By: Connor A. McNairn*
After declaring his candidacy in June 2015, President Donald Trump has gifted his most loyal followers with an abundance of exciting rhetoric and bold promises – much of which often uncomfortably borders, if not penetrates, the boundaries of xenophobia and tribalism. While the American president’s rhetoric and political behavior inspire various domestic implications, this analysis serves to illustrate how these behaviors transcend domestic borders and could potentially impact relationships abroad, specifically within the Middle East.
Many of the policies pursued and ideologies espoused by the president have thus far proven impactful in a variety of regions. Trump’s tough stance on trade, for example, has created rifts between the US and some of its most vital economic partners in North America, Europe, and Asia. Moreover, the president’s push for building a US-Mexico border wall, as well as his willingness to aggressively oppose immigration and liken Central American immigrants to violent gang members, have also damaged US relations with its allies in Latin America. And most notably, President Trump’s unabashed attacks on Islam, restrictions on Middle Eastern travel and immigration to the United States, as well as his blatant favoritism toward Israel may prove harmful not only to the image of the United States on a global stage, but also to its myriad dealings and interests within the Middle East.
Since the beginning of presidential campaign, Trump has actively antagonized the religion of Islam. In November 2015, following the horrific terror attacks in Paris, Trump argued that he would “strongly consider” closing mosques in the United States. According to Trump, “Some of the absolute hatred is coming from these areas…The hatred is incredible. It’s embedded.” In order to earn electoral support during the presidential campaign, the current president of the United States, running to represent a nation whose most fundamental liberty is the freedom to practice religion, threatened to shut down places of worship for Muslim Americans. More recently, in November 2017, the president utilized his Twitter timeline to retweet a series of videos depicting violent “Muslim migrant[s]” attacking other people, smashing Virgin Mary statues, and more. These videos originated from Jayda Fransen’s British, far-right propaganda account, which is infamous for posting unverifiable anti-Muslim rhetoric. The president, through both his public statements and his social media endorsements, has taken bold positions opposing the religion of Islam and its practice in the US.
After winning the presidency in November 2016, Trump’s generally negative stance towards Islam has remained consistent. Moreover, his ideological predispositions have been strongly represented in his presidential policy initiatives as well. On 27 January, 2017, for example, President Trump signed an executive order barring refugee admissions and temporarily limiting travel from seven Muslim-majority states. Trump’s plan limited refugee acceptance by over 50 percent, offered priority travel/immigration to Christians in Syria, and implemented a 90-day visa suspension for individuals traveling from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Following klutzy implementation efforts and myriad legal challenges, the Trump administration has twice modified the policy to include restrictions on Chadians, Venezuelans, and North Koreans aiming to immigrate, study, or vacation in the US. While the domestic implications of these bans were meant to assuage the worries of Trump’s increasingly tribal base, their international repercussions have proved significant.
In direct response to the president’s initial ban, the Arab League condemned the “unjustified restrictions,” and members of Iraq’s parliament, in conjunction with Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, considered a reciprocal ban on American travelers. In response to Trump’s most recent ban, the Chadian government demonstrated bewilderment, as it cited its “constant efforts and commitments in the fight against terrorism.” The travel ban is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg with regard to the Trump administration’s general aggressiveness towards Middle Eastern states. In fact, Trump and his most influential officials have effectively alienated large segments of Middle Eastern citizens, the latest being Palestinians, through a series of reckless foreign policy declarations.
In December 2017, President Trump precipitously recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel while articulating a plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv. Jerusalem, of course, remains one of the most fiercely contested territories in the world, as both Israel and Palestine lay claim to its historical possession. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the United States and just about every other country in the world have refused to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; rather, they have recognized West Jerusalem as belonging to the Israelis and East Jerusalem to the Jordanians as a consequence of the 1967 Six-Day War. But in a sharp change of direction, the president regarded the move as “obvious,” and claimed that it was “a long overdue step to advance the peace process.” While Trump’s bold claim may have been well-received by some domestic voters and conservative talking heads, it was far less popular among the world’s top diplomats and regional leaders. Immediately following the decision, the Arab League, backed by key US allies including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, reached a resolution proclaiming that the US had disqualified itself as a “sponsor and broker” of peace. Further, the resolution accused Trump’s decision of “ignit[ing] anger and threaten[ing] to plunge the region into more violence and chaos,” and requested UN Security Council condemnation. Promptly following Trump’s decision, every other member of the Security Council unanimously condemned the move. Ultimately, the decision led to violent clashes and protests that were reported widely throughout the Middle East, including in places like Beirut, Lebanon, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Gothenburg, Sweden.
