The burning hatred felt by so many for Donald Trump tends to make us forget that it’s not his personality but his policies that should interest us. And like hatred for Trump, love for Barack Obama tends to make us forget that he too had policies, not only a personality. If we compare the two we may be able to get some perspective on what’s taking place before our eyes.
Obama’s policy in the Middle East (but outside it as well) was based on the assumption that the United States’ traditional system of alliances sometimes drags it into unnecessary wars. He thought that such wars awaited America in the future, too, if it continued to support the moderate countries in our region that fear the rise of radical political Islam.
Obama believed that political Islam wouldn’t disappear. If we pushed it into a corner with more and more inconclusive wars, it would only become more desperate and violent. That’s why the radicals should be in a system of agreements rather than ostracize: Iran first, but also the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood. If they had a stake in the new order they’d have an interest in preserving it.
That was supposed to be the way to tame them. Therefore Obama stretched out his hand to the extremists over the heads of the moderates, the traditional allies of the United States. This view assumed that our friends are already our friends, so now we have to know what's left to bring our enemies into the fold.
In effect, this meant undermining the interests of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel in order to placate Iran, Turkey, the party of then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and once even Hamas (in a strange move in which Obama tried to sell us a Gaza cease-fire sponsored by Turkey and Qatar).
But the hope of appeasing Islamic radicalism was a resounding failure. This policy gave radicals a de facto free hand to drown the Middle East in blood and destruction: the strengthening of Iran and its tentacles in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza, and the abandoning of Syria to the Russians thus abetting a regime that fought its own citizens with gas, murdered about half a million of them and made millions of others refugees. At the same time, Erdogan became stronger at the expense of the Kurds, and neighborhood bullies the world over watched and understood that everything was permitted.
Whoever succeeded Obama would have had to begin repairing the damage, because the world order had started to slide into chaos and from there would probably have proceeded to a race for nuclear weapons by secondary powers, which is frightening by any criterion.
Trump turned energetically to the task of creating order. The slogan on the red hats – “Make America Great Again” – may have sounded hollow during the campaign, especially when it was accompanied by generous amounts of vulgar rhetoric. But as president that’s exactly what Trump set out to do: restore America’s super power standing.
It’s hard to quantify this elusive quality, but prestige and credibility are essential for a world power if it seeks to preserve international order. For that purpose Trump produced a series of carrots and sticks, and it soon became clear to his rivals and friends that he planned to use them with gusto. The pundits continued to say that he’s capricious, but the enemies of the United States got the message.
The summit in Singapore was an achievement that isn’t necessarily reflected in the document that was signed, but rather in the way it was achieved. In an atmosphere of blatant and credible threats (and apparently by pressuring China as well), Trump made clear that anyone who waves a missile at him will receive a reminder that Trump’s missile is bigger.
Many people thought and still think that this is vulgar and lacks sophistication. But when we compare all this to Obama’s sophistication, it gives rise to some melancholy thoughts about how, with a little less sophistication, Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump style, may have avoided the low point international order to deteriorated to. Now all eyes are on Iran, and we can only hope that Trump will handle it with the same determination.