The future of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Middle East may not be in good hands under President-elect Donald Trump, according to political experts who spoke at the University of Michigan Wednesday.
At the talk, held at the Ford School of Public Policy to an audience of about 20 students, faculty and staff, the speakers focused on the tense political climate the next presidential administration should expect in regard to conflict in the Middle East.
Both Shai Feldman, the director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, and Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinina Center for Policy and Survey Research, acknowledged that their speculation of Trump’s actions in office could be proven entirely incorrect once Trump is inaugurated.
However, Feldman said considering the comments Trump made on the campaign trail, which he described as abrasive, he is uncertain of Trump’s foreign policy goals. Trump’s objectives include calls for increased immigration laws and registering of Muslims in the United States, which Feldman said he believes will complicate foreign policy negotiations with leaders in the Middle East. He emphasized that discrimination against Muslims has been validated by Trump’s election to office.
“One of my students came to me in tears, which had to do with the fact of the different atmosphere they’re dealing with,” he said. “There is now a green light — that was not the case before. If the relations with the Muslim community escalate, that’ll be something they’ll be concern about.”
Feldman said Trump would be “wise” to follow in President Barack Obama’s foreign policy footsteps in regard to the U.S.-Israeli partnership, despite the criticism Obama has received. During his tenure in office, Obama has opposed policies set by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, such as his approach to Iran. Feldman said for Trump to successfully navigate U.S. issues of international diplomacy, he must change his political outlook.
“Trump will now, in a way, have to totally change his mindset,” he said. “He has been accustomed as a businessman — therefore, he has had an emphasis on winning. My argument is that he will soon discover that the situation in the Middle East is not about winning. In fact, the biggest problem that Trump will have is not America's adversaries but America’s friends.”
The speakers also noted that during the campaign, Trump spoke in opposition toward the nuclear agreement the U.S. signed with Iran last year. In recent weeks, a number of national security experts have publicly urged Trump to reverse his unfavorable stance on the deal. Feldman made it clear that he believes the president-elect’s business experience will ultimately discourage Trump from undermining the Iran nuclear deal.
“Frankly, I don’t think it’s a legitimate option because as a businessman he would know that there would be no better deal to replace it,” he said. “There is a possibility that Congress will tear up the deal with legislation that violates the spirit of the deal, without destroying it. I don’t think it’s going to take a lot to persuade him that this is a really bad.”
Shikaki, emphasized that there is a chance Trump will adopt a stance of neglect in regard to foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly with Israel and Palestine.
He said if Trump chose to ignore the current governments and policies in the region, it would further erode the current push toward a two-state solution. The two-state solution envisions independent Israeli and Palestinian states and is the mainstream U.S. approach to solving the conflict.
“This would be like giving the current government a yellow light to doing what it sees as fit,” he said. “A policy of neglect would mean turning a blind eye to the current government, which could be very bad.”
Shikaki said he strongly hopes the Trump administration will not drastically change the current method of conflict management in the Middle East, and will instead follow the Obama administration's lead.
“To continue the management efforts, he has given indications at times that he will try to be neutral in order to make a deal,” Shikaki said. “If he strays from neutrality, this would be the end of the two-state solution, either directly or through the policies that he would encourage.”
Feldman echoed Shikaki’s sentiment that Trump may not remain neutral about conflict in the Middle East but instead may ignore it altogether.
“It will take him some time for him to understand that the whole world is listening to what the U.S. president has to say,” Feldman said. “I feel this issue will not be a high priority for the administration. My impression is that he will have much more urgent issues on his plate. In the immediate, he has to figure out what to do with his domestic promises.”
Public Policy senior Ellen Loubert said she felt worried about Trump’s temperament when faced with important negotiations of foreign policy in the Middle East. She appreciated the event and encouraged other students who have been thinking about the next presidential administration to attend discussions that promote diverse ideas and perspectives as often as possible.
“It’s really concerning that (Trump) is totally xenophobic and uninformed,” she said. “It’s important to play nice with other countries because we all live on the same Earth. There’s no escaping that. It’s like a closed eco-system; you can’t do something without it affecting other parts. I’m glad that they talked about that, and really appreciated the discussion.”
LSA junior Mohamad Zawahra said he attended Wednesday’s event because, as a Muslim American, he wanted reassurance following Trump's election. After listening to the panel, he said he is hopeful that President Obama will be able to give President-elect Trump advice on how to handle diplomatic affairs.
“It’s obviously scary at first, especially being a Muslim American,” Zawahra said. “I think a lot of what they said at the panel was reassuring because they made it all a little bit more real and they said that President Obama is going to take him under his wing and teach him the ways of diplomacy. It was a good to get a feel of what needs to be done moving forward, especially in the Middle East.”
In response to the possibility of President-elect Trump implementing some of the immigration policies he promoted during the campaign, Zawahra said that he has faith in Congress keeping the White House in check.
“It all comes down to me having faith in Congress doing what’s right,” Zawahra said. “The idea of such a law on immigration doesn’t feel like it can go through without a hiccup. Realistically I don’t think it can go through but if it did I think there would be backlash among the Muslim community and non-Muslims that would get up in arms about that and recognize it as a violation against human rights.”