Most recently, the president remained consistent with his pro-Israel, anti-Palestine rhetoric when threatening to cut Palestinian aid at a January economic conference in Davos, Switzerland. According to Trump, the Palestinians’ refusal to meet with Vice President Pence during his trip to the region demonstrated intolerable levels of “disrespect.” Trump claimed that “[The Palestinians are] going to have to want to make peace or we’re going to have nothing to do with them any longer.” In summary, the president broke international norms – namely those refusing to officially recognize Jerusalem as belonging wholly to either Israel or Palestine – and divorced the US from historical precedent and UN consensus in a move motivated solely by conservative support at home. When the Palestinians and other world powers took issue with Trump’s miscalculation, his rebuttal threatened aid to the region and demanded negotiation and peace. How’s that for diplomacy?
While the US has suffered few immediate repercussions as a result of Trump’s rhetoric and aggressive policy adoption, Americans should care about the precedents that the current president is establishing. By publicly recognizing Jerusalem as belonging to Israel, not only has Trump broken an over 20-year-long presidential norm, but he has also effectively alienated the United States from some of its most valuable Middle Eastern allies who support differing approaches in the region. After establishing a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, for example, despite differences in a variety of categories, the United States has long been the beneficiary of Saudi Arabian oil production. In fact, the United States enjoys $16 billion worth of mineral fuel imports from Saudi Arabia. But following Trump’s Jerusalem move, the Kingdom had strong words for the president. In fact, Saudi Arabia claimed that the decision was “unjustified and irresponsible,” warned that it represented “a bias against rights of Palestinian people,” and marked it as a “big step back in efforts to advance the peace process.” It is unreasonable to assume that political disagreements result in the fracturing of key economic alliances; but equally as unreasonable is the assumption that declarations and policy positions have no consequences. The continued decline of the United States-Middle East relationship not only threatens America’s ability to utilize fruitful economic relationships, but it also potentially limits its ability to facilitate regional relationships and lead on the broader international stage.
 Richard E. Feinberg, “What Trump’s ‘America First’ means for Latin America,” The Brookings Institution, March 12, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/10/17/what-trumps-america-first-means-for-latin-america/
 Gregory Krieg, “Donald Trump: ‘Strongly consider’ shutting mosques,” CNN, February 24, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2015/11/16/politics/donald-trump-paris-attacks-close-mosques/index.html
 Elizabeth Landers and James Masters, “Trump retweets anti-Muslim videos,” CNN Politics, March 12, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/29/politics/donald-trump-retweet-jayda-fransen/index.html
 BBC, “Trump’s executive order: Who does travel ban affect?” BBC News, February 25, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38781302
 BBC, “Trump executive order banning refugees: World reacts,” BBC News, February 25, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38781973
 The New York Times, “Around the World and the US., New Travel Ban Draws Anger, Applause and Shrugs,” The New York Times, March 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/us/travel-ban-reaction.html
 BBC, “Trump’s Jerusalem move: Arab allies attack decision,” BBC News, February 25, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42297437
 Mark Landler, “Trump Recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital and orders US Embassy to Move,” The New York Times, February 25, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/06/world/middleeast/trump-jerusalem-israel-capital.html
 BBC, “Trump’s Jerusalem move,” 2018
 Kevin Liptak & Nicole Gaouette, “Trump again threatens to cut off aid to Palestinians,” CNN, February 25, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/25/politics/trump-small-embassy-jerusalem/index.html
 Office of the United States Trade Representative, “U.S.-Saudi Arabia Trade Facts,” Executive Office of the President, March 12, 2018, https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/europe-middle-east/middle-east/north-africa/saudi-arabia
 Reuters Staff, “Saudi Arabia condemns Trump decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel,” Reuters, March 13, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-sanctions/u-s-sanctions-russians-for-meddling-but-not-putins-oligarchs-idUSKCN1GR23B
*Disclaimer: The content contained in the following material is the sole ownership of the author and does not reflect the views of the Towson University Journal of International Affairs nor Towson University in any respect whatsoever.