Putin, not Trump, mat­ters in Mid­dle East

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP - BY ROBERT FISK

PRE­DICTABLE clap­trap is be­ing ut­tered about Trump and the Mid­dle East. How can the Mus­lim world deal with a man who is an Is­lam­o­phobe? For that is in­deed what Trump is. He is a dis­grace to his coun­try and to his peo­ple – who, heav­ens above, elected the chap.

But here’s a mol­li­fy­ing thought. US pres­tige in the re­gion has fallen so low, the Arab world’s be­lief (and quite pos­si­bly the Is­raeli be­lief) in Amer­i­can power so shat­tered by Wash­ing­ton’s stu­pid­ity and in­ept­ness, that I rather sus­pect lit­tle at­ten­tion will be paid to Don­ald Trump.

I’m not quite sure when re­spect for Amer­i­can gov­er­nance be­gan to col­lapse. It was cer­tainly at its height when Eisen­hower told the Bri­tish, French and Is­raelis to get out of the Suez Canal in 1956. Maybe Ron­ald Rea­gan mix­ing up his cue cards and tak­ing his pres­i­dency into the early stages of Alzheimer’s had a larger ef­fect than we thought. I did once meet a Nor­we­gian diplo­mat who sat down to talk to Rea­gan about Is­rael and Pales­tine and found the old boy quot­ing from a pa­per on the US econ­omy. Bill Clin­ton’s Mid­dle East “peace” couldn’t have helped.

I guess it was Ge­orge W. Bush, who de­cided to at­tack Afghanistan even though no Afghan had ever at­tacked the United States, and who cre­ated a Shia Mus­lim state in Iraq out of a Sunni Mus­lim state – much to Saudi Ara­bia’s dis­gust – who did more harm than most US pres­i­dents to date. The Saudis (from whom came 15 of the 19 killers in­volved in 9/11) launched their war on Ye­men with scarcely a whiff of con­cern from Wash­ing­ton.

And Obama seems to have goofed ev­ery time in the Mid­dle East. His “hand­shake” to Is­lam in Cairo, his No­bel Prize (for public speak­ing), his “red line” in Syria – which dis­ap­peared in the sand the mo­ment he was res­cued by the Russkis – is best for­got­ten. It’s Vladimir Putin’s Sukhois and MiGs that are set­ting the pace in the ter­ri­ble Syr­ian war. And amid lands where hu­man rights count not a jot for most of the re­gional dic­ta­tors, there’s been hardly a whim­per about the Krem­lin. Putin was even taken to the opera in Cairo by Field Mar­shal Pres­i­dent al-Sisi.

And that’s the point. Putin talks and acts. Ac­tu­ally, in trans­la­tion at least, he’s not ter­ri­bly elo­quent, more busi­ness­man than politi­cian. Trump talks. But can he act? Cast aside the odd re­la­tion­ship which Trump thinks he has with Putin. It’s Trump who is go­ing to need a trans­la­tion of Putin’s words, not the other way round. In fact, the Arabs and Is­raelis, I think, will be spend­ing far more time dur­ing the Trump pres­i­dency lis­ten­ing to Putin. For the fact is that the Amer­i­cans have proved them­selves as un­re­li­able and fickle in the Mid­dle East as Bri­tain was in the 1930s.

Even Amer­ica’s blitz on IS didn’t re­ally get un­der way un­til Putin sent his own fight­er­bombers to Syria – at which point, many Arabs were ask­ing why Wash­ing­ton hadn’t man­aged to de­stroy the cult. Go back to the Arab rev­o­lu­tions – or “spring”, as the Amer­i­cans pa­thet­i­cally called it – and you see Obama and his hap­less sec­re­tary of state (yes, Hil­lary) goof­ing again, fail­ing to re­alise that this mas­sive public awak­en­ing in the Arab world was real and that the dic­ta­tors were go­ing to go (most of them, at least). In Cairo in 2011, about the only de­ci­sion taken by Obama was to evac­u­ate US ci­ti­zens from the Egyp­tian cap­i­tal.

It is easy to say that the Arabs are ap­palled that an Is­lam­o­phobe has won the White House. But did they think Obama or any of his pre­de­ces­sors – Demo­crat or Repub­li­can – had any spe­cial con­cern for Is­lam? US for­eign pol­icy in the Mid­dle East has been a spec­tac­u­lar se­ries of wars and air raids and re­treats. Rus­sian pol­icy – in the Ye­men war dur­ing Nasser’s age and in Afghanistan – has been de­struc­tive enough, but the post-Soviet state seemed to have curled its claws un­til Putin moved his men into Syria.

No doubt we’ll see Trump turn up in the Mid­dle East be­fore long, to fawn be­fore the Is­raelis and re­peat Amer­ica’s un­crit­i­cal sup­port for the Is­raeli state, and to as­sure the wealthy Gulf au­to­crats that their sta­bil­ity is as­sured. What he says about Syria will, of course, be fas­ci­nat­ing, given his views on Putin. But maybe, he will just leave the re­gion to his min­ions, to sec­re­taries of state and vice-pres­i­dents who will have to sec­ond guess what the guy re­ally thinks. And that, of course, is where we all stand now. What does Trump think? Or, more to the point, does he think?

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