing on calls to crush Hamas and penalise Iran further. Even he cannot buck the pro-Israel passion of many US voters.

For Trump, the Arab world begins with Saudi Arabia. His first overseas visit as president in 2017 was to Riyadh, where he met King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, heir to the Saudi throne. The kingdom was euphoric, and the memory of the early, heady days of the first Trump presidency still resonates.

His first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who the Saudi government knew as Exxon chief executive, was quickly sidelined and replaced in 2018 by Mike Pompeo, a pro-Israel hawk. 

The Abraham Accords negotiated by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner fell well short of the kingdom’s long-standing priorities. Riyadh indicated it would follow Bahrain and the UAE into the deal subject to an improbable condition: the creation of a Palestinian state in line with the Arab Peace Initiative approved by the Arab League in 2002.

Trump probably believes the accords and the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem is his lasting Middle East policy initiative. It may well be his only one. Addressing the new Middle East reality created since the Hamas attacks on 7 October last year is probably beyond America’s capacities, whoever is in the White House.

Experience shows that hopes of a US presidential election making a major difference in the Middle East have been dashed time and time again.

The last time Saudi Arabia publicly signalled its backing for a candidate was when the kingdom’s then ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, appeared at a meeting in support of President George H Bush in 1992. This was probably counterproductive. Bill Clinton won that year, in part because of his charge that Bush’s foreign policy was potentially antisemitic.

There are three foundations to the Middle East’s view of the battle for the White House in 2024.

Firstly, there is little that regional powers can do to influence it.

Secondly, whoever wins will invariably default to the prevailing wisdom and doctrine in Washington, which at present is staunchly pro-Israel.

And thirdly, the region’s future is mainly in its own hands. It is this – not who wins or loses in November – that is the more important realisation.

Image: Trump’s first overseas visit as president in 2017 was to Riyadh, where he met King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. Credit: Official White House Photo/Flickr
Edmund O’Sullivan
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